Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens Review

Spoiler-free version: go see it. It's fun!

But you'll have “refrigerator door” questions hitting you before you've left your seat.

Below, there be spoilers. And you want to see this spoiler-free. The tension through this film is part of the fun. You know people isa gonna die, but who?!?

The biggest thing I learned from Episode VII is this: I want to play cards with Daisy Ridley. That woman's face is amazing. You can see everything that's going on in her head and her heart on her face. Rey's emotional landscape is vital to this film, and she makes emoting through facial expression look easy. In the final scene, she conveys so damn much with her face dialogue would ruin it.

Boyega and Isaac, on the other hand, know they're in a freakin' Star Wars film and they're loving every minute of it. It's so much fun when they're on the screen together, and I hope we get to see a lot more of that.

The biggest thing I love about this film is the emotional heft it has. Part of that is born of fear; you know just about everyone on screen is vulnerable and very few enjoy dramatic immunity to death. And, since this is Star Wars, nobody is immune to fates-worse-than-death. The story really focuses in on those relationships we already have with the old characters. While it has echoes of the original trilogy, it has no carbon-copy characters; Rey is nothing like Luke or any of the frustrated farm boys and suburban kids he was clearly modeled on. When Rey does the “strong woman” thing we buy it, because strength and resilience are baked into her character. And that allows her to be vulnerable which allows us to invest in Rey.

Boyega's character is a bit all over the place, but that really works. You can see Finn attempting to construct himself for the first time outside the whole stormtrooper thing. Some of the warmest moments in the film are comic-relief bits between Finn and Han, and they really work in an old-man-mentoring-a-young-hot-shot way.

Anyone else get a weird vibe between Han and Rey? What was that about? There's respect there, but Han's also clearly trying to hold her at arm's length the whole time. That have something to do with her past? There were more than a few hints that he knows who she is.

Maz Kanata is awesome! She used to be a pirate? Please, give us more like that!

My biggest peeve with this movie is how small and jumbled the universe is. It's like one of those French novels where, no matter how far any of the characters travel, they keep bumping into the same people. I was half expecting to learn that Finn was Lando's son or something equally unnecessary like that.

Even worse, I know nothing about how this universe works. There doesn't appear to be an Empire anymore, but the First Order is clearly well-supplied. And yet it recruits by yanking people out of their families and raising them from infancy? That seems more than a little odd. And what exactly is the place of the First Order in this universe? They apparently have some legitimacy because the Galactic Senate can't openly defy them and must secretly support the Resistance. Is this a territorial thing? It's made to look like Takodana is in the same system as the home of the Senate and the Republic's fleet. The Republic keeps its entire fleet in a single system, in orbit around a single world? Sure, the background is probably described in the novels and whatnot, but the movie itself does very little to explain the universe, and in the end makes it feel extremely tiny. The First Order appears to have a single Star Destroyer that does next to nothing besides act as a giant taxi service for the bad guys. Both the Resistance and the First Order have only a single class of fighter these days (that will annoy the game and toy companies no end). Part of what made the original Star Wars work so well is how big and real the universe felt. The universe of episode VII feels tiny, almost cramped. It feels like it was made for TV, rather than a movie.

John Williams has also dialed it back. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the music, and when it invokes old, familiar themes, it works. When it's not doing that, it's perfectly evoking the right emotional flavor for the moment. But there's no Imperial March or Duel of Fates that you'll be humming to yourself as you leave the theater. If Finn or Rey has a theme, it didn't stick in my head.

All-in-all: fun and emotional, but cramped. Like a really good anime, it's the characters who draw you in and keep you invested. There's no thrill of exploration in this movie except for a brief breath of fresh air at Maz Kanata's place, where, ever so briefly, the galaxy feels large and sprawling and full of possibility again. The rest of the time, it's set-dressing for intimate character drama, derring-do, and thrilling action beats.


Roger G-S said...

Agree on the small universe. It feels like the first few sessions of a new campaign where you're just focusing on the adventure and throwing a few large-scale ideas in that you can use later. Everything else was great and the passing of the baton from one generation to the next was very well done. The film very much had the feel of the novels by Zahn which recombined the old elements (mega-weapons, space chases and dogfights, base infiltration, weird alien nightlife) while remaining enjoyable.

The one thing that nagged at me was that Finn seemed at first to be too casual and exuberant to have been brought up as a killing machine. When he later says he used to work sanitation it makes more sense, that he's basically a civilian contractor caught up with the bad guys, kind of continuing the philosophical discussion in Clerks. In my headcanon what would have really tied the themes together is revealing he was drafted into the Troopers because of manpower shortages - that the New Order, while dangerous, is also kind of shoestring and cut-rate compared to the Empire, linking to Ren being shown as an unhinged, hotheaded Vader wannabe.

If you like John Boyega his role in Attack the Block shows off his talent a lot better.

Nicholas Bergquist said...

Totally agree.....the scope is really off. The Sunkiller weapon when fired clearly implied (on my first viewing) that it was blowing up stuff in the same system or nearby....certainly in the same system as the planet Maz Kanata was on. On the second viewing (yeah, I have seen it twice already) I caught the dialogue in the resistance about it being an impressive hyperspace weapon....which at least implies that the weapon's firing over vast distances and maybe leaving an amazing signature visible for hundreds of light years that propogates through hyperspace. Or, I'm guessing...even the resistance fighter dude says no one knows how it works.

I was also bothered by Rei and Chewie's trip at the very end, which for dramatic purposes looked like it took exactly as long as it did on screen, suggesting the destination at the end (trying to avoid spoilers here...) was like 30 second's travel away in hyperspace. Puleeeassse! Worse than when the Millenium Falcon popped on over to Bespin with it's hypdrive out.

Pierce said...

Your review is pretty spot on. I'll say that even though Jakku might as well be Tatooine, I'm glad they at least branched out and showed us some new planets.
My only problem with the film was Fin had absolutely no hesitation killing stormtroopers. It could be explained that he knew better than anyone that the troopers wouldn't hesitate to kill him. But I thought that might have been a more interesting story. And building off that, shouldn't the rebellion have a bit more of a problem with blowing up a whole planet? Surely not everyone on that planet was evil. Leia is like "theres still good in Ben, talk to him, bring him home.", but what about everyone else? If Fin can defect, and there is hope for their Sith leader, shouldn't they have at least tried a little diplomacy? Fin could have tapped into the speakers and been like "I used to be like you, come on guys, this is wrong, join the rebellion, stop the super weapon!". But otherwise I was thrilled with the movie. It really hit all the right notes.

Sean Robert Meaney said...

Wasn't cloud city and the gas giant bespin in the same starsystem as hoth?

JB said...

Just saw the film this evening, but promised my child I wouldn't do any writing on the laptop this weekend (I'm on my phone at the moment), so my review will have to wait. Just want to say my wife, too (who is not a SW fan and who, after seeing this film
Is, for the first time ever, totally excited by the franchise), felt it was cramped or rather that it "went to fast." She says it's the first time she's seen a film that she wishes was LONGER because the pacing was so frantic through the last half/two-thirds it made the development between the characters "unrealistic." And because, like me, she just would've preferred more of such excellent cinematic fare.
; )

trollsmyth said...

Roger G-S: Attack the Block's been on my list for a while. Clearly, I need to see it sooner.

Nicholas Bergquist: I'm thinking this is very much a JJ Abrams sort of thing, as I recall having similar issues in his Star Trek. He just doesn't seem to get how big space is. He did a decent job here, but I fear his on personal ticks don't jive well with Star Wars long-term, and I'm not disappointed to see he's not going to be directing VIII.

trollsmyth said...

Pierce: Yes! I was very shocked Finn didn't have more issues shooting and killing stormtroopers. Granted, he's terrified of the First Order, and knows what will happen to him if he does anything less. But still, yeah, I was expecting something about that to pop up.

Meaney: You'd think so, but they're pretty vague about all of that. :/

JB: Glad to hear it made her a fan, at least. Yeah, here's hoping for something not quite so dependent on the action beat for VIII.

E.G.Palmer said...

My question is, what do you do with a planet sized weapon that uses up it's sun/energy source in two shots? It can never be fired again, and you can't move it.

Bushi said...

Well-written review! I agree with your comments on the smallness and vagueness of the universe 100%.

Personally I liked Finn's character; the idea of a stormtrooper changing sides and joining the heroes is a nice story element. As others have pointed out, it is a little odd that he doesn't hesitate more to fight and kill his former comrades.

I have to disagree on Rey, though. Nothing against the actress, but I found the strong woman trope overdone in her case. Many other reviews have pointed this out, so I'm sure I'm just retreading here, but she was a stronger, more skilled fighter than all the men (even able to take on 3 thugs by herself), an expert pilot, a quickly skilled force user, and a more talented engineer than Han (shocked me that they made her appear more knowledgeable about the Falcon than him). She didn't display any real weaknesses, which are necessary for interesting characters.