Monday 21 December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) - Movie Review

http://redribbonreviewers.wordpress.comOf any film that I’ve seen this year, along with the few that are still scheduled for the rest of the month, this is easily the one I was looking forward to the least. Partly because, all year, this film has been built up like a cinematic Second Coming and the advertising for it has been beyond obnoxious, both officially and through word-of-mouth. But also partly because I fall right in the middle in terms of my opinion on the Star Wars films.

I don’t love the original films: They’re still (mostly) good and Empire has definitely earned its place in sci-fi canon, but I don’t see them being quite as good as the rest of the world does. However, I also don’t hate the prequels: They definitely have their issues but, in terms of action and even some of the more dramatic moments, these all have their good points that have been widely ignored by history. Hell, as much hate that has been thrown at Jar-Jar Binks over the years, I still maintain that C-3PO is far more irritating and, as a racial stereotype, he pales in comparison to the wise old sage with squinty eyes that speaks in broken English that the world seems to kindly disregard. With all this in mind, I’m not exactly the best person to be seeing this movie; if I wasn’t obligated to watch everything that shows at my local, I probably would have just ignored this entirely. However, since I wouldn’t be doing my job with looking at easily the biggest release of the year, here I am.

The plot: After the disappearance of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) sends out ace Rebellion pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) to find a map that may lead to his current whereabouts. After a run-in with the newly established First Order, led by Sith Lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the map finds itself in the hands of scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) who, while trying to return the map’s holder BB-8 to its master, runs into former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega). The two end up embroiled in the war between the Rebellion and the First Order, as they both discover their own connections to the Force.

The cast is full of amazing performances, both in expected and unexpected ways. Harrison Ford is his roguish self again and, together with Fisher, makes for some surprisingly emotional moments. Hamill’s role is a lot smaller than I was expecting but, without going into spoilers, he still makes for one of the most powerful moments of the film… even if it went on a little too long. Ridley carries on the series tradition of strong female leads, both in acting and in character, as her portrayal of the self-sufficient scavenger is really damn good. Isaac has built a handy reputation for cocky but likeable scumbags that does him well here, as he comes across like exactly the kind of guy I would fly with if I had to take down a planet cannon.

Boyega is probably the strongest of the entire cast, balancing being the comic relief and audience avatar with some legitimately hard-hitting moments when he talks about the First Order. Domhnall Gleeson… okay, after seeing him in About Time and Ex Machina, I had no idea he was even capable of being this intense. When he gives his speech to the Stormtroopers, he projects both an extremely charismatic leader and the kind of guy who would slit your throat with his bare hands if you disobeyed him; either way, you’re going to follow him. Speaking of surprisingly effective villains, Driver could have so easily fallen into the trap of only being good on-screen when keeps his mask on, and admittedly he does lose a bit of intimidation when he does. However, what lacks in intimidation, he makes up for in sheer danger with how well he plays this very emotionally unhinged character.

While the special effects in the original trilogy were definitely ground-breaking for their time, they definitely haven’t aged all that well. The effects in the prequels may create an okay visual aesthetic but they certainly aren’t all that great, and the special edition additions are… confounding and only look worse in comparison to the actual footage. The effects work here isn’t just good; this is the kind of stuff that I am genuinely expecting to stand the test of time. Abrams’ approach to the visuals is something to seriously be commended, as he chose to make everything look as practical as possible. Normally, that’d be a no-brainer, except in something with as strong a design aesthetic as Star Wars, it’s probably one of the few times that it can be forgiven for going after the CGI-heavy route. Here, the action happening on screen ends up having greater impact because so much of it is actually happening on screen. Not only that, the CGI work is really well-integrated as well, particularly with the lightsaber effects.

One of the big/only complaints currently in circulation about this film is how it feels too similar to A New Hope and, in a way, they’re correct. The plot carries a lot of the same beats and the new characters Rey/Finn/Poe can easily be compared to the old characters Leia/Luke/Han. However, this is weirdly not even that big an issue when it comes to the overall film. Firstly, the elements that do feel reminiscent of the original are changed around enough that it doesn’t feel like a total rehash. Secondly… I’m sorry if I have to break this to people, but A New Hope isn’t even all that good on its own. The plot developments were weak, the characterisation was stock and would frequently come out of nowhere and the action is rather bland. Here, the plot feels like more effort was put into the particulars, the characterisation is solid and the action is solid as hell. The dialogue may feel a bit out-of-place with its higher technobabble quotient than Star Wars is used to, which I’m guessing is because Abrams is still getting used to not doing Star Trek, but other than that we also don’t get any of the writing gaffs of the rest of the series. No awkward one-off remarks, no insipid ‘romantic’ dialogue and only a couple of cheesy moments. If this is going to be called a glorified remake, then it’s a remake in the style of David Cronenberg’s The Fly.

But that’s in comparison to the rest of the series; how does it factor on its own? I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting a whole lot in this category. You have Terminator: Genisys to thank for making me assume that we were only going to get the first third of a complete story, since this is another film that has the other two parts of the trilogy already guaranteed for it. Well, despite a few bits of teasing for future instalments, this still manages to deliver as its own story, even when removed from the rest of the saga. The character drama works especially well because not only is the acting really well done but the writing knows when not to take itself seriously. Whether it’s making in-jokes about the Force (as this film portrays it, at least) or just making fun of how awkward Finn is because of his upbringing, this is probably the first time in the saga that a film has aimed for comedy. The closest we’ve gotten to this previously is the laughably bad ‘romantic’ dialogue from Clones and Revenge. As a result, we get a film that doesn’t constantly feel like it has to be intense and/or maudlin and can have some fun as well; it embodies the aura of the franchise as a whole, really.

All in all, even as someone who feels burnt out from just how much exposure this film has gotten, both in ads for itself and its use in advertising for completely random companies, this was genuinely impressive. The acting is stellar, the writing probably hits a handful of high points for the series and actively improves on past installments, the action is well-portrayed and the effects work sets a new benchmark for other films to reach. As a whole, I’d probably call this the best in the entire saga, although bear in mind that I’m not the most intense Star Wars fan in the world.

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