Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars Into Darkness

Warning! The following review for Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be very spoiler-heavy at points, so you probably don't want to read any further until you've seen it!

Alright, getting that out of the way right off the bat, so now we can talk about the new Star Wars! And, what did I think about it? Well, I will say that there were certain aspects to it that were very good, and on the whole I do like the movie, enough to where I've even gone and seen it a second time already. However, the movie has some very glaring flaws, which will require those heavy spoilers for me to really get into, and which I will also warn you right now may come across as a bit of a rant at times. But just keep in mind, as you're reading my rant, that I actually did like this movie, quite a bit at that, and do recommend seeing it!

But before we get to all of that, let's start with what I thought this movie did well. Really, the entire cast was phenomenal, and they're what really make this movie work on the whole. Generally speaking, I enjoyed all of the new characters. The new droid BB-8 is appropriately adorable throughout, and Oscar Isaac and John Boyega are both a delight.

In fact, it actually is pretty cool to see a different side of the Stormtroopers here in the form of Boyega's Finn, and actually experience things from their perspective for a bit. The Stormtroopers have never been cooler than they are in this movie, and I liked that they felt like more than just cannon fodder for once. And our new main villain is okay as well, I suppose, though Kylo Ren does leave a little something to be desired, leaving me missing our old pal Vader. Though, well, I suppose that actually is kinda the point of the character, that he's a poor man's Darth Vader. But there is a really compelling internal struggle to the character, which will definitely make him an interesting one to see how he continues to develop from here.

As for returning cast, Harrison Ford was great, and Chewie comes in and straight up steals the show from a comedic standpoint, having all of the biggest laughs in the whole movie. And Carrie Fisher was there, too. But great as it was to see some of our old classic favorites on the big screen again, this movie introduces us to a new character who's bound to go down as a classic all her own, and may very well end up being my new favorite character in the entire series as a whole.

That character is Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, who was fucking fantastic. I loved this character so much! She's such a strong, fascinating, fully fleshed and yet still mysterious new player in the series, and I actually wish that the movie had placed even more focus on her than it already did, that this was more her movie than the more equally split effort that we got. She was definitely the best thing about the whole movie, without question, and its her development through the movie that are the standout scenes. As she's coming more and more in tune with the force awakening within her, these are the most powerful moments of the whole thing, the moments that give you chills and leave one breathless. And it's seeing how her story will continue to progress from here that I'm most looking forward to in the future installments of the franchise.

Outside of the cast, I would also point out the fantastic cinematography and use of lighting as a highlight for the movie. We get some very atmospheric shots not dissimilar from some of the moments in The Empire Strikes Back, and the way that the light shines on the scene, that the shadows slowly creep in, really stood out in a way that especially elevated the mood throughout.

And there were some other details here and there that I liked, which I'll get to a little, but now's about the time where I need to get into why I feel this movie initially left me less than enthused by the end of it upon first viewing. And really, what it ultimately all boils down to is that this movie is far too similar to A New Hope. In fact, it's so similar, it's almost a modern day beat for beat remake of that movie, which, in this day and age of remakes and reboots, almost makes this movie's existence a cliche in its current state.

Oftentimes, I've found that the best kinds of sequels are those that are pretty radically different from their predecessors, that aren't afraid to change things up and don't just try and do the exact same thing over again. And up until now, the Star Wars series has been really good about this. All six prior movies have a unique feel to them. None of them feel like they're trying to just mimic another entry in the series. But that all comes to a screeching halt here, where director J.J. Abrams decided that, instead of making a brand new wholly original entry in the series, he was more interested in just recreating what he loved about the original Star Wars.

Yes, the same J.J. Abrams who, with Star Trek Into Darkness, was more interested in recreating scenes from Wrath of Khan than telling a new, compelling story in the Star Trek universe. The same J.J. Abrams who, with the 2009 Star Trek, used that as an opportunity to put together a Star Wars highlight reel taking place in the Star Trek universe, thus likely landing him his job on this movie in the first place. And the same J.J. Abrams who, upon getting this job, again, decided that, instead of making a brand new story, he was going to just regurgitate yet another older entry that we've already seen. And this bothered me to no end.

Hell, it's apparent from the very opening scene that this is just a retelling of A New Hope. They've gotta get this message stored in this new droid to the Resistance (which is really just a rebranded Rebel Alliance), so that they can fight back against the First Order (or the rebranded Empire), in their new bigger, badder Death Star, the Starkiller Base (which is now more of a Death Planet, and was admittedly pretty cool, especially that it even had its own ecosystem and everything), and which the Resistance has to then take out. And once this fact begins to settle in, this over-familiarity also instantly telegraphs the whole movie, so you can see precisely where this thing is going well before we ever get there. And then suddenly, moments such as the death of Han Solo become some of the most predictable aspects of the whole film, when really, that's the kind of moment that no one should see coming.

This almost makes me curious if this isn't the reason that the plot was kept so heavily under wraps in all of the promotion. Now, I will say that I loved the marketing for this thing, and that other movie studios can learn a thing or two from this movie's trailers as it concerns building intrigue through showing restraint. However, right now a big thing being emphasized is not spoiling the movie for anyone, something that was emphasized even in the trailers themselves. But was that only because, were they to put any story elements in the trailers, so predictable would it suddenly be that everyone would see precisely where this movie was going even before setting foot in a movie theater?

My patience has really worn thin with Abrams' nostalgic obsession by this point. As the movie went along, it started off sorta neat how he would toss in little references to the older series. But by the time they were aboard the Millennium Falcon and the 3D monster board game came to life, I was left groaning instead of grinning at these intrusive references. We get it. We get the point. This is a new Star Wars movie, and takes place in the same universe as the old ones. Now, can we get on with the story already? Except, as I mentioned before, the story, as well, was just all too familiar.

There's paying homage, and then there's just being a fanboy, and this film was far too much of the latter. In fact, with the sheer amount of fanboy nostalgia just forced all throughout this movie, Episode VII honestly felt less like a real entry in this series, and eventually got to the point where it felt more like we were watching a real big budget fan fiction project instead. And it's a shame, because Abrams has proven himself to be a very talented technician behind the camera, and very capable at putting together a good film. But it's his constant insistence on returning to old familiar territory that holds him back as a filmmaker, and that I fear will ultimately lead to his movies having a harder time standing the test of time.

Years from now, we can go back and revisit any one of the six previous Star Wars films. And, despite your feelings on the matter of their quality, each of them offers a unique experience that adds to the greater whole of the series. The Force Awakens, however, opts to retread old ground instead of doing something else new, and relies far too heavily on older references to provide an almost artificially fan-pleasing experience, but an experience that really doesn't have the legs to stand on its own as a true genuine new entry in the series.

So yeah, there's my big rant. I think the movie on the whole does still work, but I think it's possibly despite J.J. Abrams' involvement, and not because of it. The cast definitely does their job bringing their new characters to life and making us really care for them, and it's the characters that really make this movie work. But outside of that, I was honestly left feeling like Abrams really wasn't the right man for the job after all, and that his now typical nostalgia-obsessed nonsense that he brought to the table was to the film's ultimate detriment in the end.

And that's not to say that I think there was anything malicious behind his choices here. I definitely think that he had the best intentions, and approached this movie with as much respect for the franchise as possible. And that respect does shine through, as the movie does have a genuine heart and soul behind it. I just fear that he doesn't have nearly enough trust or respect for his own abilities as a filmmaker to not have to rely so heavily on nostalgia to piece his movies together, and that until he gains the real confidence to just make something new and original and not worry too much about throwing in references in a desperate attempt to please fans in the most shallow way possible, well then he's just going to continue down this rut of putting together these technically well made shrines to the past, but leave nothing original behind of his own to truly show what he was capable of bringing to the table.

So yeah, despite all that was good in the movie, I wasn't blown away or even all that satisfied by the end of the movie upon first viewing. After watching Episodes II and III in the theater, I was ecstatic, and couldn't wait to see those again. And yeah, this is one I was willing to see again as well, but more so out of curiosity than out of enthusiasm. Still, it was a good movie overall, and I loved the few things that actually were new additions to this series, especially the introduction of Rey. But all in all, good as it may be, it still wasn't great, and I couldn't help but feel that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was not the new Star Wars we were looking for.

However, that all was how I felt after my first viewing. And, having since seen it that second time, I will say that, while I still feel many of my points brought up in terms of direction are still valid, most of those issues really didn't bother me the second time around at all. In fact, the movie improved quite a significant degree on second viewing, to where the striking moments were even more striking, the compelling, complex characters were even more compelling, and I overall found myself get even more sucked up by the epic story playing out.

The over-familiarity that I initially found distracting suddenly didn't even phase me, and I found I was able to brush past a lot of the more obnoxiously in-your-face references and just enjoy the movie for what it was. No, it's still not perfect, but this time, I actually did feel quite a bit more satisfaction by the time the credits rolled, and certainly feel that this is definitely a movie with a lot worthwhile going on that's worth checking out.

I do still think that, especially given the unique circumstances of a lot of our characters, following a rogue Stormtrooper and a lone scrapper finding her place in the world, that there was more than enough room to tell a newer and more unique story here, but I can live with what we got for now, and hopefully this installment has gotten all of the nostalgia-baiting out of this series' system so that we can see a truly interesting new take with the next installment reportedly being helmed by Rian Johnson, the guy who brought us Looper, one of the most depressing bleak movies of the past few years. Now that's a movie I'm looking forward to! But in the meantime, The Force Awakens did a good job whetting our appetite with the introduction of such an awesome new cast of characters, who I more than look forward to continuing to follow.


  1. Couldn't agree more Chris! Rey was uh-may-zing but there were just too many little nods and winks to leave me 100% satisfied. But those didn't take too much away from the overall experience - I still loved this movie and can't wait to head back and see it again!

    1. Hell yeah! Thanks Rhys. And yeah, can't wait to get more of Rey in future installments! :)

  2. Great review! I started watching the Star Wars series for the first time last month and I'm a fully converted fan. I loved seeing the human side to the stormtroopers this time around and you're absolutely right, they have never been cooler!
    I just wish I didn't leave the cinema last night with so many questions!
    - Allie

    1. Thanks, Allie, and welcome to the Star Wars fandom! :)

  3. Great review! I don't have a problem with JJ. He's a huge Star Wars fanatic, so I think that helped in his case. 100% agree on Rey, she's spectacular.

    1. Thanks, Brittani! Yeah, Rey's a great new addition, isn't she? :)

  4. I summarize Force Awakens with the following: good enough to go and see, but not good enough to hype.

    The casting, characters, and acting were all very good for most of the movie. Ren, like you said, just feels so off. He looks like a pussy who had his lunch money taken from him every Friday; basically, he feels so weak and he looks it too.

    The lightsaber battles are easily the worst of all the Star Wars movies and I'm not sure if it's due to their presentation or by design. All I can say is while I like Rey kicking ass, I expect her to lay a beatdown on Ren because he's a pussy and Rey is a Boss.

    The problem with Ren is he is so reminiscent of Anakin in his look and PMS attitude that becomes more annoying then dastardly. The issue of Hayden Christiansen was he is a terrible actor, wile Ren is a terrible character. The Dark Side of the Force is meant to be a terrifying example of what happens with great power that is abused. Ren isn't terrifying because he has so little power to show even though he supposedly was trained to be a Jedi.

    I have more to say, but I feel that this isn't the best place to say it.

    Again, good movie worth your time and money, but overall it's so formulaic that you feel you've seen this movie before and that's because you have.

    1. Very true on your last point there. I think the issue I mainly have with Ren is that, upon further thought, I just don't BUY his character. Anakin struggling with his darker feelings and ultimately becoming consumed by them? Makes sense. Luke struggling with his darker feelings and managing to overcome them? Relatable. Ren being a softy on the inside but desperately trying to cling to being a dick, just 'cause? Uh, yeah, I guess he's going through his teenage goth phase? I dunno, but the character just doesn't feel believable, so even though it's a new take on an old dynamic, it's still kind of a dumb one.

      As for the lightstaber fights, you can't really look at them as technical feats so much as shows of emotional struggle. The previous movies all dealt with highly trained combatants of varying degrees, while those wielding the saber in this movie (outside of Ren) have never been trained to wield a lightsaber before, so they're fighting fully through emotion as opposed to technique, so that aspect didn't really bother me, and felt appropriate here, all things considered.

      But yeah, the movie does really fall apart more and more the more you think about it, but it was still fun while actively watching it. Thanks for dropping by, T. :)