This first film review could well prove a controversial one. Much has been made of the refreshing differences between ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ and the rest of the saga, from John Boyega’s hapless but likeable hero, to Daisy Ridley’s strong female lead, and an intriguingly conflicted villain. While all of these accolades are certainly valid, good components don’t always make for a good film, and, for this reviewer, ‘The Force Awakens’ is distinctly underwhelming.
I’ll admit to a slight degree of bias to begin with. I was disappointed by Disney’s decision to completely jettison the Expanded Universe prior to filming TFA. While the EU’s overall quality is certainly mixed, I had enjoyed many of the expanded novels, in particular the magnificent Thrawn Trilogy, which many fans had regarded as the series’ honorary Episodes VII, VIII and IX, long before J.J. Abrams’ vision. But I had ultimately decided to put this disappointment to one side, won over by curiosity if nothing else, and to judge the film on its own merits, perhaps holding out some small hope that Abrams would pull a ‘Star Trek’-style plot device out of the bag and allow for the novels to still be canon in some sort of parallel reality. Alas, no such luck.
But, even taken on its own, ‘The Force Awakens’ just doesn’t feel like ‘Star Wars’. The movie does get off to a good start, to give it its fair dues, with the eerie Star Destroyer shadow opening shot and night raid on Jakku providing a rich atmosphere, and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron quickly emerging as one of the film’s best assets. But this momentum sadly isn’t sustained. While Kylo Ren’s early deflection of the blaster bolt is a cool new take on Dark Side Force power, the decision to keep him in his mask until late in the film feels like a misstep: he’s simply not an interesting enough antagonist behind it, coming across as a poor Vader imitation until the moment we actually get to see Adam Driver on screen. Likewise, Domhnall Gleeson is short-changed in the villain stakes, save for one energetic speech late on, while the less said about Gwendoline Christie’s screen time, the better.
Meanwhile, on Jakku, while Daisy Ridley does her best to put in a strong performance as Rey, the plot drags too heavily for too long for us to be truly engaged by her story, with too many bartering-at-the-market scenes and walking across the desert to spectacular sunsets. The whole thing feels like a less-interesting retread of Episode IV, the story beats almost identical, but more drawn out. It’s admittedly nice to see Harrison Ford’s Han Solo again once he and Chewbacca enter the fray, and the old smuggler’s bond with Rey is nicely done, but again, the film drags, with the sequence on Takodana going on for far too long.
Carrie Fisher’s return as Leia is little more than a cameo, and as cute as BB-8 is, this reviewer would much rather have seen more of the old Threepio/Artoo dynamic than the one scene we are given. Elsewhere, the sequence in which several planets are destroyed by Starkiller Base is treated as almost throwaway, lacking the resonance of the destruction of Alderaan in the original. As events come together for the finale, the traditional space battle proves underwhelming, with Isaac’s Poe Dameron absent from the story for too long for us to properly remember why we care about him.
To imply, however, that the film is a disaster would be to do it a disservice. It isn’t, and several elements are impressive enough to save it from the brink. As suggested before, Driver’s Kylo Ren becomes an interesting antagonist once the mask is off, and his pursuit of Rey through the forest is suitably sinister. The final confrontation with Han on the gangway glues the eye to the screen, and the denouement is a genuinely startling moment, even if one character’s ‘death’ does scream ‘sci-fi resurrectable’. The moment Rey catches the lightsaber is brilliantly badass, and it’s wonderful to finally see a female Force user in action. The friendship between Poe and Finn begins cheesily but ultimately turns into an enjoyable dynamic, while Andy Serkis’ questionably-named Supreme Leader Snoke proves intriguing. This reviewer, for one, hopes that one popular fan theory doing the rounds about his identity turns out to be correct- it would tie the films together in a great way.
Alas, the film finishes on another dud note, and perhaps it’s my Irish background, but the final encounter with Luke on Ahch-To is so clearly Skellig Michael that no amount of CGI-ed Millennium Falcon sitting on the rocks can convince me that this is the world of ‘Star Wars’- say what you like about the prequels, but at least they always felt like they took place in a different galaxy.
This reviewer’s lasting impression is that ‘The Force Awakens’ feels cobbled together. The fact that three different writers, Abrams, Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan, are credited with the script may help to explain the patchwork feel, and in this regard the movie is perhaps best judged as a writing failure rather than any fault of the actors who, by and large, are excellent (though it’s deeply disappointing to find the movie contains John Williams’ least-impressive score of the series).
I’ll still go to see Episode VIII. Curiosity alone will guarantee that. I’ve been used to disappointment with the saga before, as ‘Revenge of the Sith’ was released just as I was becoming old enough to judge the films objectively beyond the excited eyes of a child or young teenager, and I’m sure few fans need convincing of that movie’s flaws (Darth Vader being TRICKED into turning to the Dark Side, anyone?). So I know from experience that one or two dud movies don’t necessarily ruin the saga as a whole. But, for this reviewer, the next film will need to up its game considerably, and not, first and foremost, despite the legendary status of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, simply feel like a retread of that movie.
An underwhelming addition to the ‘Star Wars’ saga, rescued by some genuinely innovative elements.