18 December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens review

Is Star Wars the most iconic franchise of all time? I think it might be - its impact is felt everywhere, from basic character archetypes that have been reused time and time again to more explicit references and homages in everything from The Simpsons to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's a franchise as influential as it is recognisable, one that has touched every aspect of pop culture since it was first released in 1977 - and now, nearly 40 years later, we find it circling back around and touching itself. Furiously, under the covers in the dead of night.

To say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is self-referential would be an understatement. The central plot is effectively a remix of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, a beat for beat retelling of the same basic story with a few tweaks to include new characters and homages to other Star Wars movies. In itself, this isn't necessarily a bad thing - it's clear that the main goal of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is to show people the direction that the series will be going in (more original trilogy and less prequel trilogy, unsurprisingly), so I can understand the decision to play it safe and use this film as a palate cleanser of sorts while setting up the new main characters. What I find harder to stomach is the amount of fan service contained within Star Wars: The Force Awakens - there is a difference between recognising legacy and relying on it, and unfortunately Star Wars: The Force Awakens falls into the latter camp.

As excited as people will be to see Luke, Leia and Han again, the film is noticeably worse whenever any of them take the spotlight away from the newer (and truthfully, more interesting) characters. This is most noticeable about a third of the way through Star Wars: The Force Awakens - the reintroduction of the first original cast member not only gets in the way of spending more time with our new heroes, it also requires accepting the series of huge coincidences that brings them into the film, which makes their entrance feel forced and their continued appearance very unnatural. It is about here that Star Wars: The Force Awakens really starts to pander to the Star Wars fan base too, chucking in increasingly eye-roll worthy callbacks and references in a desperate attempt to gain their approval. "People will remember that" should never be the reason that something is included in a film, but it seems to be the only reason for far too much of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

And this is particularly frustrating when, removed the fan service and "nudge nudge, wink wink" that it throws at you, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has the potential to be the best Star Wars movie ever created. Finn, Rey, Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren aren't just new versions of Luke, Leia, Han and Vader - they all have their own unique personality and motivations, and they are all wonderful characters that I'm looking forward to seeing more of in the future. Poe Dameron, a charming and earnest X-Wing pilot, was my personal favourite thanks to Oscar Issac being basically flawless in every role I've seen him in, but he doesn't have as much to do as Finn does, who ends up stealing the film a little bit thanks to a truly great performance from the less established John Boyega, who is making sure that everyone knows he is legitimate movie star material.

Kylo Ren is everything you could ask for from a Star Wars villain, being intimidating, powerful, instantly iconic, and most importantly, a legitimate threat from his very first appearance in the film. He's also surprisingly complex for a Star Wars villain - there is a lot going on under that mask and I'm looking forward to seeing how his character develops over the coming films. The only complaint I have about any of them really is that despite being the character who holds the story together the most, Rey doesn't have a very well defined personality beyond "capable" - but this seems to by a by-product of her characters status as a mystery wrapped in an enigma rather than any fault of actress Daisy Ridley, who does a lot with the small amount of characterisation she is given to work with.

And from a technical perspective, it's on a completely different level to anything else we've seen from the franchise - director JJ Abrams brings the world of Star Wars to life better than ever before, his "trademark" visuals toned down slightly (there is much less lens flare than I expected) but still very much intact and as impressive as ever. It also contains the best action a Star Wars film has ever contained, a natural consequence of actually being invested in the characters who are in danger while also being filmed by a director who simply cannot be faulted when it comes to creating an engaging action scene.

But as I said, all of this great stuff takes place in a film that just doesn't quite work as anything other than scene setting for the next one, a film so obsessed with proving that "Star Wars is back" that it lacks a lot of the things that made Star Wars good in the first place - like originality, or a sense of imagination. Not that the die-hard fans will notice of course, who are certain to lap this film up anyway just because they recognise a lot of the things in it, but it will be interesting to see if and how the currently very positive reception that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is receiving changes when it is reconsidered in a couple of years.

It's an acceptable film overall, one that I enjoyed in spite of its many flaws - but as with many of JJ Abrams' films, it is through sheer momentum that you are kept invested at times, and when scrutinised in the lobby afterwards it doesn't take long for much of the film to fall apart. In its greatest moments, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is everything I wanted from a new Star Wars film, a dramatic and exciting space opera that continues and progresses the story of a galaxy far, far away - but these are few and far between, and in its worst its a derivative waste of talent that leans far too heavily on the recognisability of the original trilogy. Acceptable may be good enough for most people at the moment (many of whom are going to simply be thankful that we don't have another prequel situation on our hands), and that's OK I guess - but much of the goodwill that I'm feeling towards Star Wars: The Force Awakens is based on my belief that the potential pay off provided by Episode VIII will be worth the set up we see here.

Here's hoping it is.

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