Friday, 18 December 2015

Review: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

The short and non-spoiler version: I liked it and I had fun with it. The characters are great. Daisy Ridley (Rey) is brilliant in the film; I didn't quite take to her when she was introduced but she grew on me hugely as it went on. John Boyega (Finn) is also really good and seeing Han and Chewie again (you know who plays them) is brilliant. Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) is also excellent and conveys the anxieties of his character very well. The visuals are stunning, but kept safely in the background (correcting an error of the prequels). Broadly I agree with a lot of what John Scalzi says in his review.

But I also find myself uncertain about it, which is indicated by the word 'like' I suppose. I found it to be a bit underwhelming. Below the fold is a fuller review - which I will try and keep spoiler free, but there are a bit more plot details so the especially spoiler panicky (of which I count myself) should avoid.

I come to this from a different terrain to a lot of people. Namely I don't hate the prequels. They're not as bad as is claimed, but they're nowhere near as good as they could be. But I can see what Lucas was trying to do with it (another post on that in the future perhaps). I also don't think the original trilogy is as brilliant as is claimed. The Empire Strikes Back is amazing, but A New Hope isn't quite there on repeat viewings and Return of the Jedi has its problems (though I think it's better than A New Hope).

The good stuff I mention above is really all there. The acting is great; the dialogue is smooth and everybody is interesting. You care about them as characters, not just as things advancing the story. The lightsaber battle is particularly good. It feels real and weighted, in contrast to the prequels where it could often feel a bit light and more like a ballet. The locals are all interesting visually and Abrams does a good job of directing things. Some of the shots and action in it is quite audacious, particularly the tracking of the X-Wings and Tie Fighters in some of the battles. The diversity of the cast is also worth noting, but its also worth noting how it's just taken as read. The moments of humour are genuinely funny. Chewbacca, in this, in particular is a revelation. Considering how, on re-viewing the originals he actually feels underused, in this his interplay with Han is really good and leads to some real laugh out loud moments. (There's a running gag about his weapon that is really well done.)

Kylo Ren I think is great and makes for a very interesting villain for the universe. His backstory is teased out, with some details left out, but it makes him interesting. It makes his like of Vader particularly so as a character in the way that he tries to imitate him so much and yet falls so short. His acts of rage when crew tell him bad things, for example, are not the quietly threatening moments that made Vader and his presence so terrifying but are petulant tantrums that indicates him very clearly as someone struggling with himself and failing to match what he sees as an ideal. It's those kinds of subtle failures that show the mask he wears to be more of a facade that he uses to hide an inner turmoil and doubt.

And yet... something about it just feels underwhelming and not quite there...

I think I have two main problems with this. The first is that it is, in some senses, a remake of A New Hope, but not as good. The story, in other words, just doesn't quite hold up. There are far too many unanswered questions with it and far too many 'world-building' questions that are not done. Why, for example, are the First Order so powerful? Why are the Republic not doing anything about them and instead are having a Resistance movement that fights them? This is distracting, to me, because it feels like they're trying to nod to the fans too much, or are just trying to differentiate from the now defunct Expanded Universe too much. And I get that this is the first in a planned trilogy, with undoubtedly many more side films planned that will run concurrently and explain things. But this then ties into my chiefest problem with it.

It just doesn't feel like a complete film.

I mean it stands together very well, but there's just so many questions here and there and they're not really addressed at any level. I mean most of the plot work I can guess, for the future films (I think I already know who Rey is and what the dynamic between her and Kylo is going to be). But it feels like there's a lot that's not being addressed. It almost feels like that feeling you get with DLC in games - here's a bit of the story, but you're going to have to wait to see the rest of it. There's a lot that's unaddressed and a lot that's left hanging.

I mean, I shouldn't really be watching the big climatic battle and thinking 'this is a pretty good Act Two, but I dunno where they're going to be able to go for Act Three'.

In part this is the structure problem of cleaving to A New Hope a bit too much. I can pretty much see what's going to be happening as it goes along. Consequently what should be the big emotional moment just doesn't have the punch it should because I could see it coming a mile and a half off. And the threat of the new 'Death Star' just doesn't feel quite there, because there's not enough of a build of menace for it and that's a call back problem as well. It's like in comic books, or TV shows, when a recurring villain gets used too often; it doesn't matter how much their new incarnation is bigged up as being 'a huge monstrous threat that's trebled in power' it doesn't carry the same threat because it's been beaten so often before that you know what's going to happen.

So that's me with it then. I like it. It's funny (and actual proper funny, not the Dad jokes that characterized much of the prequel attempts). The characters and the focus on them is good, the acting is consistently excellent, the lightsaber duel is suitably intense, the greater diversity (and the lack of attention to it) is welcomed and I am curious to see where it all goes. But, unfortunately, my misgivings about the other aspects of it leave me feeling undecided on it and a bit underwhelmed. Perhaps on another viewing, potentially freed from expectations of what it would be, it'll improve. But this is where my first impressions are at.

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