Review for Star Wars: The Force Awakens
It was May 4th, 2016. What else was I going to watch, other than Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens? Actually this was my first time watching the film, and I waited to watch it on Blu-ray, having long since shunned the cinema experience, overpriced, underwhelming, and with the annoyance of other people. That’s the first time since the original release of The Empire Strikes Back that I haven’t watched a Star Wars film debut in the cinema. I also had a rough idea what the film was about ahead of time. I avoided spoilers for The Phantom Menace, only to find out in the cinema what the film was actually like. Since then, I’ve preferred a little forewarning (although nothing could prepare me for Yoda Pinball in Attack of the Clones, or Vader’s “Noooo!” in Revenge of the Sith). Besides, spoilers may indicate good or bad, but it’s how the film executes those plot details that will tell in the final analysis.
It was actually the director that gave me most concern. After all J.J. Abrams took the moribund Star Trek franchise, rebooted and reinvigorated it, by turning it into his vision of Star Wars. That might make him the ideal director for Star Wars you might think, except for all the lens flares, but the Star Trek movies lost something fundamental to that franchise in the reboot. Fun, summer blockbusters to be sure, but losing the thoughtfulness and humanity that Star Trek originally had. They also turned out to be somewhat style over substance, with great visual moments trumping common sense. I would hate for the same thing to happen to Star Wars, although perhaps having George Lucas hand over the reins is a good thing given the prequel trilogy.
It didn’t end with the destruction of the second Death Star, and the death of the Emperor. The First Order have arisen from the ashes of the Empire, and are determined to restore order to the galaxy, and all that stands against them is the Resistance. As for the Jedi, they still remain a myth, and the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker, is missing. The Resistance are searching for their last hope, so are the First Order, and the one clue to his whereabouts is a map contained in BB-8, X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron’s astromech droid. The First Order track the droid to the desert planet of Jakku, but the droid has found an unlikely saviour in the form of desert scavenger Rey. Together with a defecting stormtrooper named Finn, and hunted by the First Order, Rey tries to get BB-8 back to the Resistance.
The Force Awakens gets a 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on this Blu-ray, and it is impeccable. The image quality is spectacular; the movie has a whole disc to itself, and there’s nothing like compression or banding to worry about. If you want better than this, start thinking about 4k UltraHD. And unlike the special edition original trilogy, and episodes II and III, 4k will benefit The Force Awakens, as J.J. Abrams shot it on film, just as the Force intended. It’s all the better for it and it’s significantly more restrained than Star Trek when it comes to lens flare. J.J. Abrams also chose to shoot as much of the film as practically as possible, which given some of the prequel trilogy’s heavy use of digital backlots is a relief. There were bits in Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith that were wholly CGI (C3PO and R2D2 in the droid factory on Geonosis), while actors often didn’t have environments to interact with. The Force Awakens uses actual sets with digital extensions, and creatures are often costumed actors or puppets. Everything looks and feels real.
You have the choice between DTS-HD MA 7.1 Surround English, DTS-HD HiRes 5.1 French, DD 5.1 Hindi, and DD 2.0 Audio Descriptive English. There are also English, Arabic, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, and French subtitles. Just like the visual component of the disc, the audio can’t be faulted. It’s fantastic, wholly immersive, and bringing the Star Wars universe effortlessly back to life again. Above all John Williams returns with his best Star Wars Score since Jedi, maybe even Empire, in my opinion, nostalgically touching on the classic themes in his score, while creating new pieces for the new characters.
You get two discs in an Amaray case, and the choice of Dark Side or Light Side slipcovers.
The disc is blessedly simple, although the “Network Connection Started” message does flash up when it is inserted. After a language select screen, it goes straight to the animated menu on both discs. The movie disc holds its place in the player memory, and a scene selection widget pops up when the film is paused.
The extras are all on disc 2, although they don’t quite match the extensive nature of the extras on the previous Star Wars releases. Other than the main featurette, they are all piecemeal and brief. You can bet there will be a re-release with a bigger feature set sometime in the future.
The Secrets of the Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey lasts 69:14, and takes us from pre-production to production, with an emphasis on the actors and the practical effects, and sets. I think they’ve realised that watching a computer technician pushing pixels around a screen doesn’t make for an entertaining extra feature.
The Story Awakens: The Table Read lasts 4:01, and offers brief highlights of the first cast gathering.
Crafting Creatures lasts 9:34, and takes us behind the alien costumes and puppets employed in the film.
Building BB-8 lasts 6:03 and reveals how the impossible droid was brought to life.
Blueprint of a Battle lasts 7:02, and shows how the sets were built, and the lightsaber battle at the end of the film was choreographed.
ILM: The Visual Magic of the Force lasts 7:55, and it’s here that you can see the pixel pushers at work.
John Williams: The Seventh Symphony catches up with the composer as he creates yet another memorable soundtrack. This runs to 6:15.
There are six deleted scenes on the disc running to 4:15 in total. You can bet that there are more deleted scenes to this film, indeed some are available online, I believe.
Force For Change lasts 3:22, and looks at the charitable works enacted during the production of this film.
All of the featurettes are in HD, and there is a bit of repetition from the Cinematic Journey extra in all of the smaller featurettes.
I had mixed feelings when I first heard that they would be making more Star Wars films, especially when George Lucas went and ‘sold his children to white slavers’ (I love that quote). Criticise him all you want, and some of his choices with the Special Editions and the prequels are open to criticism, he did create this universe, and knows it and its characters inside and out. I would have liked to have seen the direction he intended for the story, even if someone else held the directorial reins (as happened with Empire and Jedi). But once he sold the franchise, Disney were free to ignore Lucas and take the story in another direction, which is evidently exactly what they did.
On top of that, I was once a Star Wars fanatic, and I lapped up the Expanded Universe that kept the franchise ticking over from the early nineties onward. Naturally a new film set thirty years after Jedi would have to jettison all of the Expanded Universe and go its own direction. That might be disappointing to some, but can you imagine how much of the budget would have gone on licensing characters like Admiral Thrawn, Mara Jade, Jacen, Jaina and Anakin Solo, Ben Skywalker, and the fantastic worlds they adventured in? On the bright side they did also jettison all that New Jedi Order nonsense which eventually stopped me from being a Star Wars fanatic.
My real concern was that J. J. Abrams would do to Star Wars what he did to Star Trek, although I wasn’t worried about him turning this into Star Wars. The two Star Trek movies that Abrams directed were great fun to watch, while you were watching them. They are entertaining, rip-snorting adventure movies with great characters and thrilling action. But they don’t stand up to scrutiny after the fact, ridden with plot holes, and dumbed down for low attention span audiences. They also have logical inconsistencies that can annoy a thoughtful viewer beyond irritation. I didn’t want that to happen to Star Wars.
It happened to Star Wars. The Force Awakens is a stupendously entertaining, thrill ride of an action adventure, one that had me gripped from beginning to end. Abrams has rediscovered the sheer joy of travelling to a galaxy far, far away, and there is very much the original trilogy feel to the movie. The characters are engaging and likeable, the dialogue is great, the pace of the story is relentless, and the action sequences are fantastic. The new generation of heroes, Rey, Finn, and Poe are just as vibrant a trio as Luke, Han and Leia were in the original trilogy, although having Rey as the main protagonist definitely makes things more interesting. It’s also great to see Han, Chewie and the Falcon again, and they provide the necessary link between the old and the new. I loved watching The Force Awakens, and my first instinct, which I have been defying, was to watch it all over again.
But it’s been a few days now, and I’ve had time to think about the movie, and while it is a great action adventure, evoking just the right degree of nostalgia for the old, while keeping things fresh and original too in terms of the characters, it doesn’t stand up at all under scrutiny. For one thing, somewhat oxymoronically, The Force Awakens feels old, as well as new. George Lucas’ original trilogy was surfing the leading edge of special effects technology back in the seventies and eighties, and he presented something we had never seen before. The prequel trilogy was surfing the leading edge of visual effects technology, the whole CGI revolution coming to a head for those films, and once again we saw something that we’d never seen before. Alas it turns out that CGI dates faster than motion control, and obsolescence looms already for films shot digitally at 2k resolution. The same was true for what Lucas did for film sound. But The Force Awakens was made using tried and trusted technologies; it doesn’t actually innovate and present something new. This is all old hat by now.
That extends to the story, a complaint that has been well-aired on the Internet, but is worth re-iterating. Rather than present something new, Abrams has in essence remade A New Hope, with elements of Empire thrown in. This isn’t new, after all George Lucas wrote his prequel trilogy with a sense of cyclical mythology, so in broad strokes, Episodes I, II, and III echoed IV, V, and VI, but it was never as blatant as The Force Awakens. A droid with some damaging information to the Empire escapes to a desert planet, where it’s picked up by a farm boy, who with a smuggler and a wise old man who provides some exposition about the past, try and return it to the Rebellion, just in time to use the information to battle the Death Star. A droid with a map to Luke Skywalker escapes the First Order to a desert planet where it is picked up by a scavenger and defecting stormtrooper, who try to return it to the Resistance, and on the way they meet an old smuggler who provides some exposition about the past, just in time to battle Starkiller Base. At least be subtle about these things!
But my biggest criticism comes down to Abrams’s complete lack of logic and internal consistency, something which he demonstrated in spades with the Trek movies. He has no concept of the size, or scale of the universe, and makes Han Solo’s use of parsecs as a time unit the height of genius in comparison. In Star Trek, Vulcan was destroyed, which Spock witnessed with the naked eye on a planet, light years away in the original continuity. Even if it was in the same system in the movie you just don’t see neighbouring planets as spheres in the sky. He does it again in The Force Awakens. Take Starkiller Base, which makes no sense whatsoever. It’s a doomsday weapon that sends a planet destroying laser beam, faster than light, across the galaxy to destroy its target. And people can watch this faster than light laser beam, crawling slowly across the sky! For each shot, Starkiller Base has to eat a star for fuel, which I find dumb for many reasons. Starkiller Base needs a hyperdrive, or it will run out of stars to eat pretty quickly. But if it has a hyperdrive, what does it need with a planet destroying faster than light laser? Just go to the planet that you want destroyed, and eat its sun! The first Death Star’s weakness was a thermal exhaust port that was only accessible by snub fighters, and vulnerable to proton torpedoes. They sussed that out for the second Death Star, so the Rebellion had to attack before construction was completed, and fly into the superstructure and hit the main reactor directly. Starkiller Base’s weakness is a big ass kick me sign! And don’t get me started on Kylo Ren’s lightsaber with its cross-guards, and how Rey magically figures out how to use the Force without any training.
The original trilogy was succinct in establishing its universe, a long standing Republic overthrown and turned into the totalitarian Empire, and a rebellion looking to restore the status quo. In The Force Awakens we have the First Order, we have a Republic, who I assume are the good guys, and we have a Resistance. Who are they resisting? If the Republic are the good guys, the First Order the bad guys, why aren’t they in a direct confrontation? This film needed some exposition to explain its universe; it leaves too many questions hanging, which I hope Rian Johnson will answer in the next film. If there is a weakness to The Force Awakens, it’s its roster of villains, who aren’t a patch on the Empire and Darth Vader. Snoke is a blank canvas yet to be filled in, while Hux and his First Order were like childish neo-Nazis compared to the classy Moff Tarkin and his Imperial Navy. As for Kylo Ren, a dark side brat with daddy issues prone to embarrassing tantrums with his daft looking lightsaber. I actually thought that Anakin Skywalker was a more nuanced and complex portrayal in comparison.
I loved watching The Force Awakens, I certainly got the same Star Wars feeling that I did with the original trilogy, and I am looking forward to watching it again. This is the most fun I’ve had watching a Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi. I also think that it’s the worst Star Wars movie to date. The Prequel trilogy had its problems in abundance, but at least it was about something, it had a story to tell. With the Force Awakens, Abrams is more concerned with evoking nostalgia, and making things look kewl, than actually telling a story that makes sense, and adding something new. And there are too many gaps and plot deficiencies in the film. On the bright side, it can be all fixed by Episode 8, as long as Rian Johnson starts filling in the blanks that Abrams didn’t bother with here.