* (1 star)
d – JJ Abrams
w – Lawrence Kasdan, JJ Abrams, Michael Arndt (Based on the Characters Created by George Lucas)
ph – Dan Mindel
pd – Rick Carter, Darren Gilford
m – John Williams
ed – Maryann Brandon, Mary Jo Markey
cos – Michael Kaplan
p – JJ Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, Bryan Burk
Cast: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Max von Sydow, Kenny Baker, Gwendoline Christie
It feels strange calling Star Wars: The Force Awakens a movie. As of the day I write this, it postures as a gargantuan event. Walking into the cinema was one of those experiences when you look around, see the various kinds of characters inhabiting it, and wonder how potent their lives are; what was the path they took that lead them here, all in the same place? But as with all movies that posture, they are beholden to the parameters of time – time being the ultimate film critic – and once all the hysteria and adrenaline dissipates, and the rumours and spoilers and reviews (especially this one) are all forgotten, all we’ll be left with is the movie itself.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a pretty ridiculous movie, and the ridiculousness it exhibits is somehow both intriguing and limiting. We all know the story of how it came to be – the product of The Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of both the property itself and Lucasfilm Ltd in 2012 – and this chapter is the first of three new movies we’ll be getting over the course of the next 5 years. This first instalment is directed by JJ Abrams, who is a self-proclaimed giant Star Wars fan. Which brings me to the problem…
My experience of watching this film was a frustrating one. For the purposes of this review, I will not try to explain the mythology of the Star Wars universe for those unfamiliar, since you can easily gain such information elsewhere. Suffice it to say that, like millions of people, I have been a devotee to the universe since early childhood. My parents could tell you stories. And like most, I was disappointed in the prequel trilogy that George Lucas administered at the turn of the 21st century, chronicled here.
But a film is a film, and it should stand as an artwork all on its own, despite whatever baggage an audience member brings to it. Mr Abrams has drowned every frame of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in nostalgia that it’s suffocating. Everything is strategically placed to make the audience applaud in sneakily knowing ecstasy, like an audience watching a Shakespeare play feeling they need to alert the world every time they recognize an Elizabethan reference.
A character refers to the Millennium Falcon as garbage, a storm trooper demonstrates his best Wilhelm Scream, Han laments the fact that he has a “bad feeling about this”, the force is used to make the enemy comically defy his orders, Leia looks directly into the camera and yearns for the force to be with us. And those are just the verbal references. A star destroyer here, an AT-AT Walker there. Nearly every scene contains some signifier, which would be fine if any of these signifiers carried any thematic purpose whatsoever.
Because the plot is barebones, Mr Abrams reveals that these signifiers were what he was more interested in basking in. Therefore, any emotional or cognitive reaction stems not from anything that is actually happening but from what has already happened. This is particularly bothersome during a death that takes place about 90 minutes in, in which Mr Abrams makes no attempt to provide an emotional context as to why it has happened or what the offending party feels will be accomplished by it. We only react out of shock-value because we have a previous relationship with the character. This is unacceptable behavior on Mr Abrams part, especially since he did the same thing with his last film Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), which was essentially a beat for beat riff on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982).
Finding no satisfaction in the film’s story, I turned to the action sequences, which, I’m afraid, are also lacking in unity. Ships crash, lasers are fired, but none of it is staged with much dynamism. I will give credit to Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey for giving some shape to the proceedings. The film concludes with a lightsaber battle encompassing a party of three that is so dull and murkily shot that it will be forgotten tomorrow. For these battles, Mr Abrams mostly relies of John Williams’ music to carry any kind of heft, which again, only signifies what we have already felt in other films.
In regard to the performances, the MVPs are Oscar Isaac, who plays Poe Dameron, General Leia’s best pilot, and Lupita Nyong'o, who plays Maz Kanata, a pirate and bar owner who helps our heroes on their quest. The heroes themselves are Finn, played by John Boyega and Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. Both Mr Boyega and Ms Ridley are a wash; he overacts, she lapses into sentimentality. Mr Ford, Mr Hamil, Mr Mayhew and Ms Fisher do what they’ve always done and nothing more.
There are alluring components here that work well. Finn, Rey and Kylo Ren (the villain of the piece, played by Adam Driver) all have interesting backstories that I hope will be better developed in the succeeding films. The best character in the film, however, is BB-8, Poe’s droid and a steady source of humour. Mr Abrams wisely uses practical effects to establish BB-8’s personality; actually, he uses practical effects throughout.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the most critic-proof movie made to date. Audiences around the world are going to lap up what Mr Abrams gives them here because unfortunately, due the current cultural climate, nostalgia is really all what people want. But again, with time as the eventual decider, once all the excitement dies away, the movie will reveal itself as a rather ordinary piece of sci-fi cinema.
I didn’t feel Star Wars: The Force Awakens was as egregious as any of the Lucas prequels, all of which had an apprehensive lack of wonder, not exhibited here. I only wish that, when graced with the opportunity to make the next Star Wars, Mr Abrams had tried to make a movie, instead just a Star Wars movie.