What can be said of The Force Awakens? Obviously it is one of the most anticipated movies of the year if not the decade, but I think that the excitement has been tempered for most fans, myself included. Despite the fact that the weight of the entire Disney movie making machine lay behind this movie, doubts lingered in my mind. Of course I knew the movie would be made competently, the machine that stamped out the Marvel franchise doesn’t create flawed products. But what worried me most going into the film was that the machine had worked all too well. That the film would be well built, but that it would lack that something extra, that same something that is clearly present in the original trilogy yet is somehow undefinable. I feared a soulless product as opposed to a film with heart, or worse a simple action plot lacking in substance. Fortunately my fears were allayed.
The Force Awakens is a well crafted film with excellent sound design, cinematography, and a refined script, while also taking some risks with creative decisions that surprised me in the best way possible. In terms of visual style the film certainly resembles the original trilogy, however, does not use it as a crutch. Instead, it seems, the creators used the visual framework of the previous films and built on it, using it to remind us that we are in the same universe, but that it is a changed, evolved. I found the use of imagery from the previous installments not subtle, but rather finessed. Throughout the film are pieces of the old, scattered in the background reminding us that this is a universe built atop the one we know both thematically and within the story itself. Additionally, sound design is superb. Auditory cues for wielding the force expanded on those used previously, but were also used in unprecedented new ways. The use of sound effects to create mood and tension helped craft a believable world and trigger responses in the audience. The film took the maxim “show, not tell” to heart, a principal sorely lacking in the prequel trilogy.
The script was definitely one of the strongest elements in making Star Wars: The Force Awakens work. It was tight, polished, and seamless and provided a plot that was not overly ambitious nor simplistic. It moved along without interruption offering well spaced action sequences yet didn’t cut short subtle moments of character development. This combined with the direction of JJ Abrams resulted in a well paced movie with consistent tone yet superbly timed moments of levity. In addition character interactions felt natural and it is imminently clear who the good guys are, who bad guys are and who is motivated by what. There is no ambiguity as to what is happening in each scene. This isn’t to say there is no depth though. The amount of time devoted to developing the villain impressed me greatly. He is not simply a bad man in a mask but instead a character with depth, with motivations, and with conflict. Never before have we seen a villain like this in the Star Wars universe. The detail given to each of the protagonists is refreshing as well. Each have their own quirks and personalty traits so its fun to see them interact with one another. There are several moments that stand out in bringing Finn (John Boyega) to life with wit and idiosyncrasies, namely those involving Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). Even Chewbacca gets some extra character development that we haven’t seen before.
Despite this there are some minor qualms I have with the film and some of the decisions made. Carrie Fisher’s performance I found difficult to suspend my disbelief for. She doesn’t seem like the princess Leia we know or even like she belongs in the universe. I’m not sure if this is entirely her fault or if the writers simply weren’t sure how to develop an older Leia. Additionally, Domnal Gleeson’s performance as General Hux of the First Order is very over-the-top and “hammy”. I’m fairly certain that this was an
intentional decision by Abrams, but it didn’t vibe with me. It really contrasts with the Imperial officers of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi who are calm, collected professionals, not over zealous creeps. Those episodes gave me the feeling that the Imperial Navy was a real organization, a giant space bureaucracy, whereas the First Order officers seem more like excited kids playing bad guys than actual officers in a military organization. I also really disliked how much BB-8 was personified. It seemed completely contrary to the dynamic set up in the original Trilogy where droids are machines and characters only interact with them in a sort of gruff or ironic way. Think of when Luke first meets R2-D2 and laughs at himself as he says “hello” to a droid. Instead BB-8 is treated like a living thing with emotions. This, to me, wreaks of producers at Disney interfering with the movie making process, but I suppose I’ll never know for sure where this decision was made. There is evidence of the studio meddling elsewhere as well. For those who haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it, but the final sequence seemed out of place to me, like an addendum that would go after the final credits or the introduction of the next film even. I think I understand why they decided to include it, but it doesn’t seem justified within the story to me.
Overall though the film was great, by any standard. I even believe it has earned its place in the Star Wars saga. The writers definitely had some tough choices to make in terms of balancing old with new in the film and I believe they did the best job striking that balance that any one could reasonably expect. Of course, there will be those who think they relied too heavily on the originals, but the decisions made helped reinforce a visually and thematically consistent universe, while still bringing original ideas. I have no reservations in welcoming the characters and events into the universe I have loved since childhood. It avoided the pitfalls of the prequel trilogy and built on the successes of the originals. More importantly though, it was not merely a well made movie technically, but it had heart and depth to it. You are made to care about the characters, you want to get to know them. The viewer is emotionally invested in the events taking place on screen culminating in a truly emotional experience. It is a far cry from the dry, emotionless events of the prequel trilogy. I am thoroughly impressed and will start the count down to the next one today.