Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Second Look - Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

Note: This review contains spoilers for the Star Wars Skywalker Saga.

Between The Walt Disney Company’s acquisitions of Marvel and 20th Century Fox, the company acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, and with it came the announcement of a new trilogy of Star Wars films, collectively referred to as the Sequel Trilogy for taking place after the Original Trilogy. The announcement of the first film, The Force Awakens, naturally generated an amount of hype not seen since the Prequel Trilogy to the point where I saw the film opening weekend and enjoyed it on my first viewing. The further away I got from this first experience, however, the more problems I began to see with it on subsequent viewings, to where I wanted to reevaluate it following the trilogy’s lackluster conclusion. While The Force Awakens did do some things right, it’s not nearly as good as I once thought it was.

To quote the opening crawl: “Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed. With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy. Leia has sent her most daring pilot on a secret mission to Jakku, where an old ally has discovered a clue to Luke's whereabouts....”

On the planet Jakku, 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is entrusted with data on the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker. The village is then invaded by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and an army of Stormtroopers, but before Poe is kidnapped, he gives the data to his droid BB-8, who escapes. During the raid, one Stormtrooper, FN-2187 (John Boyega) begins to question his actions and silently refuses to participate in the village slaughter ordered by Kylo Ren. Meanwhile, a woman named Rey (Daisy Ridley) gets by on Jakku by trading junk for food, and eventually comes across BB-8.

Before getting into the issues with the story, it’s only fair to give the movie credit where it’s due. The decision to focus on a new cast of characters isn’t inherently a bad thing, since it’s a way to keep the franchise going after 30 years, though the original actors reprising their roles helps to tie things together. The concept of Finn’s (John Boyega) character, a Stormtrooper going against his training and defecting to the other side, is particularly interesting and could even make for a good story in its own right, plus his budding friendship with Poe Dameron is enjoyable to watch. There are also some genuinely funny moments to provide levity to the story, though not enough to detract from its serious tone.

Finn (John Boyega, left) and Poe Dameron's (Oscar Isaac, right) friendship is
believable enough that you'll wish they shared more screen time together.

That said, the plot is otherwise too similar to that of the original Star Wars for its own good. The movie seems to go out of its way to touch upon the same story beats as the original film, which immediately becomes far more noticeable if you watch both films in close proximity even once, however the change in some context leads to some of said beats feeling more contrived. Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford) death, while genuinely shocking on a first viewing, loses some of its impact when you realize it’s repeating the moment where Darth Vader kills Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original, or arguably even Darth Maul killing Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, except without the context of a battle it comes across more as murder on Kylo Ren’s part. Kylo Ren’s introduction is impactful, though it’s a repeat of Darth Vader’s, and Starkiller Base is even acknowledged in the film as a repeat of the Death Star plotline.

Rey is a potentially interesting character, but the execution of her introduction raises too many questions, which I blame more on the script than anything else. In trying to replicate Luke Skywalker’s connection with C-3PO and R2-D2, except with Rey and BB-8, Poe Dameron’s absence until the second act can lead one to wonder how Rey can understand BB-8. Similarly, reintroducing the Millennium Falcon but withholding Han Solo until later leads to Rey suddenly knowing how to pilot and repair said ship despite it being her first time even stepping foot inside; even Rey herself doesn’t seem to know how, which feels like lazy writing. She also somehow manages to fumble her way through Starkiller Base despite having never seen it or even the plans beforehand, which only raises further questions. There’s also a scene where a captured Rey manages to use the famous Jedi Mind Trick on a guard, simply because it was used by Obi-Wan in the original film, however the lack of an Obi-Wan-like character doing the trick instead can lead one to wonder how Rey already has a strong enough connection with the Force to be able to pull it off, especially since she doesn’t have any sort of formal training until The Last Jedi.

Rey (Daisy Ridley, left) comes off a little too "perfect" at times.
Right: Han Solo (Harrison Ford)

One thing I do give the movie credit for is that it’s still visually consistent with the rest of the Star Wars universe, only with higher production values even when compared with the Prequel Trilogy. The colors are generally much crisper, making the Stormtroopers’ classic stark white uniforms stand out even more, and any CGI elements are rendered a lot more photo-realistically thanks to advancements in that realm. Interestingly, a number of the alien extras were also pulled off using practical effects, making the blending of practical and computer effects even more impressive. The lightsabers also look more convincingly like lasers, especially up close, and any interactions they have are handled realistically. Kylo Ren’s lightsaber being designed in a cross-guard style may seem ridiculous to some, but the effects are impressive nonetheless. On that note, one creative use of the Force that still impresses me is when Kylo Ren uses it to freeze a blaster fire mid-air in the opening scene, since it establishes his Force connection and is something I haven’t really seen in other Star Wars media.

A blaster shot being suspended mid-air by the Force is actually a pretty cool effect.

For what it’s worth, the acting is still generally good. Daisy Ridley does her best to make the script work and still gets a great performance out of it, especially the wider emotional range she shows in the last two acts of the film. John Boyega and Oscar Isaac have some great on-screen chemistry, even if their respective characters don’t interact too much. Like Ridley, Adam Driver makes the most out of what he’s given and manages a decent performance out of it, even if his character is not as well executed or iconic as Darth Vader before him.

Though they’ve aged quite a bit since Return of the Jedi, Harrison Ford and the late Carrie Fisher still have it in the roles of Han Solo and Leia respectively, while Anthony Daniels continues to impress as C-3PO. Notably, this was the late Peter Mayhew’s final time playing Chewbacca before stepping down from the role due to health problems, but he does manage to go out giving it his all. John Williams’ score is consistent with that of his previous work in the franchise, and at this point it’s impossible to imagine any Star Wars production without it.

While it does do some things right, mainly in the acting and special effects, The Force Awakens is one of the weaker entries in the Skywalker Saga, mainly due to its overreliance on trying to recapture the magic of the original 1977 film while not quite understanding what made it work in the first place. On its own merits, it can be seen as an okay movie. In the context of the Sequel Trilogy as a whole, The Force Awakens is the least bad entry, but the events of The Rise of Skywalker make this one difficult to recommend except to the most die-hard of Star Wars fans.

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