Saturday, 26 December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens review

Ahhh...... here we go. The biggest cinematic event for a long while (one could even say the decade) has hit our cinemas for just over a week;and I still haven't written my review! Well, it's time to pull the proverbial finger out and get this down. Read all about it after the jump...

You may have noticed something unusual before you got to this section of the review. I didn't use the conventional Star Wars poster. I didn't use the one from cinemas, all over the internet, and in reviews everywhere. Why? Because it sums up all of the marketing/review strategy that this film has thrived on. Nostalgia sells. And it sells damn well. But nostalgia is also a lie; sugarcoating of the facts is almost inevitable to my mind. Let's think about this for a while. There's 6 Star Wars films, a Holiday special, and an animated spin off. Those are the major incidents in the franchise that I will acknowledge. The holiday special and 'Clone Wars' were abominations. Of the original trilogy, two of the films were stellar (no pun intended); and the third was..... mediocre (or should that be the third mediocre was). What made the first two so great? The first was anchored by originality and the awesome special effects for the time. This has somewhat worn off, but it's still a nice film that I love to watch with adults and kids alike. What about 'Empire'? Because its a phenomenon rarely achieved! The sets were so original, and the filmography is fantastic! It's dark, darkly humorous (familial ties in relation to both political alignment and love interest prove very.... erm.... awkward), has a dark twist, and ends on the best note that a family film could: defeat. The 'Empire Strikes Back' is such a success because it challenges the conventions of family movies, and beats them with such gusto that we just have to go along with it! Return of the Jedi was a mess; and the three prequels were a mess. Revenge of the Sith was bearable, but by no means excellent; and that lightsaber fight was the shittiest piece of crap in the franchise. Apart from Jar Jar Binks. It suddenly doesn't look too clear: Star Wars is actually a mess, held up by two great films.

In Vogue....
But we all forgot about that didn't we? We focused on the good times, and mistook the brand for quality incarnate, when it quite clearly wasn't. At all. So now, finally, after years of anticipation, 'The Force Awakens' arrives. It's the new kid on the block, but also the oldest pensioner in the world: it's the Gandalf of movies, and deserves to be respected. That's what reviewers seem to think. It's not what I think. The same reviewers who absolutely destroyed Terminator Genysis for the constant nostalgia sung praises for the same thing in a respected franchise. Seriously? And they're supposed to be the professional ones. A read of Peter Bradshaw's Guardian review of the film will confirm this. He gave it 5 stars, but for reasons mostly consisting of the nostalgia he felt over the last film. It's not valid reasoning. All this sensationalism floating around really infuriates me: why can't we evaluate a film for what it is, rather than what it came from. I am going to evaluate The Force Awakens. And i'm going to evaluate it for what it is.

A great film.

Oooohh..... symmetry
Yes, I know: after two paragraphs of negativity surrounding the false prestige of the Star Wars franchise, and the positive reactions of critics, I can say fully why I chose that poster. I chose that poster because it doesn't suggest nostalgia, or some primal longing for 1977, but the exact opposite. It suggests a powerful, beautiful, modern, dark, and stylish film. That's what I appeared out of JJ Abrams vision feeling. And let me tell you now, before you start getting the wrong idea; it's not perfect, and it's not the flawless masterpiece you've been led to believe. Hell, it's not even the best blockbuster of the year. That record still goes to Mad Max: Fury Road. And considering there's no more huge films this year (I'm not delusional about the Hateful Eight), it has won it. But the Force Awakens is still great, and makes a great third in what I'm gonna call 'The Star Wars trilogy'. Episodes 4, 5, and 7. They're all you need to bother with.

In order to maintain objectivity, it's good to keep the same format, and you guys know I always start with the story. In this case, however, it's the story that lets the film down a little. Does the following sound familiar? There's an attack on a group of people, and one person stores a very important piece of information on a droid. The droid escapes, travels half way around the galaxy, and finds an unsuspecting resident. Guess what? The unsuspecting resident finds out that they are the chosen one, and must return the map to the resistance so they can find said person. Oh, and guess what, there's a massive planet zapping planet that some sinister force has invented, and the good guys must stop it. And it has one weakness. And they find it. And they blow it up. And they find the weakness. And the lost character. It's not clever, or funny, or brilliant, or original. It's the same stuff that pisses people off about remakes or reboots. But here's the funny bit. JJ Abrams just took the biggest, most revered film  series, and then remade it. And all those people just lapped it up, they loved it. If, back in 2012, Disney announced they would be remaking A New Hope, somebody would get shot. The internet would go mental, and the film would likely be reviewed negatively. But Disney didn't say that, they just did it, and everything's fine. Personally, I have nothing against remakes/reboots per say (even if they are usually shite), but I think it should be acknowledged.

What. A. Scene.
This, combined with the unnecessary and indulgent nostalgia power trip Abrams embarks upon, is enough to bar it from 5 star category. There is no reason for all the original cast members, the Millenium Falcon, original droids, very similar camera shots, and countless SW Easter eggs to be in the film. The one piece of nostalgia I liked was the text editing. The 'A long time ago...' and preface, together with the credits and some fantastically handled subtitles evoked the 1970s better than any of the other half-baked references. I can honestly say I loved those. But The Force Awakens certainly over-indulges to the max, and by no means is original in conceptual terms.

But the additions to the story and the cast are brilliant. John Boyega is great as Fin (or FNsomethingorother) in the Stormtrooper defect role. He brings a naturalistic and powerful presence to the film that I really enjoyed. Unfortunately, the most publicized inclusion of Daisy Ridley appears a mistake. She doesn't have the presence, or skill of any other cast member in the film. I fear that she has been miscasted, and it just feels awkward when she's on screen. This is bolstered by a script that I can only call 'feminazi'. And please, let me explain what I mean. Naturally, critics fall in love with this new wave of strong, independent female heroines. It's very much in vogue, and is a symbol of gaining equality. I appreciate this, and support it. For instance, Furiosa in Mad Max was an excellent and strong character that drove the whole film. I loved it. I loved how George Miller was able to make a woman the head of his petrol-and-violence epic. Without blinking. And I love what that means for Hollywood. Conversely, I loathe how Abrams has Fin holding Rey's hand every two seconds, only for Rey to pull her hand away and shout 'stop holding my hand'. Or I loathe how every time Fin asks her if she's alright, she gives him this sarcastic look. It's too self consciously 'hey look I'm acknowledging that woman are also strong people' rather than just stating it. Just making Rey a strong woman would be more powerful. In the way that George Millar just has it, Abrams forces it, making it seem unnatural and forced. It doesn't work, and undermines a year of female-driven action. It, of course, panders to critics; but I fear Abrams doesn't believe in what he preaches. I fear that Abrams has the motivation of praise in introducing a female role-model. Aside from Daisy, the cast is mostly present and correct. Harrison Ford and whoever the hell plays Chewabacca make for a hilarious and endearing pair, and BB8 is also amusing to say the least. R2D2 and C3PO bring some joy to the proceedings, as does Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron. Dameron is perhaps one of the most pleasant surprises in the film: funny, sarky, and skilled. He is the new Han Solo.And SPOILERSPOILERSPOILER we need a new Han Solo..... SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER. The presence of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia I felt let the cast down a little, but each to their own I suppose. And Adam Driver as Kylo Ren: what an achievement. Ren is a tall, hulking, and imposing figure. His black mass, and antichrist lightsaber anchor him as a terrifying character. When he lifts his mask, his dialogue and expression are on point. Where Vader was mathematical, prepared, and precise: Ren is fanatical, unhinged, and dangerous. Frequent temper tantrums cause both fear and hilarity in the audience. Another unexpected joy is Domhnall Gleeson's fanatical dictator character. A speech given by him on some distant planet is a highlight to say the least..... Lupita Nyongo gets honorable mention as a CGI peace-monger, in a crucial role.
Poe Dameron - a pleasant surprise


In a film full of Easter eggs to do with cameos and casting, one of them got me in particular. Aboard the Millenium Falcon, the whole cast of The Raid (or at least the main players) turn up; dressed in samurai gear, for a subtitled take-on of Harrison Ford. Blink and you might miss it, but for me (as a fan of excellent movies Abram's audience will most likely have not seen), it was just the casting icing on the cake.

There are strong thematic overtones of Nazism and dictatorship, as well as the corrupting effects of religion. The cult-like First Order has taken inspiration from good-old Darth Vader, and created some kind of pseudo-religious sect based on it. Led by the ominous and enigmatic Supreme Leader Snokes (we'll find out about him in later iterations of the franchise I think), and having Cathedral-of-light esque displays of power (in which one of the greatest, and most unhinged speeches occurs), Abrams evokes Leni Riefenstahl; and I say that in the nicest way possible. These fanaticised troops are like the SS; Children stolen from birth, then groomed to be the ultimate killers. They exercise their rights indiscriminately, killing all they please.

A unique opening shot for sure.
And on that note, we lead into the main praises that I can sing of this film. Firstly, this film is dark! Real dark. It's Empire, scaled up to 2015 standards. Within moments of the film starting, a bloodied hand is running down the face of a Stormtrooper, leaving a gory red mark that remains there for the rest of the film. Then Kylo Ren appears. He mercilessly strikes down and kills a village elder who is unarmed, before ordering genocide on the town's inhabitants. Before our very eyes, in a Star Wars movie, we watch the extermination of an entire village. Ren's torturing abilities are also played on rather a lot. When he tortures our characters with regularity, we see the pain on their faces and blood coming out of their mouths and noses. It's fairly disturbing stuff. And then there's the destruction of the planet. In near slow motion, we see the horror on the faces of the inhabitants of a whole planet, as a massive death ray hurtles towards them, and then burns them to a crisp. Then there's all that Nazi and cult imagery. Then there's the presence of Ren and his crazy-ass lightsaber. It's genuinely disturbing and intense whenever he appears on screen. That's something that I think is quite unique in the SW canon: fear. This film is genuinely frightening. Rey has visions of the woods, and remote landscapes that include jump scares of Ren, and a chase scene in which he captures her is as menacing as Michael Myers in Halloween. The final scene also takes place in a pitch black forest, and is just as dark as the rest. And to top it all off, despite the mainly positive ending, there's still an Empire vibe of negative energy. The reality is, it's quite a downbeat moment. And I really like that. For the first time since the 1980s, we have a Star Wars film that feels like an actual film. Not a kids film, or a family film; an actual film.

Dark...
It looks absolutely stunning as well. In IMAX 3D, JJ Abrams has put a whole load of work into his movie. From the start, I knew something was up. The flickering flourescence of the Storm-Trooper unit from the trailer shows that this film is gonna be heavy on the style. The opening shots of desert and towns look like vintage SW, and that's good enough for me. But the swooping camera, and diving cinematography makes it feel like a beautiful nightmare. The inside of the original Darth Vader ship thing (?) becomes a work of art. And every shot with Kylo Ren proves to be starkly stunning. Tracking shots through the woods turn into trapped mazes of fear, as Ren's lightsaber threatens to decimate anything in it's path. There's plenty of side-on action to be had here, as Abrams focuses on Ren approaching his victims. All of these shots are visually striking and just add an extra 'wow' factor to the proceedings. A scene involving Ren and Solo on a bridge is shot with such virtuosity, that I marvelled at a blockbuster for the first time since May, with MMFR. A dream sequence is frightening, powerful, beautiful, dark, and moody all at the same time. And then the final confrontation... oh my. I never thought I would see a lightsaber duel so perfect, so utterly beautiful. Throughout the ages there have been many lightsaber fights. Either they are cut way too short, or in their length, they become ridiculous. By this I mean jumping over lava, running on water mills, jumping over crevices (for example, the prequels). In The Force Awakens, you can say goodbye to these mistakes. The final fight takes place in the dead of night, in a snowy forest. The world is black, white, and bleak. Then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the neon reds and blues appear; illuminating the scene in a gorgeous hue of good and evil. This is Nicholas Winding Refn level style. It got me; and in the ensuing fight, no trickery is employed. It's a straight forward duel, with both parties looking vulnerable, and boy is it exciting.

All of this is bolstered by a fantastic score by returning composer John Williams, that really adds to the cinematic experience. Both wonderfully reworked pieces of music from the past films, and great new additions to the lineup of tracks create a wonderful atmosphere, for a great film.
A tense finale.

And there we have it. Star Wars: The Force Awakens IS a great film. It's violent, dark, and brutally beautiful. It's stylish, adventurous, and genuinely entertaining. And the new cast suggest great things to come. Unfortunate, therefore, that it's hampered by overwrought nostalgia and an unoriginal plot. Perhaps Abrams should have trusted his own vision, rather than that of 1977...
Star Wars: The Force Awakens gets 4 stars!


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