Thursday, December 24, 2015

Film Friday: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

“This will begin to set things right.”

That was the very first line spoken in the new Star Wars film, and while it ostensibly involved a man handing over a map, there is no way that is not a slap to the face of George Lucas and an acknowledgement of the damage he had done with his last three films. And do you know what? This film backs up that line and more. After watching The Force Awakens, my faith in Star Wars has been restored.


Uh, no. This story is so full of potential spoilers that I’m not going to give you a plot. I will warn you, however, that some of the things I will talk about may... may be spoilers if you want to go into this one cold, which I recommend.

This Movie Was Fantastic!

So what am I going to talk about? I’m going to tell you what this film did right and why. And let me begin with my apologies to J.J. Abrams. After the total hack job he did to Star Trek, I expected the worst for this film. I expected him to exploit it with little care for the fans or the story. I was wrong. He did an amazing job.
With what did he do an amazing job? Well, first, the effects are fantastic. And I mean this in several ways. First, the effects are clean and utterly believable. More importantly, they fit perfectly along with the first three Star Wars films. Unlike the prequels, the ships, the sets, the costumes, the worlds all fit perfectly with the first three movies. They fit the time period. They respected the existing world. They didn’t feel like CGI at all; they feel substantive. Seriously. These felt like real ships, real worlds and real battles. The lightsaber fights feel real and tense. The explosions look real. The environment in which the characters find themselves is real. And all of this felt like the ones from the first three films.
Indeed, the very feel of the film fit with the first three Star Wars films. Unlike the prequels, the characters here are not cardboard. They come across as real people with real lives who really live on these worlds. They act in ways that are consistent with their own lives too.

Next, this film fit the storyline perfectly. In fact, it fit so perfectly that you could almost have dumped Return of the Jedi and run this instead and not only would it have felt like it fit, but it might even have improved the series.

Abrams was really smart too in terms of knowing what to keep and what to toss out of the prior films. I went in cold, so I didn’t know how much the original characters would be involved in this one. I suspected that Abrams would milk a cameo out of them and then rush off in some new direction. He didn’t. The original characters are vital to this film and the actors play them perfectly as the same people only a couple decades later. That was a smart decision because the story is so tied to several of them. It also avoids the sense that Abrams just wanted a younger cast.

At the same time, the storyline makes perfect sense for that time period. The Empire fell. Its ruins are everywhere in the film. But the universe didn’t become a happy place. Instead, a new threat stepped into the power vacuum and grabbed the failing Empire’s powerbase. All of this not only feels natural, but it gives you the sense of an exciting backstory that permeates the atmosphere of this film. It makes you want to know so much more, and that’s always a winner when your audience feels a strong desire to know more about everything they are seeing.

Abrams was smart about throwing away the deadweight too. There is no emotionally exploitive cameo to remind you of Yoda, there are no Ewoks, there are no flashbacks, there is nothing to remind you of the prequels. In fact, they even undo the stupid story of the stormtroopers being clones, which became the foundation of the prequels. Nor are there any Star Trek babies hitting on each other or any of the other asinine sins Abrams injected into Star Trek.
All of this is fantastic. In fact, up to this point in the review, I have to say that this is easily my third favorite Star Wars and the only thing missing that I felt should be in a Star Wars film but wasn’t was a bigger, more zen-like delving into the force. The force is used in this film, but isn’t the focus yet as it was in the first three films. That said, part of the film promises a deeper exploration of the force in the future. And if you stop to think about the story, you will see the force explained in great detail by two characters, there just aren’t any long talks about it.

All of that makes for a great Star Wars film. This is an excellent Star Wars film that feels indistinguishable from the original series and fits the story perfectly. Who could ask for anything more? But there is more... specifically, this is an excellent film.

I wasn’t expecting that. Even if you ignore all the Star Wars aspects, this was great science fiction. The worlds that were created were real and immersive. The characters were interesting, funny, and engaged in personal growth of a type rarely seen in science fiction. The action was fantastic. It was strong and well-choreographed with great effects. There were no 40 minute CGI fight scenes in this film -- fights were short and punchy. Even more interestingly, the story was gripping. It twisted and turned and moved along at a great pace and I never really knew where it would end up. Do you know how rare that is these days?

In short, J.J. Abrams not only created a great addition to Star Wars, he created a great film. This thing can be truly enjoyed by anyone from lifelong fans to people watching their first Star Wars. It is exciting and gripping and super enjoyable. And when it ended, it made you wish you could tell them to start the next one right. fricken. now! Finally, this film felt like it set everything right. I LOVE Star Wars again, which I hadn't for some time.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough.

(Please be very careful of spoilers in the comments.)


Patriot said...

Andrew....So, sounds like it was a film to lose yourself into another world. What I always found in the better SF books and films. Also like Casablanca where you want to be part of that world and experience Ricks and all the characters.
I guess I'll go see this one on an off weekday night where it might not be inundated.

Thanks for the good write-up....and no spoilers!

Dave Olson said...

I too was worried when I heard that JJ Abrams was going to be the new director of Star Wars. The guy who shaky-cammed and lens-flared the Star Trek franchise into epilepsy-inducing unwatchability? Puh-LEEZE! Say what you will about the artistic merits (chortle, chortle) of the Star Wars universe, all the movies have a very distinctive look and style. Even those gawdawful prequels. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I was expecting it to be horrendous.

And then I saw the movie. And I was pleasantly, delightfully surprised. The first hour is as good as any Star Wars movie has ever been. Finn, Rey, Poe Dameron, Kylo Ren, and even BB-8 are wonderful characters, fully realized and well-defined for a new generation. There's not a single mention of Episodes 1, 2, or 3. And it looked magnificent. Shaky-cam was used sparingly and effectively, and the only real lens-flaring came when the New Order used their superweapon. (Oh come ON, that's not a spoiler! It's Star Wars, you KNOW there's going to be a superweapon!)

So in a nutshell, "The Force Awakens" pays penance for the sins of the prequel past, introduces a new cast of characters, meshes them (almost) flawlessly with the classic cast, and sets up the Episodes yet to come. It does so with grace, style, elan, panache, and tons of by-God FUN! The movie is FUN! It's enjoyable! It's not leaden and monodimensional like those damnable prequels.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, after the first hour the movie does settle into a somewhat by-the-numbers template for sci-fi action films. This may hurt it on repeat viewings, but what do I know? I used to like the Ewoks.

So yes, Star Wars is back and it's as good as the fanboys were hoping.

ScottDS said...

I was at the first showing last Thursday evening. People were dressed up, I saw every variation of Star Wars shirt imaginable, and a couple of kids had a small radio-controlled BB-8 they were playing with. The suspense was killing us: every trailer, every commercial, then the Lucasfilm logo popped up and all was right with the world. (Oddly, I didn’t really miss the Fox fanfare before it!)

I got out of it exactly what I was expecting: it was good, not great, but overall a lot of fun! And unlike almost every other big blockbuster, I actually find myself curious about certain things and excited about the adventures to come. I’m willing to save the big critiques until after Episode IX and the BEST thing I can say about this film is that, by the end, you feel the urge to gather a couple friends and go on your own adventure!

I do think it sticks a little too closely to the established template, so to speak, and hopefully the next one will go off in a different direction and take some chances. I think we can do without another desert planet!

One criticism of the prequels I’ll never understand is the idea that they don’t “look” like Star Wars, as if Star Wars can only be gritty and dirty and lived-in. I love (most of) the designs in the prequels: the ships, the gorgeous costumes, Coruscant, etc. I don’t buy that it isn’t Star Wars - if the writing, acting, and directing had been better, no one would be complaining about that.

AndrewPrice said...

Patriot, You're welcome. This one needs to be done without spoilers because the film had so much in it that was either surprising or unexpected and I don't want to ruin any of it.

This is an engrossing film, which I find so rare these days. I totally recommend seeing it.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, I agree, and well said!

I think what I appreciated the most was how fully-realized these characters were. They had pasts, presents, personalities and real traits (good and bad) that informed their actions. Each even had character growth throughout the story, and not always for the better. It made them all very real, very interesting and very relatable. That is so rare these days and it was much appreciated.

I also appreciated the sense throughout that Abrams was simply ignoring the prequels and continuing the story as if they never happened. The fanboy in me loved that. It felt like he knew what I wanted.

Finally, I really appreciated Abram's willingness to tell us things without feeling the need to give us a lecture or a flashback. We know roughly what happened over the past 20-30 years in enough detail to feel that we understand this world perfectly, yet he was confident enough in his storytelling to give us that knowledge without boring us by diverting the story for a 20 minute lecture on what happened and how these people became who they became. I thought this was an especially powerful technique with the villains. We understood them perfectly, even as we only understood the broad strokes of their motivations -- the teasing of the rest gave me a strong desire to see a lot more films to fill in the story. I thought that was brilliant manipulation by Abrams.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think this film was much better than you're giving it credit for. This was a great film even apart from being a Star Wars film. And as a Star Wars film, it was excellent.

On the visuals, the problem is this. The first three films established a look and feel that gave you a sense of what the universe is like. The next three lost that and became a sterile 2D CGI world that didn't feel like it fit in the same world. Then you add that fact that the technology and the themes all felt so different, that it felt like these movies just didn't fit together. That made it hard to relate the two, even before you considered all the story failures.

tryanmax said...

OK, I read the first paragraph and had a good gut laugh. But as I have not yet seen the movie, I'm going to have to save the rest of the review for later. Looking forward to both!

PikeBishop said...

Wow, to reiterate what Andrew said, "Wow, the hell did the man who got Star Trek so utterly and completely F**king wrong, get Star Wars so utterly and completely right?" Kudos Mr. Abrams.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, Well said! That was my very thought as I left the theater. This was fantastic! :)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Voz said...

I saw it in IMAX 3D last night and only complaint so far was some of the humor seemed a bit out of place...otherwise it was well executed, well directed, well acted, and well marketed. Driver, Ridley, and Isaac were great in their roles as well.

Koshcat said...

I watched it last night and have to agree that instead of feeling bloated and bland like Episodes 1-3, it has a much closer feel, visually and plot, to 4-6. There was humor to lighten it but more appropriate and similar to 4-6. AND THERE IS NO 6 FT RABBIT STEPPING IN THE POOPIE!

BB-8 is cute but vital to the story; more similar to R2-D2 was. Flaws of the story actually make sense when going back to the story. For example, how did Finn know how to use a lightsaber? In an earlier fight with a stormtrooper, the was a weapon used that had similar techniques.

So far my only significant complaint was the super-weapon was much too big and powerful. I didn't think it was necessary. The overall plot was kind of weak but so was A New Hope.

As others stated, I am interested again in the story so I give it an A-.

tryanmax said...

This ... film ... was ... ♫ a MAAAZE ing ♫ !!!

Star Wars VII is an old-school cinema thrill ride the way they all ought to be. If it weren't for SPECTRE just last month, I'd be able to say this was the first time in a long time that a movie literally had me sitting forward in my seat. (Kudos to the latest 007 entry.) I won't spoil anything, but I actually gasped at the gut-punch near the end--the one you see coming but don't want to believe it. If you've seen the movie, you'll know what I mean. That's how you make a movie!

AndrewPrice said...

LOL! So you would say this film "set things right?" :)

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Isn't it great to leave a theater feeling like you really got to see something special again? How rare is that these days?

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I appreciated the fact that there were no poop-standing rabbits. Seriously, that made me so happy that Abrams tossed away all of Lucas's excesses. :)

The ending was a little bit of a repeat, but it felt right and it was done well. Like I said above, if this had been run after the first half of Return of the Jedi, I think it would have fit seamlessly.

AndrewPrice said...

Voz, An interesting thought occurred to me regarding the humor: the humor made it feel like Han Solo was played more like Indiana Jones than Han Solo. I don't count that as a flaw, but it was something I felt.

PikeBishop said...

One of the things I liked were the little touches that made the world of the film seem real and "lived in" unlike the CGI fantasy worlds of the prequels. People still scavenging power packs and other scares supplies from the thirty year old wreckage of a Star Destroyer leviathan in the wasteland was a stunning image.

tryanmax said...

So you would say this film "set things right?"

Absolutely! I've heard stories my whole life about how astonishing this film was to audiences in '77. By the time I got to see Star Wars in a theater in '97, I'd already seen it on VHS many times.

The Phantom Menace was exciting in that I finally got to see a new installment of Star Wars in a theater first, but aside from the pod-racing, there wasn't much "wow." I mean, we knew from the outset that Anakin would become Darth Vader, and the next two movies were just watching the inevitable unfold. Looking back, Lucas really should have done something to obscure who exactly would become Vader. Something as simple as a name change because clearly you change your name when you switch sides of the Force.

The Force Awakens was full of surprises and discoveries. I feel like I must've gotten a taste was what it was like back in '77 watching this new Space Wars movie by that guy who did American Graffiti. I think one of the actors is the same, too. And...HOLY ****! Did you just see that!?

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Actually, that's an excellent observation. I saw the original when it came out (many times) in 1977 and this had a very similar feel. You didn't really have any idea what to expect from Star Wars because the trailer was so cagey and there wasn't an internet at the time. All you knew was that people were super excited about it everywhere. And then moment after moment, you were blown away as you watched it by this world. There had never really been anything like it before on film. And the film was exciting and fun and you loved the characters and the ideas when it was over you felt like you'd just seen something amazing.

This film recaptured that spirit. People were excited to see it. And then this film had everyone in the theater constantly turning to their friends going "did you see that?!!" The storyline was very unexpected throughout as well, so you never knew what to expect. And when it was over people honestly applauded. My daughter and I did nothing but talk about it all day after we saw it.

That's a lot what it was like in 1977. :)

I think the problem with the prequels, other than so much of the obvious, is that Lucas simply got lazy. He thought that the irony of knowing that the good guys were really the bad guys and no one realized it was enough to carry whatever story he jammed into those films. In the end, it wasn't. In the end, he either needed to do as you suggest and surprise us with twists and turns or he needed to really build a story that made us fall in love with Vader and then turn it harshly tragic at the end. Instead, he gave us an unlikable jerkoff teen who could never become Vader and who never fit the description old Ben Kenobi gave us, and he put him in a sterile world with an uninteresting story.

I've actually thought for some time that the Harry Potter story would have made a better set of prequels than the prequels. Just call it a Force Academy or something and change Harry to Vader, remove some of the cutsey, and there you have an excellent story of how Vader became Vader. Just have him turn very evil in the final part.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, I thought that was brilliant. It was stunning imagery and it felt so real because you know that is what people would really do. At the same time, having those ruins on the planet gave you this instant backstory of some major space battle above the planet that you never saw, but which you imagined the whole time. In one stroke, it made their world real, gave you sense of the death of the Empire, and gave you a visual that would stick with you. Very smart!

Eric M. Blake said...

Just me, but I--who have been a Star Trek fan since childhood--actually loved the JJ-verse Trek films.

But aside from that, I wholeheartedly agree with your review, and your beef with the prequels. Ever since he made Han let Greedo take the first shot, Lucas seemed to have forgotten what made the originals so good...what made the characters so fresh and compelling.

Add to that his iron-fisted "My vision, my say" attitude over the prequels...his neglect in bringing back Lawrence Kasdan (who made the originals' screenplays GOOD)--who thank heaven is writer AND producer for Force Awakens...and Lucas's refusal to realize that he was TERRIBLE at directing emotion in actors...and you had a complete mess.

This movie redeemed Star Wars. J.J., I salute you.

AndrewPrice said...

Welcome Eric!

Lucas was awful with emotion. The love scenes in the prequels were so sterile and cold. Even the angry scenes felt flat and like they were just reading from the script. It's too bad Lucas never understood his strengths and weaknesses. Fortunately, it seems that Star Wars is in good hands again. :)

AndrewPrice said...

I saw Spectre finally last night. I'll review it soon. Sadly, I thought it was good but not as good as Craig's other films.

Rich said...

I think a big, big flaw was Kylo Ren, the girl. Grrl power, expert in the force without any training, knew more about the Millennium Falcon than Han Solo...

tryanmax said...

Kylo Ren is the villain. The girl's name is Rey.

shawn said...

While I enjoyed the movie, I wish the story wasn't such a retread. Otherwise, it looked great, the characters were well done, and the actors all did a great job.

djskit said...

As one of my grumpy, also 47 year old friends said "I felt like I was 8 years old for 2 hours". And indeed I did. I have not felt that much joy sitting in a theatre since I don't know when.

And the best part? I got to share this with my nerdy 13 year old daughter who also had a blast.

Star Trek Into Darkness was offensive to me as a fan but boy did JJ hit this one out of the part. Is it 2017 yet?

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, I've heard a lot of people say that, that it made them feel like a kid again. I don't know if I quite felt that, but it was close. It was a very rare experience and I loved it!

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, It would have been nice, but I was ok with it. It felt like a reminder to me of Return of the Jedi, like a return to where we were right before things went wrong in the Lucas-verse.

AndrewPrice said...

Rich, She didn't really know the force, she kind of stumbled into learning about it. And she was learning it by using it. Otherwise, I didn't see a girl-power angle at all. Her gender was basically irrelevant to the story.

Loyal Goatherd said...

I finally saw it last Saturday, in Imax 3D. There is something to be said about seeing a motion picture as intended in a theater. Free from the distractions and comfort of your home, if any reasonable effort is put into the storytelling, the viewer becomes engrossed with the story. One did not watch a movie, one experienced the story. Living the highs and lows of the characters, sharing their hopes and disappointments. Star Wars: The Force Awakens recaptured what episode IV started so well, it does give one hope that movie magic is not dead, as feared, but perhaps is rare enough that when encountered again it strikes an awe into the viewer that talented storytelling can still exist in a bloated, simplistic Hollywood assembly line of product.

For the record, my doubts for the Star Wars universe cropped up early in the second half of episode V: Empire Strikes Back. It quickly seemed to be too much magic fiction and to have lost the science fictional aspects. The effects started trying to take the place of the story and the story seemed to wander towards the space soap opera. Episode VI struck me as nothing more than a catalog of toys for purchase with a general outline of a story with which one could play with those toys. This may have also been simply my growing to adulthood during the first trilogy. I was 14 in 1977, the perfect age I still presume. 17 in 1980 for V and 20 in 1983 for VI. The prequels I will mention only in that they seemed to carry the magical even further, expanded the toy catalog, starred CGI with human actors and the story line was plodding at best. The final insult bringing a 9 year old Anakin to the screen in a naked effort to enlist a new generation of children fans.

So with that background and a documented dislike of the JJ Abrams' complete destruction of everything that was Star Trek in the first ten minutes of the reboot, (timeline destruction is a crime beyond compare in the Star Trek universe {which is more science fictiony than Star Wars and more to my tastes} even Rick Berman after Roddenberry's death would not go there). And given that Disney, while usually superior in product quality, was notoriously about merchandising every possible dollar grabbing trinket. I was not disposed to believe this new movie could be as good as it was.

To keep this spoiler free, I will stay as generic as possible for the twelve remaining people who have not yet seen it. It's a Disney movie, I expected some cutesy Disney type humor, there is a little but it does not distract from the movie. I found the villain to be the weakest character, certainly evil but not terribly compelling in any way. Toy catalog did not appear. The story was rich in details and flow, leaving enough gaps that we can redress some more detail later. Harrison Ford, Hans Solo-ely made this truly a Star Wars movie, with out his efforts, we would be discussing how good this movie is, with him we are discussing how epic this movie is. I stop here. But I am considering sneaking back to theater for at least one more viewing before it leaves the big screen and that IS Star Wars, so epic, you want to see it again and again.

Andersonh1 said...

I couldn't disagree more with the review. This is not an excellent film, this is a series of set pieces that rip off so many plot points from episode 4 that the screenwriters should have been arrested for theft. 80% of the movie is rehash. What original ideas there are in the script are good, but there are very few of them. I was honestly astonished as I watched this at how much was taken from earlier Star Wars films. Death Star, trench run, android carrying vital information, hero living in the desert, even the Cantina filled with aliens is present. Han Solo's death could be seen as a repeat of Ben Kenobi's death. I honestly felt more than a little ripped off after watching "The Force Awakens". It wasn't all bad, but it wasn't anywhere near as good as it's been made out to be.

AndrewPrice said...

Andersonh1, Others have said that as well. I personally saw this stuff as a re-immersion rather than a rip-off, but your mileage may vary.

Ben L. Kemer said...

I have enjoyed a lot of Star Wars materials, and yes, thematic elements get re-used as part of telling you that hey this is Star Wars. Re-using thematic elements happens a great deal, if not more, in serial comic book series like Spider-Man. I found Rey annoying, but I would be willing to bet that she will get some comeuppance in the next one. All in all, what we have is Star Wars: The Next Generation, pretty much. I found the pacing a little off, as my main complaint, rushing from one scene to the next. Overall, it entertained like this series of films usually does, and was glad to see that they didn't need for a character to blurt the twist out, but dropped the clues for me to think about as an audience, instead.

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