Taking on Cinematic History – a Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars The Force Awakens Blu-Ray

*Because elements of the plot were vital to my review of this film, the following contains a number of “spoilers.”

First off, I must mention that I am not a fan of science fiction. As a child, I was forced to watch the exceptionally campy Star Trek series by my older brother, who because of his superior strength, controlled which channel we watched and when. My only real exposure to the genre comes from now being “forced” to watch the Sci-Fi channel when one of my wife’s favorite shows is on. That being said, I fell in love with the Star Wars series as a child. My mother took my brother and I to see that first, and frankly best, film of the series. “A New Hope” was enthralling to this then eleven year old boy. Something about it just captured my attention and has continued to do so for thirty five years.

And so my thoughts are not based on any particular knowledge or understanding of what happens in a typical production in this world. I have seen only minutes of any of the Star Trek movies, and was never really attracted to any of them. I’m not fascinated by the space time continuum, and frankly, don’t care much to know any more about it. Though I certainly don’t criticize those who love that world and understand the love so many have for it, science fiction just isn’t my thing. But like so many, I love the Star Wars franchise, seeing it more as a part of my youth I loved, and much more than just a story.

Was the latest chapter in the Star Wars saga ever going to garner universal praise from critics, while avoiding the ire of it’s fans? Probably not. But Star Wars: The Force Awakens did plenty of things well, and if nothing else produced a logical stepping stone in the world’s most popular series.

Though I always attempt to avoid reviews before giving my own take, they were impossible to avoid when I pre-ordered the Blu-Ray combo. The most common criticism I saw was the “sameness” of this film to the other six in the series.

Of course, this highly-anticipated installment is first and foremost a Star Wars film. Like it’s predecessors, “Awakens” employs themes of “good vs evil” early and often. There is Kylo Ren, a villain whose anger has turned him in the direction of the dark side. At least one character “discovers” that she is a Jedi. A large, exceptionally powerful ship is used by the force to cause great destruction among innocents. An adorable droid figures prominently in saving the world. Stop me if this sounds familiar…

These are all popular plot points in the saga, to be sure. But personally, I found these to be no more or less static and “predictable than they were in all six of the previous chapters. And yet I enjoyed each of those films. It is, in many ways a true Star Wars movie, which means that many things will be “the same.” And that’s fine with me. However, there were things I questioned, to be sure, especially in the area of character development.

First and foremost, my attention stumbled more than once while watching Kylo Ren. I always found that a vital element in the personality of a certain Darth Vader was his seemingly absolute level of evil (at least until “Revenge of the Sith) and willingness to do anything to assist the emperor in his quest for world domination through any means necessary. While I understand that not all characters should be identical, Kylo Ren is so flexible in his ways, so wishy-washy and yes, even weak, that it is hard to fear him. With a “master” who is hardly fleshed out enough to hate also in the mix, I never achieved anything near the same sense of dread when either of these characters found himself in a warring posture that I felt each and every time that Vader, or any of the emperors in past productions, caused me to feel each and every time previous “evildoers” appeared on screen.

Frankly, Ren is one of the weaknesses of “Awakens.” Perhaps his internal struggle between the forces of light and dark appear too quickly, or are too quickly exposed, or maybe it’s something as simple as the revelation of his true appearance, far too “normal” to give the impression of evil, that makes it so. In fact, the “real” Ren (played by Adam Driver) looks and behaves more like a pouting prince than an evil, superpowered “First Oder” demon. Or maybe it’s the fact that Ren is too easily knocked from his perch on the first appearance of a lightsabre wielding Jedi. Whatever the individual reason, it is more likely the sum of all of these that makes what was probably intended to be a battle between good an evil something more akin to a battle of “good” versus “not so bad.” The fact that his “evil voice” sounds like it’s coming from a cheap Radio Shack speaker only makes this impression move obvious.

An ineffective portrayal of a character can truly hurt a film, and I thought this was also apparent in the Poe Dameron character. Though we can easily see the parallels between he and Luke Skywalker (though Poe is not, as far as I can tell, a Jedi) that is where the similarity ends. Sent by Leia to attempt to find more information about the location of her brother, Oscar Isaac gives us a cocky character who fails to even approach the likability of Mark Hamill. A number of Poe’s lines are particularly cheesy, and when he appears at the outset of the movie to be in grave danger, his over the top facial expressions and excessive dramatics give the impression that he is anything but a servant of a cause.

The search is on for the evil organization called “The First Order.” They’re looking for the most famous of all Jedis, and the last surviving member, Luke Skywalker. Of course, their goal is to eliminate the last remnant of that group. But the ubiquitous knight is nowhere to be found. Now a General in the resistance movement, Leia is looking for him, too. Though this quest is often mentioned, we see the great hero only at the end of the film, and even then only as a foreteller of what is to come. He speaks no words as our hero, Rey approaches him. And the film ends.

If action is what you were hoping for, you are unlikely to be disappointed with “The Force Awakens.” Viewers are treated to well choreographed fights throughout the movie. From fisticuffs to lightsaber duels the choreography (something Hollywood in general seems to have skillfully improved upon) is well executed and as believable as a “space sage” can be.

The score is one of the absolute highlights of this film, and it’s given the proper attention by those who created and mixed the sound for the film. In a score that truly “owns it” we’re taken low, high and points in between by full symphonic sound, then transitioned to lighter, airier tunes, all tying-in at various appropriate moments to those original, now timeless melodies that remind us that we’re watching an epic film with everything that comes with it’s pedigree. Even if you’re looking, you’ll find it difficult to find any sort of fault with the music in “Awakens.” Few, in the history of film have so deftly drawn viewers in and kept them emotionally engaged in what they’re watching as John Williams. My one critique would be that the large gap between the volume level of the bass in the sound effects (the explosions are move powerful than ever here) and the dialogue is a bit too much of an adjustment for most ears. Happily, I was able to somewhat even this out through my receiver. Though the audio is mixed in 7.1 surround, it sounded exceptional on my 5.1 system.

For the tech geek in you, the technical production of “The Force Awakens” is almost without peer. Both the stunning video and powerful, clear audio are the equal of the very best films in existence. Shot in true blockbuster Sci-Fi flick style, viewing it in the Blu-Ray format as I did is a pleasure. With highly detailed, expansive, gorgeous panorama shots from J.J. Abrams, especially as rebel fighters approach their targets is truly something to behold. The skies are drop-dead gorgeous, and the “machines” have never looked more real. The quality of the shots is as good as any you’re likely to see in any film this year, and used with great skill in “The Force Awakens. I could go on about the quality of the on screen images for hours, but in the interest of time, I will simply describe the view as “captivating.”

Mostly, Star Wars: The Force Awakens does honor to a series that deserves it. The elements one would most expect to be present are there. We have heroes and villains, some painted clearly in black and white, and of course one character who appears in a very obvious gray. Plot twists, shocking discoveries about some of the characters, and an enormous amount of action are of course brightly and properly portrayed. While there are some inconsistencies in the development of the characters (perhaps affected by the single movie assignment of J.J. Abrams as director – was he in a hurry to get to the point?) the movie does what a Star Wars movie should: Capture the viewer in an ever dangerous, never truly clear world of The Force.

5 Things I love about Star Wars: The Force Awakens

1.) I thought John Boyega was brilliant in his role as Finn, a convert to the cause/comic relief rebel. He had most of the funniest lines in the movie, and his delivery was spot on. Instead of distracting the way Jar Jar Binks was, Finn makes you laugh without taking all of the attention away from the fact that there’s a moving playing in front of you.

2.) Similarly, I found Daisy Ridley to be a revelation as Rey. The actress skillfully portrays the latest “rebel princess” of the Star Wars Saga with a range surprising when you consider her youth. Clearly, she has star power, beauty, and most importantly, serious acting chops.

3.) In more than 40 years of watching movies, I found the videography in “Awakens” to be stunning and practically perfect. If you love visually beautiful films, the images alone are worth the price of admission. Everything from the expansive vistas of the various planets to the incredible detail of the vehicles is truly eye-poppingly good. Grab the Blu-Ray and watch it on a high-quality HDTV. You won’t be disappointed in the way this film looks.

4.) Chewbacca is back. Enough said about that.

5.) Without diminishing the incredible love fans have for R2-D2, I must say that BB-8 was more than a welcome addition to the history of amazingly “human” droids in the series. Only Star Wars can make a machine “adorable” and they did it again with the new “assistant” robot. The “new guy” comes off as cute, and somehow heroic as he plays a vital part in the cause to save the world from the “Dark Side.”

5 Things I Loved Less

1.) Hammy dialogue and slightly over portrayed characters have always been part of this series. Having said that, I found that Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher seemed to be trying too hard. Perhaps overshadowed by the new blood on set, the pair seemed to be trying too hard to make the move from young and idealistic (or in Han’s case already cynical) to wise and truly dedicated to the cause. Or maybe it was just more fun to watch when I was younger.

2.) Kylo Ren. I’m not sure if it’s the portrayal by Adam Driver or the development of the character by the writers, but this “dark prince” seems too unwilling too soon, and comes off as more schizophrenic than conflicted. In perhaps the biggest flaw in the film, he leaves us rather uninterested in his choice. As Star Wars “bad guys” go, I found him to be rather uninteresting, a cardinal sin in a series that thrives on villains bent on spreading pure, unadulterated evil.

3.) Rey seems to learn too quickly what it required the vaunted Luke Skywalker much longer to become a powerful Jedi. Though this is probably a method to produce a “savior-like” heroine quickly, in my opinion, it was rather incredible that she learned so quickly what Luke took 2.5 films to master. She kicks serious butt while wielding a lightsaber, showing that it’s not so difficult to be the greatest fighter for the cause of “light” without too much actually instruction. Or at least so it appeared.

4.) Poe Dameron is the standard, cookie-cutter type “regular army” guy in the film. As such, his lines are droll, predictable, and in my opinion at times so annoyingly glib that I ceased carrying about his character by the time the Stormtropper turncoat Finn hopped a ride with him. This was the casting call type choice that seemed to choose handsome (Oscar Isaac) over substantive. Though this choice was likely to have been intentional, for me it appeared to be responsible for a fighter pilot that should have been a bit deeper and more interesting.

5.) Many fans have vocally decried the use of very similar plot elements in the film. There’s a gigantic, seemingly invincible warship menacing the very existence of the world. Pilots, part of a rebellion, are charged with destroying it. The task is daunting, but they fight on against seemingly impossible odds…Yes, it’s been done before, and in this same series, of course. Is it laziness or fear of moving too far away from the most successful plot elements of the series? Though this and other like scenarios do seem familiar, I’m conflicted about whether to call it “lazy.” Let’s just say the The Force Awakens succeeded in spite of some copying from itself.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a flawed, yet worthy, more modern successor to the previous VI films in the saga. Once concerned about Disney’s effect on the series, I’m considerably more optimistic about the future of Star Wars. “Awakens”, like the others, is at times flawed, but still often engaging, and in a few moments enthralling. It carries on the legacy of this incredibly loved story skillfully, and in my opinion is worth watching if you’re a fan of Science Fiction, and even if, like me, you just love a good story.