[WARNING: This review contains spoilers!]
The familiar metallic hum of lightsabers sounded as a row of fans sitting in the middle simultaneously swooshed their replicas about. The just-darkened cinema hall was immediately illuminated by the red, blue, green and yellow shafts of LED lights. It was a fitting start to this special preview screening at Shaw Lido that UrbanWire had been invited to. Composer John Williams’ well-loved orchestral theme comes on, and the Star Wars title fills the screen. The crowd cheers. The iconic scrolling-to-infinity opening crawl sequence begins, introducing the the seventh and latest film of the epic sci-fi saga, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).
Hardcore fans who’ve been with the series since the beginning with 1977’s Star Wars Episode IV, A New Hope (and this possibly describes most of the reviewers who’ve pushed this movie to its sky-high but not record-breaking Tomatometer score of 95%, next to Spectre’s 64%, on the Rotten Tomatoes movie reviews aggregator site) are thrilled. The magic is back.
But many UrbanWire readers, who may have only caught the last Star Wars film, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith (2005), bookend of the prequel trilogy, the whole of which was always seen as a pale shadow of the original trilogy, may be less enthusiastic. Still, who can resist checking out the most anticipated movie of 2015, one whose US advanced ticket sales blew up all records, according to the Wall Street Journal, raking in more than US$50 million, about a quarter of its production budget, in just under a month?
This is a lot of pressure for TV-turned-film director J.J. Abrams, best known for making a successful reboot movie of an even older intergalactic classic Star Trek. In an interview with the official Star Wars website, the 49-year-old director described himself as a lifelong fan of the Star Wars saga. Given this and his relatively younger age, it’s no wonder he thinks as a fan and knows just what they want. As Abrams explained in an interview with /Film, he wanted to make a film that struck a good balance between being grounded in the same roots, to be nostalgic for fans, while introducing a new story.
However, although Abrams has delivered a film that succeeds unequivocally on the first aim, The Force Awakens falls short in creativity and originality in the plot, which for the first time has been written by someone other than the series creator, George Lucas, who also directed 4 of the 6 Star Wars movies. The story, set 30 years after Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi (1983), and the first chapter of a brand new trilogy launched by now owners of Lucasfilm, Disney, mimics the original trilogy just a little too much.
We see similar character tropes in our new protagonists who remind us fondly of our original band of rebels Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Han Solo (Harrison Ford). Rey (Daisey Ridley), a struggling scavenger from the desert planet of Jakku, bears many similarities to Luke. In spite of this, she is an original character whose story we thoroughly enjoyed following. Spunky and bold, like the new generation more politically correct Disney Princesses in Tangled, Brave and Frozen, she proves how she’s completely able to take care of herself, but we also see a complex backstory of a damaged girl torn from her family. Rey yearns to explore the world outside of Jakku, yet desperately clings on to the hope of being reunited with her loved ones again. As the film progresses, she discovers new things about herself that she struggles to comprehend, adding even more depth to her character, which we absolutely love.
Rey isn’t the only addition to the Star Wars movie series. This is the first time we see John Boyega’s character Finn (or FN-2187), a rogue Stormtrooper who wants to break away from The First Order – where he has served all his life – to be his own man and do the right thing. A naturally funny guy as Boyega has shown in interviews with the media, it is no wonder why the British actor who received critical attention in Attack the Block, was given many of the comical parts. However, we wish Abrams had cut back on this part of Finn’s character, as it made us take him less seriously, and left us less invested than at the start of the film. This was a bit disappointing, as Finn’s character had started out much stronger.
We’re also introduced to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) – the film’s antagonist. Corrupted by the Dark Side of the Force, and obsessed with Darth Vader’s legacy, he strives to become the next Lord Vader. As menacing as Kylo Ren seems, a softer, vulnerable and more human side to him emerges as the film progresses. There’s more to him joining the Dark Side than we thought. What Luke said of his father Vader, who finally sacrificed himself to save his son: “There is still good in him,” applies equally to Kylo Ren.
Fans were promised nostalgia, and they got it. The Force Awakens sees the return of our original heroes Han Solo, Chewbacca ‘Chewie’ (Peter Mayhew), and Leia, who’s now leading the Resistance. It was heartwarming to re-connect with these personalities again, and to see how, after 3 decades, the on-screen chemistry is still there. How we felt when we saw these characters can be accurately described by Solo’s line to Chewie as they reboard his ship the Millennium Falcon: “Chewie, we’re home.”
It’s a feeling that was achieved not only by bringing back the old cast. The Force Awaken’s production designer Darren Gilford revealed in an interview with Thompson on Hollywood that Abrams’ goal was to make this 2015 film’s designs as close to the original trilogy as possible. This meant using more specially built set and models, and matte paintings instead of green screen technology. While the use of computer generated imagery (CGI) was unavoidable, Abrams kept its use to a minimum, unlike the prequels, which to his distaste, used all the CGI at their disposal.
No objections from UrbanWire here, as the landscapes were so detailed and look so real that our jaws dropped each time the scenery changed. A favourite would be the planet of Takodana, location of the first Jedi temple and residence of Lupita Nyong’o’s character, Maz Kanata.
Although we appreciate all the effort Abrams put into linking this movie to the original trilogy and create a familiar treat for fans, the overwhelming number of references and parallels to the old films made it harder for this first movie of a new trilogy to stand out on its own. We didn’t mind the few old phrases put in here and there, but the way parts of the story flowed made it uncomfortably similar to the film’s predecessors for our liking.
The first half of the movie was essentially about transporting the BB droid, BB-8, which held valuable information of Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts, to the Resistance – similar to what Leia did with R2-D2 in Star Wars Episode IV, A New Hope (1977). Other parallels include the enemy’s much bigger replica of the ‘Death Star’, very “creatively” named the ‘Starkiller’. The First Order also obliterates an innocent city with their destructive machine, the way Leia’s planet Alderaan was brutally destroyed with a single blast.
So it may be a stretch to call Star Wars: The Force Awakens the Star Wars movie of all time, as the marketing and trailers made it out to be. The plot could have done with more originality and a better storyline for the new characters to shine. As Forbes has pointed out, the large amount of fan service was probably Disney’s way of exciting fans and hyping them up again after a 10-year absence from the big screen.
Despite The Force Awakens falling slightly short on our expectations, fans will feel that rush from the first frame of the movie right to the closing credits. This should all augur well for the 2 new Star Wars Lands that will be built in Disneyland’s beloved theme parks at the flagship Anaheim location in California, and in Orlando, Florida. And that’s probably The Second Order of business…
Release Date: 17 December
Runtime: 136 Minutes
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley,
John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis