REVIEW: Star Wars, The Force Awakens (2015)

I’ve been trying to get on with my life, but I can’t. Not whilst J.J. Abrams’ heavily flawed vision of Star Wars continues to dominate headlines and Facebook feeds. Nor can I sleep whilst a cinema-going public – who seem to have forgotten the basic elements of film-making – need educating. So changing the title of this blog for one moment to Just Awful Movies, let me lay out in no uncertain terms why The Force Awakens is the worst movie you ever thought was good.

1) It is a lame rip off

I don’t think anyone can even deny this… oh no wait some idiot did try… but what I don’t understand is anyone above the age of 5 not being outraged by this? If you want to watch a Star Wars film with the original feel of Star Wars, watch A New Hope again. It’s a great movie. Retelling the exact same story with a couple of new characters thrown in is like telling the same joke twice. Ie. not only completely lame, but it even detracts from the first time you told it when it was genuinely funny. If there’s only one thing any true fan would ask of a Star Wars director is at least please don’t trespass on our beloved episodes 4-6. Thanks Abrams, way to ruin everything.

In case you didn't see the similarities...
In case you didn’t see the similarities…

In the world’s most famous fantasy universe, one of infinite story-telling scope and potential, to see someone slavishly copy the franchise they are supposed to be enhancing is a bad joke of galactic proportions. Couldn’t you even change the desert planet to a jungle or fucking-any-other-terrain planet? Did the epic confrontation really have to also take place on a bridge as with The Empire Strikes Back? Nearly every scene was simply an inferior shadow of a former great, and even half the jokes were copied from the originals. With a near infinite budget and no doubt the entire world’s film-making talent at your disposal, for Disney to settle for this is so lazy, half-assed and lame as to be completely unforgivable.

2) Credibility Zero

The first thing an idiot says when you criticize The Force Awakens, or indeed any sci-fi film, for being unbelievable is “It’s a sci-fi film, what do you expect?”. Such people shouldn’t be allowed to have opinions on films or literature. Credibility, for a fantasy or science fiction film, means creating the rules of the universe/world you’re telling your story in and sticking to them (Game of Thrones for example does a fantastic job of being credible, within the world of its own making, despite the appearance of magic and dragons). And then on top of that it should be credible in the same way that every other film should be credible… we should believe in the characters and their actions should make sense given their unique personality and motives, the action scenes should try to at least vaguely take into account the laws of physics (and in this case as well what we know of The Force). In fact The Force Awakens failed in almost every sense to be credible. Here are some things I can remember off hand… (although to be honest I stopped paying careful attention about half way through as my hopes that this would even be a vaguely satisfying Star Wars experience had withered and died by then).

i. Finn’s rejection of being a Storm Trooper. This was particularly disappointing as it was one of the Abrams’ only original ideas and could have been an awesome story line that ran through the whole film… I loved Finn’s inner conflict in the opening scenes and the fact that watered-down-Darth-Vader might be onto him injected some early drama. When they asked for Finn’s blaster report I was getting nervous for the poor guy. However a few minutes later and the scriptwriter spunked his pants early and ruined everything. For the rest of the film Finn was a gloopy stain embarrassingly clinging onto parts of the plot where he didn’t belong.

ii. The next bit that jarred was BB-8 taking sides with Finn and not Rey, the girl he had seemingly formed a loyal bond with. It was obvious that the filmmakers’ had decided that the droid had to take Finn’s side in order to drive the plot forward, so (not for the first nor last time) they simply didn’t give a fuck about whether that was really likely or not and crowbarred the plot in the direction they wanted it to head in.

iii. Han’s involvement in general. Almost the only joy for me in the whole film was seeing the veterans back in business, but in terms of Captain Solo’s appearance contributing to a plot line that made sense this was strictly a marriage of convenience. (As a side note I absolutely loathed the two pronged ambush of him on the spaceship by the debt collectors, a ridiculous scene that the the filmmakers managed to make yet more risible by adding some CGI beholders [ripped off from Dungeons & Dragons btw] inexplicably bouncing around the place in an ill-advised and unnecessary attempt to artificially ramp up the adrenaline at a completely inappropriate moment of the film).

iv. It’s a lamentable trait of nearly every action movie these days to include preposterous stunts to show just how god damn epic they are (or rather to disguise how piss poor the storyline really is) and I wonder if modern audiences have seen so many of these ridiculous sequences that they are now immune to their implausability… Hollywood recalibrating our brains to accept, and even demand, increasingly ludicrous stunts (after all they are easy to deliver… especially now with CGI)? The one that got me the most was The Millennium Falcon breaking through the defense shields of the new Death Star (yawn) at the speed of light. Considering that navigating through hyperspace ain’t supposed to be like dusting crops (thanks Abrams for another good trampling over the originals!) the fact that they could navigate this particular light speed exit so precisely and then screech to a theatrical halt instead of atomising themselves on the sun-munching superweapon was convenient to say the least.

v. Which draws me onto a superweapon that consumes suns. Really? I mean really? Well no need to bother firing the thing as all the planets with life would presumably die out very quickly anyway once you’ve destroyed their solar system. Inevitably the more epic one tries to be, the more ridiculous the results. Playing a game of one upmanship with your own franchise is plain dumb.

vi. Another thing that bothered me was that after the heroes return to the rebel base without Han, Leia walks straight past her longtime friend and Han’s closest buddy Chewie to console instead a girl she hardly knows. This ties into the director’s amateurish handling of time (see below) that doesn’t allow him to let anything happen offscreen, as well as his constant willingness to sacrifice credibility for convenience… after all Leia has something to say to Rey to keep the plot moving, so fuck what should happen, we’ll get out the crowbar again.

vii. I think many other people have criticised Ren’s sudden mastery of the Force. This seems a relatively minor evil given the constant and flagrant transgressions against credibility the film perpetrates throughout, however the frustration for me stems here from the fact that it could easily have been fixed. Why could she have not accidentally used The Force in one of the opening scenes? Maybe an accidental Jedi mind trick on the alien scrap trader when they were bargaining over the cost of her finds? This would have told us that she has some raw untrained powers, and when they come to the fore it would be credible – and not simply convenient. Credible and not convenient. Credible and not convenient. Repeat after me…

viii. Another really dumb-assed poor action movie cliche is the chasm opening up exactly between Kylo Ren and Rey in the middle of their lightsaber duel. I can almost imagine the scriptwriter’s internal monologue: I can’t think of any good reason why one of these two doesn’t kill the other… I know how about we stick a fucking great chasm in there. Genius, that’s why they pay me the big bucks! Lazy, lazy, lazy.

The thing about credibility is yes, it will be stretched by nearly every film, especially in the sci-fi genre, but it’s like the energy bar of your avatar in an arcade game. It can survive and even recover from one or two minor or even major blows, but if you repeatedly hammer at it, without any reprieve, it will quickly die, and no discerning film fan will be able to enjoy your movie any more.

3) Weak Characters & Casting

Now this might be personal, but I didn’t really take to any of the new characters. Finn was likeable enough and John Boyega did his best with him, but as I said I think his journey should have been taking place as a separate and more fleshed out storyline (if at all). Rey has an offputtingly plummy posh English accent, but was spunky enough and probably the best of the new wave (although hardly on par with Carry Fisher’s Princess Leia in the originals), whilst Poe Dameron felt to me like a horribly cheesy throw back to the Buck Rodgers school of space fighter pilots.

Undoubtedly the biggest let downs however were the baddies. Both Kylo Ren and General Hux (can no one come up with more than four letter names any more by the way?) looked like kids fresh out of drama school, not two Machiavellian faces charged with ruling the galaxy. Here are two hints for you Abrams… 1) if you want us to fear your main villain, don’t make him smash up a control panel with his lightsaber – the effect was that of a petulant toddler throwing his toys out the pram. 2) watch a couple more episodes of Scooby Doo. You unmask a villain at the end of the story, not before. Especially when unmasked he appears about as menacing as a prepubescent Marilyn Manson. When you compare them to Vader, The Emperor and Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin… well in fact there is no comparison. Bad guys need bad faces if they are to be taken seriously: they need to be cold-eyed, lined, aged and asymmetrical, if not downright deformed. The originals would be nothing without their bad guys, and here TFA falls sadly short.

You don't mess with these guys...
You don’t mess with these guys…

Two more horrendous casting/character decisions were that ineffectual Scottish kid masquerading an intergalactic debt collector and an annoying mystic who looked like she belonged in a Pixar movie, not a Star Wars one.

Even the aliens hadn’t got noticeably better since 1977.

4) Televisual Style

The first scene, of the Storm Troopers in the dropship, was hats off fantastic. You knew the shit was about to go down, and the strobing lights gave these masked harbingers of death a real kick ass menace that I hoped was going to set the tone for the movie. However apart from that and Rey sledding down the sand in front of the wrecked carcass of a Star Destroyer (also fantastic!), lightsabers hissing in the snow and the sweeping landscape shots at the very end, there were not as many stand out visual moments as I would have liked. For the most part the film had the slick feel of a high budget television series, with too many close ups, too much make up and nowhere near enough wear and tear on the costumes and props (here the originals’ lower budget may have been a boon). Star Wars should have the feel of an epic film, not something for the small screen.

5) Truly Amateurish Handling of Time

A far bigger problem than the look however, was the pacing of the film and the handling of time in general. Characters would arrive on and off set like actors on stage, with little thought about how they might have actually got there. Meanwhile one episode would segue right into the next one. This is how idiots write a novel or screenplay. A good script is edited to just include the key details needed to tell the story, but what you don’t do is bend and shape the plot (beyond credibility) so that these details happen in one uninterrupted chain all directly after each other. You have a cut, and show the characters in a change of clothes in a different location to show the passage of time. Meanwhile in those bits of time which you don’t show the characters can do boring things like fill in each other on what has happened, mourn a lost buddy, and you know things that humans have to do like eat, sleep and shit. Abrams’ inability to handle time correctly leads to a simplistic cartoon universe, undermining once again the film’s credibility.

6) Inappropriate Humour

When this (now famous) reviewer in The Vatican says The Force Awakens is not appropriate I have to agree completely, and nowhere is the film’s inappropriateness manifested more evidently than in its humour. The distinctly modern banter between Finn and Rey is modelled on the Friends and How I Met Your Mother brand of American TV humour and – whilst it did produce a few laughs – it felt completely out of place in Star Wars, especially when these 21st century jokers are standing right next to protagonists from the originals (who by the grace of all the gods at least keep their own humour in character). This was pure pandering to a new audience. (Which I get, but I am critiquing the film as a work of art, not as a commercial exercise…).

As for those clever jokes knowingly referencing the original films (“you’ve changed your hair” – in fact Leia had already changed her infamous buns for plaids by The Empire Strikes Back, a detail which I’m sure the scriptwriters knew but ignored, so the joke falls flat) are another cheap way to get a laugh from your casual movie goer, but in fact they wrench us out of what should be a convincing fantasy and squarely remind us this has all been made in a studio. Knowing references like these are for metacinematic films like Scream, Wayne’s World and Spaceballs. Star Wars should not be taking the piss out of itself, however tempting (and guess what, easy) that might be. Another bad call by Abrams and co..

Final Verdict

I really can’t see how any Star Wars fan would like this movie and even less any discerning film fans. From a story telling point of view The Force Awakens is a disaster, ditching a credible storyline and well worked character development in favour of jumbling up all of the most popular elements of the series with a few new characters into a messy rip off almost completely bereft of originality. Watching it left me with that grubby feeling that I’d just bought into a carefully marketed product of mainstream franchised cinema, much like the recent Batman and Bond films (that require an ever-increasingly low IQ to be able to sit through). And far worse than the damage done by episodes 1-3, which at least have proved easy enough to ignore, with its bastardisation of episodes 4 and 5 and emotion trading on the original characters this felt like the worst betrayal yet perpetrated on Star Wars fans.

If however story credibility and integrity are not important to you (maybe you are celebrating your 6th birthday soon?) then I can see how you might have enjoyed some of the funnier jokes, passable action and sci-fi imagery – whilst seeing Han, Leia and Luke back in action again, even in these highly compromised surrounds, was genuinely and spine-tinglingly brilliant.

Reaction to the Reactions

Given that TFA was so obviously and painfully a poor movie, naturally I find the vast outpouring of positive reviews all over the world (including by many respected media and friends) all the more perplexing. I can only surmise that expectations were so damaged by the Lucas-led prequels, and that fans were so desperate to enjoy this movie, that they’ve watched it through squinted eyelids unable or unwilling to see its layer upon layer of plot, character and style flaws or to call out its consistently lazy story telling. In fact one sign of the desperation for people to love this movie is the ardent defences and far-fetched explanations ordinary folk are putting together to cover up plot holes and defend all of the many nonsensical details that passed during the 2 hours and 16 mins. I’ll point to this one of how Darth Vader’s helmet reached Kylo Ren as an example. Quite how Disney has achieved this mass hypnosis of their combined sense and sensibilities and turned them into a collective, and angrily defensive, PR machine for the franchise is beyond me… could it be the best Jedi mind trick of all?

I wish I could join in this renewed global celebration of Star Wars, but right now all those preaching that The Force Awakens is a fantastic and triumphant return of the series appear to me just like delusional religious fanatics preaching the certainty of blissful eternal life in heaven. I’d love to be dumb open-minded enough to believe them, but I know what I’ve seen with my own eyes – and it was purgatory at best.

Nope, for me to feel the true power of The Force once again there’s only one thing for it: I’ll have to dust off my Widescreen VHS edition of A New Hope and go back not just to A Long Time Ago, but to A Long Time Ago in 1977.

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