Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens

This review is full of spoilers, so please don’t read any further if you’ve not seen The Force Awakens yet! Also, I’ve only seen the movie once so I might have blinked and missed the odd clue or reference to things I mention in the review.

Of course, it goes without saying that I’m a Star Wars fan. I was ten and a half years old when I got to see the original ‘Star Wars’ in a UK cinema. As it was for millions of other people, it was unlike anything else I’d ever seen before. It was a game changer in every way possible. From that moment I was hooked, and the next five or six years were a blur of waiting for, watching or reading about Star Wars any way that I could. The Empire Strikes Back was – and still is – the best movie sequel ever, and whilst Return of the Jedi was a bit of a let down, in hindsight it was okay compared to the prequels that emerged years later.

Anyway, fast-forward almost 38 years. The cinema scheduling deities had deemed that the release of Episode VII in the UK was to fall on our oldest son’s 9th birthday. As a result, he had been planning his 2015 birthday party the moment he knew. He was naturally extremely excited to be seeing a Star Wars movie in a cinema for the first time, on the day of release and on his actual birthday. Could it get any better?

So, five kids and two adults went into the multiplex, clutching 3D glasses and munch bags after the children had pigged-out on pizza (from the Hutt) immediately after school. On the way back in the car, we asked all the children for their ratings and they all – to a boy – gave it 20/10, possibly fuelled by an overdose of pizza, sweets, popcorn and Caprisun. Whilst it is tempting to write my review using the voice of my inner ten-year old self, I am sadly way past the stage where Star Wars is a huge part of my life. So, for an almost 50-something Star Wars fan with a family, a mortgage and everything else that goes with that, what did I think?

The good news is that The Force Awakens looks and sounds like a Star Wars movie. The complete over-use of CGI in the prequels (not to mention the plots and the majority of the acting being well below par) meant that those films felt entirely different to the Star Wars movie universe I had grown up with, and as such I never liked them much. Thankfully, the makers of Episode VII have sensibly gone back to using CGI sparingly and subtly, improving practical sets and effects with CGI rather than replacing them entirely. As a result, the Star Wars universe looks and feels real (and used) once again.

The new main cast of characters are all good, which is a relief. You get to really like Rey and Finn as the story unfolds, although you also begin to realise that the trailers definitely lead people to certain conclusions about both characters that turn out to be wrong. I’m not sure whether to feel angry at being tricked by the trailers or wishing that they simply hadn’t shown certain scenes – or revealed certain lines – in the marketing campaign at all. On the other hand, I’m glad that the trailers didn’t give away too much so there were still plenty of surprises.

Out of the other new characters, Poe Dameron and Captain Phasma get far less screen time than I was expecting. The new main villain – Kylo Ren – is just different enough not to be a direct Darth Vader clone (pun definitely intended!), with his out-of-control hissy-fit during the movie being in stark contrast to the calm way that Vader dealt with set-backs in the original trilogy. My theory about the new evil Emperor type character – Snoke – is that his gigantic hologram is overcompensating and he’ll turn out to be smaller than Yoda. You read it here first.

The new droid on the block – BB8 – is great. He’s technically impressive and for a ball with a small movable domed head, he can convey a surprising range of emotion. Once or twice I did find myself thinking about other film robots inspired by Star Wars though. In particular – and it’s a coincidence that they were also made by Disney – Old B.O.B. and V.I.N.Cent from The Black Hole sprung to mind. Odd how the brain works sometimes!

A number of people have said it so I will to. The Force Awakens does echo a number of story elements from the original Star Wars movie. It has a desert planet, a droid with something the bad guys are after. It has a local who dreams of being elsewhere and a weapon that can destroy planets. The main baddie is a guy dressed in black, there is a battle to destroy the weapon and there is a light sabre duel (or two). Oh, and a lead character dies.

I’ll admit to having mixed feelings about the return of Han Solo and General Leia. Maybe I’ve seen too many interviews with Harrison Ford and Carrier Fisher down the years, but when I saw them on screen and heard them speak all I saw were the actors, not the characters. Once or twice I also felt that Harrison Ford was behaving more like Indiana Jones than Han Solo, although that’s more a criticism of the script than the actor.

Chewbacca was fine, but it might have been an idea to add a bit of streaked grey hair here and there. I know Wookies are meant to live for hundreds of years, but a subtle nod to the passing of time might have made Harrison Ford’s grey locks a little less startling in comparison! It was also good to see the Millennium Falcon flying again, complete with a new radar dish to replace the old one that got knocked off during the battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi. Me, a geek?

It’s a fairly major plot strand throughout the movie, and yet the search for Luke Skywalker doesn’t dominate the film. The film’s McGuffin is that BB8 holds an incomplete piece of a star map that shows where Luke is hiding. It’s quite a flimsy plot device, as is having R2-D2 wake up in his brief cameo and produce the rest of the missing information that ultimately solves the puzzle. Talking of cameos, C-3PO didn’t really need to make an appearance either, but I guess it was nice to confirm that old goldenrod is still in one piece.

The reveal that Darth Vader is Ren’s Grandfather was unexpected (at least to me) but also a bit disappointing in the way it was handled. It certainly doesn’t have the same impact as the scene in The Empire Strikes Back when Vader reveals who he is to a defeated and desperate Luke Skywalker. Soliloquy’s are a very unnatural way of handling a revelation of that magnitude, and once it had been revealed I was half-expecting Ren to pick the melted helmet up and say ‘Alas Poor Vader, I never knew my Grandfather at all’. Maybe not.

The demise of a major classic Star Wars character doesn’t occur very often, but I felt strangely detached from the scene when it did. I know other people felt it quite moving, but for me it happened and was discarded in a fairly casual way. I can see how they wanted to show Kylo Ren (aka Ben Solo) tempted by the good side before deciding – via his actions – to choose the dark path. The scene harks back to choices made in the previous trilogy. Killing his father was something Luke Skywalker couldn’t do, and so it becomes an important rite of passage for Kylo Ren to do what his Uncle could not. However, I’d argue that Han’s descent into the carbon freezing chamber in The Empire Strikes Back was far more dramatic and memorable, but that’s probably just me.

The new weapon – Starkiller base – is where my loyalty to Star Wars struggles the most. I immediately saw countless problems with the whole premise of the base. Even though you never actually saw either Death Star jump to light speed so they could traverse the galaxy, you never questioned their ability to do so or why they needed to. Unless I blinked and missed it, there was no mention of the Starkiller Base host planet being able to move. If it can’t move, how can the weapon destroy anything unless its target is (a) very close by, and (b) happens to be lined up with the base so it can be directly hit. If the target isn’t in the same solar system, then the actual projectile fired from the base is likely to take a few years minimum to reach it’s intended target unless it’s being hurled faster-than-light speed. Not to mention the fact that if the planet can’t move, then sucking the energy out of the local star to power the weapon is a pretty daft thing to do!

One of the reasons I felt disappointed with Return of the Jedi back in the early 1980s was that they had a second, bigger Death Star. That felt like George Lucas had run out of ideas and as a result, it was a much more typical Hollywood sequel than The Empire Strikes Back had been. The Force Awakens does the same thing, but just makes the threat bigger again. Harrison Ford even mentions this during the movie, as if poking fun at it would somehow make up for it’s lack of originality.

My other disappointment was that there was no real clue as to how big a threat the First Order are. Although I wouldn’t want the movie to spend much screen time explaining the whole political situation (the original Star Wars disposed of such talk in a couple of conversations then moved on), knowing if the galaxy was now run by the New Republic and how big the First Order really were would have clarified a few things for me. As it was, it felt like the New Republic and the Resistance were two totally separate entities and there was no sense of scale to the conflicts. I had no idea how important any of the battles in the movie were. If there was a line or two that explained all that, then I must have missed it in the cinema.

Overall though the film was entertaining, well acted, technically superb and felt like a proper Star Wars movie. Certain parts of the plot were disappointing and I can’t help feeling that the film was really made just to introduce the new characters and then set things up for Episode VIII, which has already begun filming. Not that that’s a problem, but hopefully the next film can be a little more original.

Welcome back (proper) Star Wars. We’ve missed you!

One thought on “Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens

  1. Terrific review. An articulate and detailed analysis of the latest Star Wars film that is a welcome return to the original. I tried hard to be the 11 year old boy who was amazed when the first film was released 39 years ago. Like you, I watched it with my family and was particularly keen on passing on the torch to my 7 year old son. I am his father.

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