by William O'Connor
I hardly ever review movies because although I have a lot of opinions and consider myself an ardent cinephile, I am not a film critic. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an exception for several reasons. One. The mythology is so ingrained in my imagination that I feel extremely invested in the story. Two. I work in the Sci-Fi industry and have worked extensively on Star Wars projects for Lucas Films and its license holders in the past. There are three ways to review this movie. First as a movie, secondly as a Star Wars movie, and thirdly as act one in a three act play.
First as a movie. There are always three criteria I use to measure a film. Writing, Acting and Cinematography. Objectively, the writing of the screenplay (by JJ. Abrams and Kasdan) was darker and grittier for Force Awakens. Immediately Mr. Abrams establishes the tone that this movie is a human drama, with the death of a stormtrooper that bleeds and dies. This is not a video game of nameless, lifeless CGI droids being cut down, but real people with real emotions. The dialogue and action was very dense and the scenes and characters raced along at a frenetic pace, which may require me to watch it a second time just to catch things I missed. This aesthetic is quite common among contemporary super hero movies and particularly Mr. Abrams' films, which I find a little disorienting, but forces your attention. There were a few scenes, such as the monster hallway chase scene aboard Han Solo's Freighter, that had hallmarks of Cabin in the Woods and Aliens, that just seemed silly and unnecessary. Abrams has the Post-Modern habit of inserting pop and historical cultural references into his films much like Quinten Tarrentino, both as homage and as a self deprecating awareness. "I know, that you know that I know that I'm borrowing this idea." he seems to be saying. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Sirkis) was obviously inspired by The Wizard of Oz, the Temple of Maz Katana looked like the bath house from Miyazaki's Spirited Away, the Starkiller base carved out of a planet's interior had the reminder of many a Bond Villain lair, the shot of the tie fighters coming out of the sun was a direct homage to Apocalypse Now, Han Solo being run through by his own son was a tribute to King Arthur and Rey being stranded on a craggy island with her father* is a lift from Shakespeare's The Tempest. (even my 9 year old daughter caught that one). There's more, but I'd have to watch it again to catch them all. It was obvious that Abrams' key as writer and director was to make Force Awakens seem as familiar as possible.
Although the plot arc heavily mirrored the original 1977 New Hope, the script pays homage to Episode IV while giving the story a fresh face, staying within the strict Campbellian Monomyth guidelines of Hero's Calling, Spirit Guide, Finding the Magic Sword and Departure on the Quest. The added sense of humor that was thrown in was a much welcome change from the earnest drudgery of the prequels.
Secondly, the acting. The standout performance was by Daisy Ridley as Rey. Beautiful without being too pretty, youthful without being girlish, strong without loosing her femininity, intense and funny, she, without a doubt, was the keystone to this film and held it up admirably on her young shoulders. The other performances were fine. John Boyega as Finn was funny as the born again storm trooper turned resistance fighter (inspired by Robot Chicken's Gary the Stormtrooper?), as well as Oscar Isaac as Po Dameron the brash and cocky fighter pilot. Adam Driver playing the emotionally tortured Kylo Ren was excellent, adding a deep sense of gravitas to the role. Performances by Harrison Ford and Carrie Fischer were fairly lifeless and forgettable. Fisher in particular, whose extreme plastic surgery seemed to make it impossible to perform facial expressions or move her lips was more robotic than the droids.
Thirdly, the Cinematography. By this I mean all the art production including editing, costumes, makeup, special effects and music as well as camera work. This film looked a great deal different than previous Star Wars films. The first difference I noticed was, no screen wipes, which for me is a hallmark of the Star Wars aesthetic, but thankfully no lens flares either. The set designs were more natural than earlier productions as well. Where in all the other films the characters go to exotic locations in Force Awakens the environments were fairly recognizable. A desert in Tunisia with sweeping pans of Lawrence of Arabia, A forest in Montana, A glacier in Iceland, and even a World Heritage ruins in Ireland. All the locations were recognizable as places on Earth, not a Galaxy Far, Far Away, unlike Pandora of Avatar for example. This again harkens back to Abrams' apparent desire to ground the movie in the familiar. This added a much needed shot of realism compared to the CGI video game environments of the prequels, but didn't make the galaxy seem particularly diverse or alien. Costumes and makeup were excellent, as well as the design of ships and hardware. Everything was in keeping with the Star Wars classic aesthetic so that the viewer could easily follow good guys and bad guys, again the formula of the familiar. The only artistic misstep was in the places where CGI was used too heavily. Supreme Leader Snoke looked like a cross between Gollum and Voldemort, Maz Katana looked like a smurf and the CGI roly-poly D&D Beholders on the space freighter were glaring CGI inserts that didn't seem necessary and broke the realism of the rest of the film. The spiraling camera angles of the dogfights were hugely enjoyable having everyone in the audience sway and squeal as if on a roller coaster. Finally, the impressive score by Williams was much enjoyed and added to the familiar and beloved flavor of Star Wars.
Overall Score: B
Overall ranking as a Star Wars Movie: 4th, (1:Empire; 2:New Hope 3:Jedi)
Predictions for Acts Two and Three
As with all Campbellian myths, this story needs to have a predictable arc in the future. Student trains with the master, learns new skills and wisdom, descends into the dark other-world, does battle with the dragon using the magic sword, sacrifice of flesh, death and resurrection and or redemption followed by the return of the hero. How those details play themselves out will be the interesting part. That doesn't bother me. That's how hero stories progress. Just as my knowing that Macbeth and Hamlet will die in the end doesn't stop my enjoyment of watching the tragedies over and over. This is just Act one of a Three Act play.