Sunday, June 3, 2018

Movie Review: STAR WARS - THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)


Director: J.J. Abrams
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie
Runtime: 136 min
Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence
Purchasing Links: DVD, Blu-ray

Read the review after the jump.


Review by Popa Razvan

"Star Wars" is probably the most recognizable movie franchises in the world. George Lucas spawned one of the most immersive and imaginative sci-fi/fantasy worlds ever committed to the screen. Even his prequel trilogy, despite its glaring flaws, opened up the the galaxy far, far away to entirely new stories that introduced "Star Wars" and the space opera genre to new generations. Now, with Disney taking over from Lucas, we have an entirely new trilogy that has sparked endless debates and a lot of frustration. At least, so far.

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" was released in 2015 and has since been the subject of both high praise and scathing insults. So much has been said on the subject that writing this review after close to three years later allows me little to add to the general discussion. I'm not a huge "Star Wars" fan, but I have thoroughly enjoyed all previous six films and occasionally rewatch them with pleasure. Yes, even the prequels. So I'll give my two cents no one asked for and perhaps I will succeed in providing a balanced opinion for those who want to know if the film is worth watching without entering a heated debate on the merits of the original, prequel and sequel trilogies.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Image 1

Director J.J. Abrams was the first to lead the charge of new "Star Wars" films with "The Force Awakens", a sequel to Lucas' original trilogy, and a reboot of sorts for the universe. A lot has been said about it, and naysayers have accused the film of essentially remaking "A New Hope". That's actually a pretty fair assessment, as this first in the so-called "sequel trilogy" often resorts to nostalgia to make you forget it doesn't have much of a story to tell.

I won't go into too many plot details in order to avoid spoilers, so let's take a quick look at who's who in this new universe. We no longer have the evil Empire to worry about. The First Order, has emerged as a military faction after the fall of the Empire and continues to chase a rebel faction, known as the Resistance, through the galaxy. We know nothing about the First Order because the script provides no backstory to fill the 30-year gap between movies. They have the same stormtroopers, the same ships, with minor new technologies added. They are led by the weasely General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), who is absolutely inconsequential to the plot, and submits to the will of the new faux-Emperor, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who is teased as the major villain for the following installments (or so we thought), and his moody apprentice, a Darth Vader-wannabe named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), complete with the mask, black wardrobe and synthy voice. Ren's real identity is a matter of spoilers, so it shall not be mentioned here. Ren is also something of a pale reminder of what a "Star Wars" villain should be, but perhaps his character arc will develop furhter in the next films.

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Like I said, the film provides little story to give us a clear picture of how things went wrong after Luke, Han and Leia saved the galaxy. Apparently there still is a Republic, but the movie quickly disposes of it (you'll see what I mean if you haven't already watched the film), and somehow we're back to having a tyrannic faction fighting against an ill-equipped band of resistance fighters. Whatever good happened at the end of "Return of the Jedi" is pretty much cancelled in this 30-year period that is left a mystery. I know Disney will probably have us spend countless dollars on expanded universe material meant to explain all that, but I'm old fashioned, I like my stories contained within the movie I'm watching.

The plot moves so quickly and superficially through this new, yet oddly familiar state of affairs, that it ends up feeling like a rehash of "A New Hope" instead of the sequel everyone was expecting. I suspect that Disney felt the safest way to go about rebooting the franchise is by returning to the formula that made the original trilogy so beloved by fans. I think the best way would have been to really move the franchise forward by providing something different than the ol' rebels vs. evil empire routine.

And the new worlds are so dull. It's either desert, snow, or forrests. We've already seen as much in the original trilogy. Why not think of some new exciting planets, instead of going for the fan-favorite environments. It's such a vast universe, I'm sure they could have come up with something better if they weren't so worried about how the fans would react.

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But wait, there are more new characters to talk about. The most important of these characters is Rey, played by newcomer Daisy Ridley, a young orphan barely scraping a living on the desert planet of Jakku (sound familiar?) who is apparently proficient in pretty much anything without any prior training (that includes lightsabers). She also runs a lot in this movie, so if the sequels don't work out for her, she's got a great future in Track and Field. We also have the dashing rogue pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who acts as the Han Solo of the new series, cocksure and deeply in love with his droid, the adorable BB8 (and the film's best new character), while also enjoying a brief bromance with another new character, Finn (John Boyega). Finn is a stormtrooper who is unwilling to kill for the First Order and sets off on an adventure with Rey and Poe to save the galaxy. He's also disappointingly relegated to just being a comic relief character most of the time, despite showing the most promise as a fully-developed character in this movie.

Lupita Nyongo'o plays plot essential characater Maz Kanata, an orange alien cantina owner who's as quirky as Yoda was back in the day, but with far less substance. And last, but definitely least, there's Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), who you've no doubt heard a lot about, but is in the movie for a disappointing 1 minute and 45 seconds (according to https://www.imdb.com/list/ls027631145/). Max von Sydow is also in there for the blink of an eye, and the cast of "The Raid" get a brief cameo, which turns out to be an even bigger disappointment.

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The old cast is back as well, including Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, now a leader of the Resistance, Peter Mayhew as the lovable Chewbacca, and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO. Don't expect to see a whole lot of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in this movie. He'll get more screentime in the next one.

While the acting is an improvement on the prequels, it still suffers from the occasional wooden delivery. There isn't much room for the actors to breathe in-between the running and screaming. The dialogue is sometimes interesting, but most of the time it gets reduced to mediocre one-liners and "Star Wars" cliches. In the end, I suppose that's a franchise trademark.

Space opera is all about melodrama, and there's certainly no shortage of that, but it's also about endless imagination and excitement, and frankly, this movie falls a bit short on those. It's not that the production design is bad. It's actually pretty complex and detailed, but nothing truly stands out. The same goes for the action sequences, which are fine and get the job done, but are far from becoming as iconic as the classic Death Star Trench run, or the Walker assault on Hoth. There is one major lightsaber duel towards the end, and while it's competently filmed, it's not particularly impressive, mostly because the stakes aren't very high and we've certainly seen this kind of thing before.

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You might want to kill me for saying this, but "Phantom Menace" still has one of the most incredible lighsaber fights in the entire franchise, followed, in my opinion, by the final battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin at the end of "Revenge of the Sith". Perhaps less showy, the Luke vs. Vader clashes in "Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi" are still among the best because of their impressive display of old-school tension and intense emotional core.

Two things, at least, do not disappoint. The visual effects, and John Williams' score. The CGI is great and there are also plenty of practical effects blended seamlessly with the digital ones. I was never one to throw stones at the prequel trilogy for its use of CGI, and they did feature an impressive amount of practical effects that weren't so obvious and most people don't know about. For my money's worth, the franchise always had a high standard for visual effects, and "The Force Awakens" doesn't disappoint.

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Williams' music is pure joy to listen to. He once again delivers a terrific score, even though his new material is rarely as powerful as the old themes. However, Rey's theme is an instant classic that deserves mention among the composer's best works. It's fantastic how effective his music is. Any scene, no matter how weakly acted, or generically written, becomes an emotional powerhouse whenever Williams' themes start in the background.

Damn, I promised I'd keep it short and ended up writing a two-page essay. It might sound like I hated "The Force Awakens", but that's not really how I felt. Overall, it was a sufficiently likeable experience. It's still valid escapist entertainment. It's just that so many mistakes were made that the filmmakers could have avoided. Fearing the kind of backlash that Lucas got for the prequels, the studio played it safe and attempted to introduce "Star Wars" to a new generation while also servicing the hardcore fans. The end result is a jarring hybrid between old and new.



  • Star Wars is back
  • The nostalgia factor
  • Competent filmmaking
  • Some promising new characters
  • A decent amount of action
  • Great visual effects
  • John Williams' score

  • Disney and J.J. Abrams played it safe to please old and new fans
  • Too many similarities to A New Hope
  • The new characters are hit-and-miss
  • Not much of a story
  • Unremarkable new worlds despite having a vast universe to work with
  • A sense of "been there, done that"



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