Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

12/20/2015  By  Front Row Central     No comments

With thunderous fanfare and raucous applause, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is finally here. The weekend’s not even over, and already it’s smashing box office records left and right. Star Wars has become such a huge cultural touchstone that it would be silly for only one of us to review Episode VII. Instead, we decided the whole crew should get in on the action and discuss the broad strokes of the film: what works, what doesn’t, and how it adds to the Star Wars oeuvre. Allow us to present…

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Beware of mild spoilers!

IN YOUR OWN WORDS, WHAT WAS THE PLOT OF STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS?

JORDAN SAÏD: So about 30 years have passed since Return of the Jedi. Leia and Han Solo eventually broke up, Luke disappeared completely, and this group called the First Order seems to want to replace the Empire. A scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) finds this droid, BB-8, that contains a map that contains Luke’s whereabouts. Then she meets Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who defected after he realized he didn’t want to kill. They find the Millennium Falcon and strike out to join the Rebel Alliance.

The First Order chases them down in their new “Death Star,” the Starkiller. Its commander, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), and crazy-powerful Sith Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) have been locked in a power struggle within the First Order. They both want BB-8 and his information because they know it’ll win favor with Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), effectively Palpatine’s successor.

MARTIN R. SCHNEIDER:
Luke is our MacGuffin here; the movie is about finding him because it is believed that, once again, he is the key to the ongoing battle between the dark side and the light (which government is on which side is confusing and annoying, but the politics of Star Wars have never made sense.) Finn, a Stormtrooper who has broken free from his programming, is attempting to escape the new empire when he is dragged into serving the Resistance by rebel fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Rey, the exploratory scavenger. They meet Han Solo, who has returned to a life of smuggling after his relationship with Leia fell apart. (There are good reasons for it.) Han and Chewie pretty much proceed to dominate the whole movie, while a rift grows between the military and spirituality sides of the new Empire. And yes, there’s another, really really big Death Star powered by the Sun.

JOSEPH WADE: The evils of solar energy!

SEAN HANSON: The virtues of marketing and the necessity of a new holiday special. Imagine it — Star Wars: The Christmas Spirit Awakens. I get so excited just thinking about it, I need a Star Wars-brand cold shower!

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WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE SCREENPLAY?

SAÏD: The original Star Wars trilogy has become such a monolithic part of American pop culture that I didn’t think anything could possibly live up to it. This film did about as well as any sequel made 30 years after the fact could. Having Lawrence Kasdan on board helped enormously. The script tries really hard to please everyone, but that always ends up a double-edged sword, because movies meant to please everyone usually end up not offering anything really new. Sadly, this film proved no exception to that.

SCHNEIDER: A lot of this feels like the “get it out of the way” film that gets a little cutesy with the nudge-nudge nods to the original trilogy and follows a lot of the same plot beats. However, there’s this line very early on which Oscar Isaac has when he’s meeting the big bad upon capture where he jokingly asks “So, who talks here? Do I talk first, do you talk first? How does this work?” That line lets us know that this is a slightly different Star Wars, one less concerned with the pseudo-mystic pretense and metered speech of the originals and is dedicated to more natural speech. It’s a film built mostly around the ideas of Harrison Ford’s ad-libs in the originals, done by people who took Ford’s fabled “You can write this shit, George, but you sure as hell can’t say it” rant to heart. I appreciate this, but it will strike many fans as a dilution.

WADE: I think Jordan’s plot summary is a very good way of obscuring the fact that The Force Awakens is almost beat-for-beat a retread of the original Star Wars. It’s almost daring how explicitly it cribs plot points and situations from Episode IV, but at the same time, it makes a certain kind of sense. Fate seems to intervene at a number of key moments in this film, where new characters encounter old characters, familiar lines get repeated, numbers reappear (Finn’s stormtrooper ID specifically), etc. Star Wars has always done this, and Star Wars will continue to do this. As disappointed as I was that they fight yet another Death Star, it’s comforting to know that the series has gone back to what works, and that all that stuff does still work.

ASHLEY HERALD: If you take A New Hope, add a weird thing where your audience surrogate isn’t totally clear, and then make Darth Vader an insecure teenager, that’s pretty much this. It cribs from the original Star Wars so hard that it’s in many ways same film with a different style of dialogue (as Martin mentioned). If it sounds like I don’t like the movie, that’s not true, but it’s not what the kids call “original.” It’s also very Abrams-y in parts: if you’re familiar with his other work, you can definitely tell the dude has a writing credit here. It is also worth noting that it functions very well as an accessible starting point into Star Wars for people who are not already familiar with the franchise. I’ll give it credit for a couple choices that, while I think weren’t really used to their full potential, were certainly very bold, but for the most part this screenplay was intended to be fun/inoffensive and not tugging at your heartstrings, a choice for which your mileage may vary.

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WHAT WAS THE MOVIE REALLY  ABOUT?

SCHNEIDER: While I think we all agree that the commitment to A New Hope is kind of the weakest part of the film, I think it’s unfair to say there’s not a lot of originality to go around here. More than anything, I think this is about subversive homage, the idea of tackling a cultural monolith from a new perspective while using similar tactics as earlier. Consider that while Luke’s biggest decisions came from his lineage and fear of the dark side in him, we are given a villain who must make similar choices, but is actually afraid and angry about the light within him. It’s the same beats, but with new perspective.

The newer, giant-er Death Star is a good metaphor for the massive undertaking Abrams and company have to contend with, it’s even named for a first-draft name for Luke Skywalker. Like the franchise itself, it’s bigger than anyone thought it could be, and it has to be assessed and essentially broken down before we can move on. In that regard, it has to be approached using familiar methodology (“There’s always a point to blow up”), combined with a few new perspectives.

WADE: While the plot’s familiarity still bothers me on a purely basic fan level, I do agree with your larger point. The film boldly opens by telling us that Luke Skywalker, the most important piece of this entire puzzle, is missing. It then introduces us to a whole new cast of characters on a mission to find him. As much as the film is a newcomer’s quest to find Luke Skywalker, it’s a meta-story about returning to the series what the prequels had lost, of digging the franchise out of its Lucas-shaped hole. And it’s telling that one of Kylo Ren’s fatal flaws is his gothkid obsession with Darth Vader. Whether he knows it or not, he’s treading in a certain Skywalker’s big, whiny footsteps, and the fact the he leans into those traits not only makes him a villain to be feared, but one of this new trilogy’s most interesting figures.

HERALD: I know I’m in the sharp minority on this, but I think the thematic content is the weakest part of the film. Character arcs for the new characters are either simplistic or only lightly explored, character arcs for the older characters are taken back a few steps so they can be retread with a different, less satisfying end. I think a lot of the themes that made the original Star Wars so compelling were sacrificed here in favor of (a) setting up the franchise to spawn a bunch of other movies and (b) being as entertaining as possible. The film lacks a lot of the emotional resonance and sense of growth of the original trilogy, largely because the arcs for our new characters are pretty weak, and I feel comfortable saying that if this were not a Star Wars film following the widely-maligned prequels, most folks would agree that the movie was okay, not great.

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WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE NEW CHARACTERS?

SCHNEIDER: To be honest, this question is probably enough to write an entire column. Most of the new stuff is character-based, and it’s all good. The strength of these films has always been in casting, and this is as well-cast as the original films. Adam Driver is particularly brilliant, as Kylo Ren brings a different style of menace to his villainy, the threat that comes from entitled and impatient young men. Many of Kylo’s scenes, especially those with Rey, feel like a direct extension of Driver’s character from GIRLS.

I also appreciated Rey’s presentation as being tough and strong in a real human way, not “pin-up girl” tough in a sexualized manner. There’s a lot of time dedicated to character moments such as an excitable Rey and Finn congratulating each other on their shooting/flying, or Han Solo admitting that Chewie came up with a better plan than he did, which is something retro Han never would say. The character work may have overshadowed the story, honestly, but all of it was so enjoyable that I didn’t mind.

HERALD: Characterization is easily the strong point of this movie, and it’s a shame we don’t get to spend more time exploring these characters, really. If that’s the strongest part of your movie, lean into it! The idea of a stormtrooper who decides fascism isn’t for him, a Sith Lord who prays to Darth Vader to be more like him (not realizing that, by being a scared baby, he’s already as Anakin as it gets), and a young scavenger discovering she’s strong enough in the Force to go toe-to-toe with a real sith are all amazing ideas, and they’re fleshed out beautifully with characters who have obvious strengths and flaws. The fact that so much about their lives remains open-ended and full of unanswered questions speaks to the intent of the filmmakers to answer these questions in other films, but ultimately leaves the characterization in this film a little lacking. You don’t need to leave quite this many loose ends for a sequel, guys! Flesh it out their personal arcs a bit and leave the overarching plot as the loose ends for the next film, there’s certainly enough of that left open to be the connecting factor.

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HOW DID YOU LIKE THE SPECIAL EFFECTS?

WADE: JJ Abrams’ promise to take Star Wars back to its practical FX roots had me worried. Spielberg made the same promise with the last Indiana Jones, and we all saw how that turned out. The Force Awakens‘ visual effects aren’t a quantum leap forward like we saw with the original trilogy or (for better or worse) the prequels, but Star Wars looks every bit as good as it ever did. It’s 2015, and with Disney, ILM and JJ Abrams all under one roof, The Force Awakens is a rightly gorgeous piece of effects wizardry.

And JJ definitely made good on his promise; it is an absolute joy to see complex puppetry, physical props and tangible locations in a Star Wars film again. Even before the film landed, BB-8 was its breakout star. It was smart to reveal him early as a signpost of the film’s practical craftsmanship. Now that we’ve seen him in action, it still kinda seems like magic. He’s not the flying swiss army knife that R2-D2 eventually became; he’s a spherical lapdog with a couple of neat gadgets and a warm sense of humor. I love it.

HERALD: Given Abrams’ remarks, I had thought to see more practical effects in the film than there were, but the blending of CGI and practical here went very well. I’m a sucker for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop-style alien puppets, and was pleased to some of that here, even if CGI aliens seemed to take up more space. Lupita Nyong’o’s character Maz was some particularly good CGI, compared to, say… well, if you saw the prequels, you can take your pick.

WADE: Yeah, it’s one of those cases where you can never truly go home again. CGI is here to stay, and while The Force Awakens is littered with CGI characters and creations, they blend in far better than they have before. It’s hard to call it a masterpiece of practical effects in The Year of Fury Road, but it’s still a welcome sight.

SAÏD: The prequels’ biggest mistake lay in thinking that sophisticated CGI could plug all the holes in the plot, the characterization, the… well, everything. Abrams put the visuals first and had the effects support them. That approach worked in Star Trek and it works here. All of the effects—CGI and practical—feel like they exist in the service of the film.

HERALD: Also they managed to use the CGI effects in a way that fell heavily in line with the design of the practical effects from the original Star Wars, as opposed to the now popular choice of making everything look like an Apple store.

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HOW DID THE FORCE AWAKENS  FIT INTO THE REST OF THE STAR WARS  UNIVERSE?

SAÏD: If anything, The Force Awakens stuck too close to the original trilogy. Rey often comes off as a mash-up of Han, Luke, and Leia. Kylo Ren feels like Vader, Hux feels like Tarkin, Snoke feels like Palpatine, BB-8 feels like R2-D2… Finn seemed like the only part of the movie where the writers really looked at the franchise and asked probing and incisive questions about how and why things work. The Force Awakens almost feels like a Home Alone 2 version of A New Hope: same as before, with a few new characters.

SCHNEIDER: A New Hope wasn’t exactly the most original concept in the world either, as John D’Amico’s video proves. Retreading that ground with new elements and perspectives is perfectly fine for this sort of re-launch, even if it is the “safe” bet. I know that “We’ll get more good stuff in the next movie!” is a useless platitude that falls in line with many of my complaints about say, Marvel films. But I think, given the situation, this is the best way you could handle it. The Force Awakens feels like a launching point that indicates the future will break away more from the Old Guard.

HERALD: It’s definitely a Star Wars film. It pays attention to all of the lore that they didn’t decide to discard (of which there was quite a lot) and is definitely a new adventure with new characters. If anything, I think the film would have been stronger if Han, Luke, and Leia weren’t involved at all; if it were set, say, a couple hundred years after the establishment of the New Republic and our characters were facing a Sith resurgence, we wouldn’t have to balance between handing the torch off from the old adventurers to the new ones. It would have been nice to just focus on getting to know and empathizing with our new leads, with maybe a couple cameos by way of old records from the original heroes. As it stands, it’s a perfectly acceptable entry into the Star Wars canon, with the promise of more adventures with characters that have charmed pretty much everyone.

WADE: I think what’s most important is that it does fit. The Star Wars universe looks familiar, but ever so slightly more modern. My favorite detail is the new design of the Stormtroopers. Where once their uniforms were cast to look skeletal and grim, many of those features have been removed in favor of a sleeker, more streamlined look. The helmets have been stripped of facial features almost completely, leaving eyeholes and little else. The cheekbones have been muted and the mouthpieces are all but gone. The result is inhuman, and a fair bit more disturbing. If we’re meant to connect with Finn as a man reclaiming his humanity, that little design change becomes crucial.

SAÏD: To go back to what Marty here said, I do have to admit that I fear Star Wars becoming the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where every movie ends up an advertisement for the next movie. Frankly, The Force Awakens has more sequel-bait than I’d like. I love that Lucas and company made A New Hope not knowing if anyone would ever care about it, let alone make a sequel, and I’d hoped that same adventurous, risk-taking spirit would make its way into this film.

But then, it took Death-Star-sized balls to pull off some of the character developments that The Force Awakens has, and that I have to respect.

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SHOULD OUR READERS GO SEE IT?

SAÏD: Of course!

HERALD: You’re probably going to if you haven’t already, honestly, you might as well lean into it.

WADE: Why not? For the first time in a long time, it’s okay to be excited about Star Wars.

SCHNEIDER: You mean you haven’t already? Oh, uh… spoiler alert, I guess.

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