SPOILER-FILLED MOVIE REVIEW: “Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens” (2015)

There’s a line in “Airplane II: The Sequel,” where Julie Haggerty says, “I have the stragest feeling that we’ve done this exact same thing before.” I had that feeling a lot during this film. While this move was touted as a kind of spiritual rebirth of the Star Wars saga, in fact it war more or a remake of the original 1977 film. Seeing as the last time we saw Luke, Han, and Lea 32 years ago was also a sort of half-hearted semi-remake of the 1977 film, I have to say I was pretty disappointed.

Lets run the checklist, shall we? Things “Episode 4” has in common with “Episode 7:”

– Opening firefight in which stormtroomers make quick work of the good guys: Check.

– Black suited uber-bad-guy introduced marching through stormtroopers: Check

– Cute robot with information vital to the good guys sent wandering off through the desert to find help: Check

– Desert planet: Check

– 20-ish protagonist living a meneial existence in the desert without parents, who years for something more: Check

– Millenium Falcon: Check

– Millenium Falcon caled a piece of junk: Check

– Millenium Falcon taking off in a hurry under fire from the desert planet: Check

– Millenium Falcon using it’s turrets to take out TIE fighters: Check

– Old Guy long past his hero days functions as mentor/father figure to protagonist: Check

– Old Guy is killed by black-suited bad guy: Check

– A Cantina scene: Check

– A Cantina band playing out-of-place music (In this case, reggae): Check.

– Another protagonist who decides to bow out of the action, but then gets shamed back in to it: Check

– ANOTHER GODDAMNED DEATH STAR: Check. Dammit.

– A planet gets destroyed by the death star: Check.

– An Imperial general who’s somewhat at odds with the Black Suited Bad Guy: Check.

– A rag-tag rebellion: Check.

– A fighter battle to take out the death star, including fighting in a trench: Check.

– X-Wings, X-Wings, X-Wings: Check.

– Protagonist who begins to learn the ways of the force over the course of the movie: Check

– Light Saber duels: Check.

– Short goofy-looking alien with personal boundary issues espouces wisdom: Check.

– “This light saber belonged to your father:” Check.

– Awesome B-list 1960s actor in a small role: Check.

– Interrogations of the good guys by the bad: Check.

– Trash chute and/or compactor: Check (Though off-screen)

– Bad guys defeated: Check.

– Rebel base on a jungle-ish world: Check.

– “Death star is 15 minutes from firing:” Check.

– “I’ve got a bad feeling about this:” Check.

– Damn C3P0 being annoying: Check.

– Dishonest fat alien thing evidently runs desert planet or at least the chunk of it we see: Check.

– Running around inside, trying to escape from and/or sabotage an Imperial base: Check.

Honestly the list goes on and on and on and on. I don’t need to stop there, but I’m sure you get my point: This film was like a remixed version of Episode IV. There are also nods to the other two films, and one or two passive-aggressive stabs at the prequel trilogy.

Disappointing.

Now, don’t get me wrong: not all of those things are bad. Despite finding the film to be a bit of a let down, there was some cool stuff in it, and I am glad I saw it, and I’m super-glad I saw it on the big screen. There is a lot to like here, burried underneath the fan service.

Every single shot involving the Millenium Falcon provides a lifetime of badassery. It really is the sexiest, coolest hunk-o-junk in film, and it really gets put through its paces here. I also like that it’s still showing signs of repairs made resulting from damage in Return of the Jedi.

I liked the bad guy. The trailers deliberately caused a subtle fake-out among the fans. We all thought “Oh, it must be Luke! Luke’s gone bad!” This is still plausible until about halfway through the movie. Even the dialog is pretty straight forward, it comes across as fairly ambiguous until the big reveal.

His backstory (What we discover of it) is interesting and tragic, and his onetime status as the great hope of the New Republic in to essentially a Vader-wannabe is interesting, and mercifully unseen. As to the wannabe-stuff, that’s not me being insulting: The openly state that he’s got serious inferiority issues regarding Vader’s legacy.

He’s also rather polite and engaging and talks a lot. Whereas Vader was imposing and silent and overpowering, this guy is more thoughtful, more introspective, and a fair deal chattier. He also lacks Vader’s self control. The most impressive part of him, though, is that while Vader was steadfastly evil, and grows more conflicted over the course of the orige-trige (Yes, I’m calling it that from now on. Yes, I stole it from Cracked.com. Deal with it), our new bad guy starts out conflicted, but becomes more resolutely evil as the film progresses.

I like that Han and Lea didn’t have a happily-ever-after life. They’re old, they have a deep personal tragedy in their lives, split up, and kept going. Solo “Went back to the only thing he was ever any good at,” and Lea finally has a job. (Seriously: Why was she not running the rebellion in Return of the Jedi? She’s pretty much added baggage in that film, contributing nothing of any real note). While I’d rather have had Luke go evil (Which was something the Orige-Trige hinted at), him just having the heart beat out of him, abandoning everything, and leaving was a nice way to go. The new bad guy had a much more personal connection to The Big Three and his defection devestated all of them.

When the Black Suited Bad Guy is called by his real name – “Ben” – it’s a surprisingly “Oooh!” moment on several levels.

The Supreme Leader is an interesting new big bad. More questions than answers, but he’s already more interesting than the Emperor ever was. Less imposing, more interesting. Much the same as the new Black Suited Bad Guy, actually.

The new male lead, “Finn,” is actually a pretty fantastic character, too: he’s got a tragic backstory, being taken from his family and raised as a killing machine. He’s a coward, however, and deserts. He’s pretty much a coward through the first half of the film, just playing along to get away, but he’s continually forced – against his will – to man up. Finally, in the end, he is actually a hero…and immediately gets curbstomped. He’s charismatic, likeable, fairly smart, quick to adapt, a little desparate, and very unsure of himself. I liked the hell out of him. Also, the actor – British – does a great American accent.

“Ray,” the new female protagonist fills the “Plucky Girl” role nicely. Her backstory is considerably more ambiguous, but I presume she’s Luke’s long-lost daughter, given how quickly she develops her powers, and “Ben’s” quick and surprising concern when he learns there’s this mysterious girl running around. If so, a face-off between her and her cousin in the subsequent movies is a good storytelling choice. Her trippy flashback/flash forward scene when she first touches the lightsaber are very cool.

The battle where she’s captured is wonderfully higgaldy-piggaldy, well shot, and probably the best battle sequence in the entire franchise.

There were endless scenes of spacecraft flying low and fast over the water, and I ain’t complaining. All that was cool.

I liked the big stormtrooper “Seig Heil” scene.

The last scene, while perhaps as not as poignient as it they thought it was, was still pretty good.

Blowing up Coruscant? Pretty damn cool. “Take that, prequels!”

And of course, best of all: This is the first Star Wars film to have the correct number at the beginning.

On the other hand, there’s a good dal of stuff I didn’t like, or which didn’t make any sense.

First and foremost: I don’t like this “First Order” stuff. I get that there were still factions loyal to the Empire, and I get that some of them would obviously attempt to sieze power, but think about it: it’s been 32 years since the emperor died. That’s more time than the Empire itself even existed. It’s more likely the remaining forces would have simply gone pirate, or struck a deal by this point. What bugs me, though, is that of the various foes one could have chosen, this is about the least interesting one. In essence we’ve got the same exact conflict as in the Orige Trige: Imperials versus Rebels. Yawn.

Why did they do this? Because what Lucas never seems to have understood is that what fans want more than anything else is X-wings versus TIE fighters. And this is the excuse: Yawn.

And what’s the deal with the resistance? The Resistance is fighting the First Order, and they’re supported by The Republic, but evidently they’re not part of the Republic Military? What’s that all about? And why are they so ramshackle? Why wouldn’t the Republic’s own armed forces (Perhaps led by General Organia) be leading the conflict? That made no sense.

Normally I don’t say “How I’d have done it” in my reviews, but it struck me that a much cleaner, less convoluted narrative way to do it would be to have Lea in charge of the groups that root out loyalists like the First Order, and fight/contain/destroy them. She leads a group to attack the new death star (Excuse me: Starkiller) and then Coruscant gets destroyd and – “Oh my God, the government’s gone, the New Republic is destroyed, and we’re the only ones left!” – which would ratchet the tension up nicely. It goes from being just another mission to, “Oh crap!” very quickly.

The destruction of Coruscant probably should have gotten more chatter than it did. We don’t even get anyone freaking out. “Oh my God, the government and economy of the galaxy have just collapsed” or “Coruscant has been the capital of the galaxy since before humans even existed!” That kind of thing. Think about how freaked out we were when 9/11 happened. Now think how freaked out we’d be if it had been DC getting nuked instead. We should get some feel of that here.

Despite being the co-lead of the film and heir apparent to Luke, Ray doesn’t make much of an impression. She’s a serviceable lead, but she’s more defined by what she does than who she is. Likewise, “Bo,” the hotshot fighter pilot doesn’t make much of an impression. As these guys are apparently the central trio for this trilogy, I found that a little disappointing. Or maybe it’s just because they can’t keep up with Han and the much-better Finn hogging the spotlight.

How is it that “First Order” technology seems to have progressed – at least some – in the intervening generation, but the good guys are still using crap from the Rebellion? I mean, that stuff was supposed to be old already, back then. I know, I know, I know: Because we want to see X-wings versus TIE fighters, but a one-line explanation would have been nice.

Why wasn’t Lando in this film? We get every surviving character from the first film, plus Admiral Ackbar and Lando’s copilot from Jedi, so why not him? My prediction is that he’ll turn up in the second film because he turned up in the second film of the Orige-Trige as well. And is Wedge here? Probably he’s in one of the Rebel Base scenes, and I just didn’t notice him.

It was a sin to put Max Von Sydow in this movie, and then kill him off after three minutes of screen time. Seriously: What’s that all about?

Death Star 3 – “Starkiller” – seems to have a serious design flaw in that it eats a star to shoot. Since it’s a planet and not a space ship or space station, it can’t move to a new star. So they spent twenty years building a weapon that only has one or two shots, and then is useless?

Soooooo…Luke is Yoda now? That seems to be what they were setting it up as for the next film.

I was disappointed by the music as well. The original Star Wars music is honestly one of the high points of post-WW2 American cinema. It is just a fracking awesome score. Three awesome scores, really, all in the leitmotiff style, with lots of character and action themes, all overlapping and interplaying off of each other nicely. The Prequels weren’t as good. There was a deliberate choice to make the music less “bright” than in the orige-trige. As they’re all about the corruption of Anikin and the fall of civilization, that makes sense, and probably would have workd better if the movies hadn’t been seven-and-a-half hours of suckitude. However at least they had the “Duel of the Fates” theme, and that was pretty awesome.

In this film, it’s just not terribly inspired. We get the main theme, of course, and a slightly different arrangement of it over the closing credits, but apart from a few bars of the Imperial Death March, we don’t get any of the old stuff. No Lea’s theme, no Lea-and-Han theme, no Luke’s theme, not even some kind of ‘Duel of the Fates’ variation (Which would have been appropriate in a couple scenes). Instead the new film features…nothing. There’s no noteworthy personal themes, no cool imposing First Order theme to rival the “Dah-dah-dah” of the Empire. While it is still in the leitmotiff style, we have a bunch of non-entity musical pieces bouncing off of each other, and it doesn’t really do anything. We barely notice it.

Look, I know the current theory is that movie music isn’t supposed to draw attention to itself, but, pardon my French: Fuck that noise. This isn’t a cinematic adaptation of Barteleby The Scrivener here. This isn’t “Marie Curie Dies Of Cancer In The Name Of Science.” This isn’t freakin’ “Paris, Texas” where you can get away with Ry Cooder just noodling away on his guitar without accompanyment for two hours. This is Star Wars, dammit! The entire thing exists to be over-the-top and bombastic and awe-inspiring! This isn’t a tortured psychodrama, this is Flash Gordon! This is Buck Rogers! I’ll say it again: This is Star Wars! Go big, Mr. Williams, or just don’t bother coming out of retirement to do the next one.

That probably sounds disrespectful. It’s not really intended that way. He’s victim to the strictures of the times, and he’s also like 106 years old, so, you know, he might just have run out of music before he ran out of life, but this has always been one of the things I’ve looked forward to, and this is the first time he’s really disappointed me.

Finally we come to my biggest beef: This is not a very clean narrative. In storytelling terms it’s a bit of a jumble. Let me explain that:

In Star Wars, we start in the middle of the action, then spent a half hour following the droids around before we meet hero, we don’t get off the planet until the one hour mark, the third half hour is all about escaping from the death star, and the final half hour is the battle to destroy it. Very clean, very straightforward.

In Empire, we start off in the middle of the action, and Luke gets separated. He meets Yoda and trains, while Han and company do a very bad job of fleeing. They meet up at the end, and the good guys lose. It’s a more ambitious narrative, but it’s still a very clean one: together at the start, separate, contrasting adventures in the middle, meet up at the end. We meet a couple new friends along the way, expanding the cast, Han becomes a hero in his own right, and (Most impressively) structurally it’s basically a movie in reverse. Best of the bunch.

Then you get Jedi: it’s kind of a mess. We get 30 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, followed by an unrelated, uninspired 90-minute remake of the first film where the movie ping-pongs between trivial, time-wasting shenanegins on Endor, and Luke’s audience with the Emperor. (The latter being the only part of the film that really works.) We have a big naval battle at the end which is pretty cool. The we’ve got the clumsily-shoehorned “Let’s kill Yoda for no damn reason” and “Luke and Lea are siblings, no, seriously, no foolin’!” thing, all because Lucas didn’t have another single damn idea in his head, and was exhausted, and just wanted done with the whole series.

The prequels were just a huge jumble. I won’t even attempt to boil any of them down. I’ll just say that there’s lot of running around back and forth for no real good reason, and none of it makes any sense.

This movie, sadly, follows the tradition of having a lot of running around to no great purpose. Desert planet to lush planet to Rebel Base Planet (Which looks mostly the same as Lush planet) to Death Star Planet, to Luke’s Planet Scotland, with some other crap on the side. We don’t need a travelog. We need a more focused story. Again: I seldom suggest changes, but why is there even a rebel base planet? Why isn’t Lea based out of Coruscant? That certainly would have more impact when it’s destroyed later on.

It’s also a little unclear who the hero is. The Orige-Trige is Luke’s story. All the other characters support him. I’m not really sure who the main character of the prequels is (Which is one of its many, many failings). In this one, I’m not sure. Is it Ray? Is it Fin? Is it Han?

I was ten when I saw Star Wars with my dad for the first time. Both of us were blown away. We went to Steak and Shake for lunch afterwards and talked endlessly about the film, and that conversation was the first time I ever heard the word “Sequel.” It was a great memory.

So now I’m 48 and I saw this one with my kid. We went to Steak and Shake for lunch afterwards, and, well, we really didn’t have much to talk about.

The End

2 thoughts on “SPOILER-FILLED MOVIE REVIEW: “Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens” (2015)

  1. I broadly agree with what you have to say, but I don’t agree with the overall tone. A few points:

    Luke lives on Planet Ireland. That is totally Ireland.

    The Starkiller base must be able to move, even though it’s a planet. Maybe they have an Outsider drive or something, because, as you say, it would be a very expensive one shot weapon… unless they disassemble the whole thing and move it to another planet who’s sun they don’t care about.

    There is a bit of a continuity error in the film… the first time they fire the weapon, it is daylight.

    Overall, I liked the film. I don’t really understand the “it’s too much like A New Hope” criticism. I mean, it’s been 30 years. You don’t get folks saying “I don’t like West Side Story, it’s just like Romeo and Juliet.”

    Except for me, perhaps. But that is because I hate both of them.

    The film works. It is like A New Hope but different enough so I don’t think that is a problem. It has characters instead of cardboard cut-outs, which is incredibly important and the biggest failure of the prequels. It treats the old cast and characters lovingly and with respect, and gives them important things to do… basically, it’s everything Star Trek Into Darkness wasn’t… To quote Nick Meyer…

    ” Well, you have to be flattered that somebody wants to sort of try and make your movie again. But the difference is between a rip-off and an homage is that you are supposed to add something.”

    This film is no rip-off, it’s a homage, and a successful one as it adds a great deal…

    1. Well, as I’ve repeatedly said, I don’t think it’s a bad movie. I’ve just seen it all before. The characters were, indeed, much better, and I really wouldn’t have felt gypped if Han hadn’t shown up and stole the show. That speaks highly of the newbies. I just feel like they needed to get this out of their system so we can go on to the “Real” stuff in the next film. They basically had ONE shot to redeem themselves after 35 years of shittyness. They took it. They hit, though it was a conservative shot.

      Thanks for posting, BTW!

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