Movie Review: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

For the remainder of the month I will be on vacation with family. I do not know if there are any theaters nearby, but Movie Reviews will be on temporary hiatus. In that time, I will post substitute content to make up for the absence.

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When I was growing up, I had the unique opportunity to see the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS before the rampant, unprovoked tampering perpetrated by George Lucas. Though great movies, they did not have as big an effect on me. The prequels came out when I was seven and with my demographic in mind, Episode I really hooked me. I did not know any better, as I was barely old enough to really think critically. My ignorance lasted for years as the prequels passed into memory. They were very much of the moment where I only liked them when I saw them. After Episode III, Star Wars was very much concluded to me, and I moved on with my life.

Then Plinkett happened.

It was the 80-minute review of Phantom Menace that made me realize how much of an idiot I was growing up. The depth of complexity in the breakdowns of each film opened my eyes to what the prequels truly mean in regards to Star Wars and movies in general. While Plinkett and everyone at Red Letter Media taught me much about storytelling, I learned to appreciate the value of the series and what it means to me as a movie buff. It ignited a sense of loyalty and I became a real fan.

With the advent of a true follow-up, I was both amazed and wary about Disney continuing the saga. In many ways, I would prefer if they released just another three movies and worry about spin-offs later. With Marvel they are at least tame in what is put into theaters, but I feel the rot of saturation coming on. However, the one thing everyone can get behind is that George Lucas is nowhere in sight. We can rest easy knowing that greasy shyster has no say in the future of Star Wars like a castrated child molester or a dead one. But you are not here to read about my personal history with the saga. Was Force Awakens the revival we have been waiting for or are the prequels somehow good in comparison?

Following the end of the Galactic Civil War, the heroes of the Rebellion passed into legend while remnants of the Empire retreated inward, and restored themselves into the First Order. On the hunt for a reclusive Luke Skywalker to help repel this new threat, Poe Dameron, played by Oscar Isaac, acquires a map to his location before Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, comes to collect the information for himself.

All of that information is presented within the first 3 minutes of the movie, from the title crawl onward. None of it is a spoiler, so please do not freak out. I will not give anything away in this critique. I will also withhold information if finding it out on your own is worth the surprise.

To put it bluntly, Force Awakens is New Hope with the same beats, but different story. All movies share a common thread of conventional plotting detailed in Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat if you like banality. What sets them apart is narrative and even though Force Awakens is packed with references, homages, and everything eagle-eyed fans will spot, it has a compelling new story, the kind Star Wars needed after Lucas almost killed it.

The classic symbolism is also present, but subverted in a way that complements the film’s more grounded, universal themes. The most obvious example is Finn, played by John Boyega. He starts out as a Stormtrooper, a Nazi allegory who is conditioned to obey orders and get killed. Finn is very much cannon fodder, but after a traumatic moment, he breaks down and goes his own way. It makes light of what real soldiers go through in war, where they are trained to be fearless until they lose their nerve.

When it comes to the actual story, a lot is left open-ended. Character arcs start and do not finish, useful information following certain events is non-existent, and details about people and places is left for implication and speculation. Missing information is understandable because giving everything away would stagnate the story and it was left open to complete in Episode VIII. In that way it is acceptable, but what made New Hope great is that it worked as a standalone title with its plot threads tied up in a neat bow. Force Awakens still works, but the incomplete feeling is too strong to ignore.

Because the prequels were so gaudy with the over-use of CG, the effects have been a great point of conversation while Episode VII was in development. I can confirm practical effects are utilized quite often in many aspects. Most of the CG is reserved for the intense space battles, giant ships, and beautiful landscapes. The use of actual Stormtroopers played by actors was a real high point for me personally. The sets were superb in the seedy grime of reality where everything had a texture you can almost touch. I know I am over exaggerating, but after the prequels, every real inch of this movie was a masterpiece. Even the saber fights are superior and they are completely devoid of grace and choreography.

The cast is what really makes this movie. Boyega plays a fish-out-of-water who knows nothing about the world except for the First Order. The end result is a genuinely funny performance that stole many scenes. He had great chemistry with Daisy Ridley’s Rey, a Luke parallel who lived most of her life fending for herself. Her resourcefulness and independence come through in Ridley’s breakout role with great charisma and emotion. Driver is no James Earl Jones, but he brings a certain menace to Ren that fits well. He is both unstable and creepy, alluding to his storied past and conflicted mental state, and the voice oscillation more than helped. Isaac was fantastic as always and the returning cast fit right back in. Harrison Ford seemed to enjoy himself for the first time in a while and it was a real treat to see him in one of the roles that made him famous.

One fault in the cast was Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma. For a character that was so hyped up, she did not do anything compelling. She just stood there, dwarfing everyone in her nice chrome armor, and said maybe four lines. While I take issue with the character in general, I have a feeling this was intentional. I do not know if this is true, but I think there is a lot more to her that will be revealed in the sequel. Looking at New Hope, Vader was not that big a deal until Empire showed us he is more involved. Perhaps Phasma is the same. I would certainly like to see Christie better utilized.

If you have not already, go see it. It is a new Star Wars movie that does not include George Lucas. How can you not watch it in theaters? I spent a 1000 words carefully articulating why Force Awakens is great. Go see it already. Leave!

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