Friday, December 18, 2015

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Review

Subtitle: Thar be spoilers here, so run away now while you can. Go! Flee! Hide from the internet, television, radio, and any and all forms of social interaction if you do not want to be spoiled with the plot of this movie. Live under a rock for a few days, or dig yourself into Fallout 4 and finish up that second game you've started but disregarded because it was too much Fallout. Which is crazy because it's Fallout. You can't have too much.


If you're still here then you either don't care about spoilers, care about what happens with the 'Star Wars' franchise to not care about being spoiled, or you must really enjoy my style of writing to keep reading. In which case, thanks! I always appreciate the extra eyes on the blog.

I'm going to do my best to approach this post as one would any standard movie review with my brand of humor. I'll keep the spoilers to a minimum as much as possible. I want this review to be something that doesn't deter you from seeing the film, but to try and look at it from a different perspective. Got it? Good.

Here we go!

I attended the premiere last night at a local theater during opening hour. While the rest of the world waited for midnight to arrive, I was already in bed to get ready for work the next day, having spent my evening doing a lot of driving and 2 plus hours of movie watching.

For those wanting the tldr version, I can safely say that 'The Force Awakens' (TFA) is an okay movie. It will entertain and delight you. You'll snicker at some of the bad puns and the robot interactions. You'll smile at the action sequences and maybe, become slightly heartbroken by the dramatic tonal shifts. As a stand-alone movie, it succeeds in capturing the fun of going to the movies. And that's what a Star Wars film should do. Whether it's your first time seeing Star Wars or your hundredth, it's a movie that everyone can enjoy from beginning to end.

Now onto the long form.

I liked this film for providing that movie experience that I have been missing for so long. Part of what I love about going to the theater is sitting in the crowd and feeding off their energy. It pumps up the film to the next level. When everyone gasps, you join in. As people applaud when good triumphs over evil, you find yourself clapping along before you realize it. To get wrapped up in the excitement of the film is why movies exist. They pull you out of reality and into this other world where you can experience something new for a couple of hours of your time.

And that's what TFA delivers. If you have a chance to see this movie with a large audience, I not only recommend it, I encourage it. It doesn't detract from the film, instead building on the content that already lives in the story.

At the core TFA is a good movie. It's a patented J.J. Abrams style of storytelling within the Star Wars universe. You'll find yourself twisting in your seat at some of the turns and build ups in the plot, but not to an uncomfortable level. The action is laid out well enough that you're not surprised by the development of the story nor disappointed in it. It's a happy-medium that one would expect with a Star Wars film.

On that front, TFA fits decently into the franchise and the scenario Disney is wanting to follow for future films. Since Lucasfilm's acquisition in 2012, Disney has made it clear that they wanted each of the follow-up Star Wars movies to be stand alone stories so that new directors, cast members, and crew can jump in and interpret the universe in their own way. TFA has a very distinct beginning, middle, and end. There are still a few loose strings to tie up, but the primary plot line is wrapped up in a nice bow that if the next director decides s/he doesn't want to use any of the characters from Episode 7, that would be okay. We got enough content from TFA that pushing them into the next chapter isn't necessary.

It also makes it easy for any new Star Wars aficionados to jump right in without worry that they would be lost. You might miss out on some of the inside jokes, or why some of the adults were cheering when the Millennium Falcon makes its appearance, but it doesn't detract from the movie. You can go in with fresh eyes and enjoy the film for what it is. TFA is an ideal December film - enough to bring audiences back for a second or third round without them feeling burnt out by the story.

I wish I could say the same for Disney's marketing tactics. My goodness. If there was ever a need for "calm the f down!" it would be Disney and Star Wars. I thought the promotions for the Prequels were bad. Disney kicked it up by 100% to such an insane level I found myself deliberately avoiding all forms of social media, nearly all internet interactions, keeping my television and radio off, and not reading newspapers so I wouldn't have to see any more Star Wars stuff.

I knew I was being over-saturated with marketing content and poor product tie-ins (what the hell does a Lexus have to do with Star Wars?) that it would change my view of the film. I would have went in with more disdain then one should have because I was so sick of the marketing.

I seriously hope Disney considers scaling back next time. There was no reason to hype up TFA this much. It's Star Wars. It's a built in marketing tool all of it's own. You just need to say "new movie is on X date" and people will buy tickets. You don't have to slap Yoda's face on coffee creamer to get us to see the movie. So chill out a bit on your marketing , Disney.

Pro-tip: If you plan to see TFA soon, absolve yourself from all human communications for 48 hours to cleanse yourself of the Star Wars marketing machine. It will help you enjoy the movie.

I've talked about the new fan experience, but what about those of us who grew up with Star Wars?

Right now I'm torn on my opinions as an elder fan. I feel that TFA fits within the lexicon of Star Wars that Disney has deemed as "canon." And it is a good movie. I don't want my opinion to detract from the experience, because I think this is something that a vast majority of people will enjoy for decades to come. I wasn't counting lens flares. I was that engrossed in the film that my academic brain didn't kick over and start picking apart the camera angles or J.J.'s obsession with the flares.

But I also come from a background where my knowledge of Star Wars is different from the average consumer. I knew of Star Wars beyond the 6 movies. There were novels, comic books, and video games that were all approved by Lucasfilm to be the story beyond the films. It's the infamous Expanded Universe (EU) that has been removed from the Disney library. But this is what I grew up with. I loved reading about the adventures of Mara Jade in paperback, and exploring the world before the movies with Knights of the Old Republic. It gave me such depth to the lore that I found it incredibly difficult to separate my knowledge of the Star Wars universe with the new Disney branded Star Wars. What I know from the books is vastly different then the future-past that Disney is presenting to us.

If you're strictly a Star Wars movie fan, then you won't be in the quandary that I've been experiencing for the past 12 hours. For a number of my friends and family who have the EU history, I can hear the murmurs trembling through the Force that all is not well. We like TFA for what it is, but it doesn't fit with the canon that we've grown-up with. What happens to Luke, Han, and Leia after Episode 6 in the EU is definitely not what happens in Episode 7. And it's jarring. Even for as much as I knew that TFA was going to be different, I wasn't expecting such a dramatic shift in the universe that I grew up with. Disney gave J.J. the reigns (within reason) and told him to create the next chapter from scratch.

I want to like this movie, but I'm struggling with the last 31 years of my life that focused on the EU of Star Wars as the lore that I know.

This is a terrible transition, but I want to move on to some of the story elements, casting choices, and more of the "movie review" type things. So this is an all-ages, all-fans section.

First off - the pacing. It initially feels a bit slow even with an action sequence thrown into the opening. By the time you get off the first planet and the primary cast members make their escape from the clutches of the First Order (the new Empire), it feels like 2 hours have passed when it's truly only been about 30-40 minutes. And then it speeds up out of no where, throwing tons of plot points at you that it can be a bit cumbersome to keep up with. What irked me was that a lot of big things were revealed in this 2 hour movie that could easily have been stretch into another film. To go from slow to light speed pacing is a little insane. As if J.J. knew that this was his one Star Wars movie, so let's cram all of the story ideas into this now since there won't be another opportunity.

Some of the big plot points (finding out who Kylo Ren is, for example) felt like throw-aways that would have held so much more impact if they drew out the reveal to another film. We're talking about "Luke, I am your father" level of plot points that are casually tossed into TFA that they never felt like surprises. Which makes me not as happy as a fan, because part of what makes Star Wars so gripping were those big moments that had us on the edge of our seat.

The casting choices were well thought out. It was clear that everyone gave it their all, and brought a new level of talent to the franchise. I'm still unsure of if I like the direction of the acting with the Commanders and Generals of the First Order (not to mention their outfits), but within the context of the film it worked out nicely. I really enjoyed the life everyone brought to each character. Also, we need more Captain Phasma. She was cool and sorely lacked being featured, for as much as she was advertised by Disney.

I can also report that J.J. did not abuse the lens flares. There were a few here and there, but not to the level of the 'Star Trek' movies where there were random lens flares even in non-sun, non-shiny environments. The fact that he utilized the classic Star Wars transitions with iris-in (where one shot is moved to another via a shrinking circle) and wipes is a huge step forward for J.J. That's not his style of cutting. I'm impressed that he handled it with such class. And I appreciate the different types of camera angles used in some of the action sequences with the spaceships. It felt a little more engaging and less about showing off the fancy digital effects. Though I could have done with less close-ups on the actors. Some of those felt forced (hah) and out of place - not to mention the focus felt too blurry on the outline of the actors. It became distracting and took me out of the film so my eyes could adjust to the setting.

As a whole, I recommend The Force Awakens to anyone who wants to go to the movies and have fun again. It's a story that pulls you in, keeps you in your seat, and doesn't let go until the final moments. You'll laugh, you'll cheer, you'll boo at the bad guys, and enjoy the ride the whole way through. It doesn't matter if you're young or old, new or and original Star Wars fan, there is something in this movie that everyone will enjoy.

Aside: As I began to work my way through this review, I had an epiphany. This will be the most spoiler-filled section of this post. There's your warning.

The Force Awakens is a re-imagining of A New Hope (aka Episode 4).

From beginning to end, the way the movie paced itself, it felt like the film was trying too much to be like A New Hope that it couldn't find the proper footing. And I think this is why I'm having difficulty in forming a personal opinion of what to make of the TFA outside of "it's fun to watch." It doesn't add to the creativity of Star Wars as well as one would want.

Which sucks. I was pulled in right from the start with the chilling opening shot. To see an Empire-esque ship eclipse a planet as it slowly crawled across the screen, but in complete darkness so you don't see the details of the ship - it was a bold move and set the tone for the rest of the film.

But after that, you figure out very quickly that you're re-watching C-3P0 and R2-D2 from New Hope in the form of BB8, the new lovable droid on the block, and it's journey through the movie.

BB8's mission is to keep secret plans safe from the First Order (Empire), who are hunting it down to obtain said plans. The droid runs into a scavenger (read that as wide-eyed moisture farmer) on a sand-dune planet, who dreams of a better life in the stars. And then it becomes a quest to get the droid back to the Republic (Rebels). Our scavenger picks up a Chewbacca-like ally, and a mentor (Han Solo of all people), and delivers the droid to the princess (Leia in both cases!). Finally they go and blow up a big death-ray that's 10 times larger then the Death Star and the movie ends with a happy.

Stop me if you've heard it all before. Because you have.

This is where my frustrations lie. Not that the EU was dumped by Disney, which was my initial assumption. In time I will get over that mess.

But TFA isn't a unique story. It took A New Hope, sprinkled in with bits of The Empire Strikes Back, and flipped for a new generation.

I'm torn. I want to like this movie because it is fun! Don't let my comments stop you from seeing it and having a good time. It will give you hope that going to the movies can be a joyful experience once more.

As a Star Wars film from a creative perspective, I'm not buying it. And that makes me a sad.

If you've read through the entire review. Congrats. Have an internet cookie. You deserve it!


  1. I am lucky to be ale to have seen all 7 episodes on the big screen (at the time of the original release). I went into the theater this morning knowing a few of the spoilers/plot points and was still blown away by what I saw. It was an amazing film that exceeded my expectations. They did exactly what they said they were going to do. That was to make a movies for fans that also sets up the new characters for their future.

    1. I can definitely say that I was not able to do so with Ep 4-6 as I was not born yet. But! I did see the enhanced versions when they were released in theaters in the 90's. While it may not have been exactly the same, the thrill of going to the movies with a full audience, everyone cheering for the heroes and booing the villains, it was still there.

      There's a magic to Star Wars that it can bring so many people together in a theater and get that kind of a response.

      While I'm still debating on how I feel about the film, I know people will enjoy it. It's a fun movie.


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