Tuesday, 22 December 2015

OK, same deal as with Spectre - there are loads of spoiler-free reviews out there, all saying the same thing (“There are some stars and a war. It’s great!”), and everyone’s seen the film now anyway, so no point in adding to that pile. Here are my very spoilery notes on Star Wars: The Force Awakens

  • Love love love John Boyega and Daisy Ridley. These two are a lot of fun to spend time with. His swagger and boyish excitement combined with her calm competence and refusal to be treated as a damsel in distress makes for some very good comic moments; her telling him off for grabbing her hand comes to mind. 
  • It’s not a film that takes a breather to explore the characters for too long; rather it constantly throws in character-enlightening moments amongst the action. One that really stuck in my mind was Rey looking at Takodana and saying “I never knew there was so much green in the galaxy” - the sad realisation that someone so adept with spaceships had never actually made it into space before is lovely, especially with Han’s pitying reaction. And then we're immediately exploring an alien cantina - she best get used to the colours, as this is her life for the next three films.
  • Another moment of character development that, fitting for the film’s pace, comes through not stating something - Han never questions whether it’s right for him to get involved in the attack on Starkiller Base, despite having achieved all his earlier goals. Han’s story in the original trilogy was all about whether he’d choose to join the force for good or just stick out for himself, and this offers an understated conclusion to that, with him having been changed for the better by his adventures (and by the responsibility of being a parent).
  • One thing did grate for me about Daisy Ridley’s performance: her voice is too posh. She sounds more like a Queen of Naboo than someone who’s meant to have grown up among the skids of a desert village, scavenging scraps of dead ships to survive. Probably not a problem for American viewers, but it sounded odd to British ears.
  • Very wise to have the two new heroes not be the children of Han/Leia/Luke/Lando/Ackbar, as it fits with Star Wars’ values of anyone being able to become a hero, of supporting the underdog. Plus, them only having heard of people like Luke Skywalker paves the way for one of the most fascinating parts of the film - the fact that the Force and the Jedi have become myths, stories that everyone knows but can’t believe - perhaps like they have for film audiences. 'Those days when Star Wars was brilliant' was kind of a myth for viewers of the prequels. And then when Han says “It’s true. All of it”, Rey and Finn get the opportunity to become part of the next generation of this myth. As do we. Compare that to the everything-must-be-explained mindset which created midichlorians; Abrams and Kasdan’s approach makes it all so much bigger and more magical.
  • And that relates to what makes The Force Awakens so good – its perfect balance of nostalgia and the new, of 1977 and 2015 (entirely avoiding 1999). It feels like classic Star Wars: the worn-down settings, the practical effects, the big uncomplicated adventure story, the sense of humour. And yet it uses modern visual effects where they can help out, it confidently makes a black man and a non-feminised woman the lead characters, and it develops the classic characters rather than throw them in for referential box-ticking. And not a trade negotiation in sight. 
  • Despite what I said about Finn and Rey, it does work for Kylo Ren to be Han and Leia’s son. He’s already established in this universe as a villain – like Luke and Vader in A New Hope, a hero needs to earn their place in the story, while it’s easier for the villain to start fully formed – and the backstory adds weight to that. He still has some development throughout the film, though, clearly not yet at the height of his powers, and the decision to kill Han feels like an important point for him - a reversal of Luke refusing to kill his father and thus refusing to succumb to the dark side.
  • The way Han and Leia keep referring to Ren/Ben as “our son” is awfully clunky - too obviously holding his name back for a reveal.
  • BB-8 is fucking brilliant. I want one. Such good comic relief. His ‘thumbs-up’ is the possibly the funniest moment I’ve seen in a film this year.
  • Supreme Leader Snoke reminded me of Thanos from the Marvel movies - a big dude in a chair whose one personality trait is ‘evil'. There’s not much depth to him here, but like Thanos, there doesn't need to be at this point - there’s a clear parallel with the Emperor’s appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, keeping him mysterious but clearly powerful, and it’ll be interesting to see how he’s developed. I wonder if he’s really that big or if the hologram makes him so?
  • My thoughts during the final shots: “He’s put on a few pounds, hasn’t he?” Also, it should have ended on the close-up.
  • I’ve seen some criticisms that Poe doesn’t appear enough in the movie. For me, this criticism doesn’t fly. Firstly, this is Finn and Rey’s origin story, whereas Poe turns up fully formed, already the best pilot in the galaxy, and fulfils his purposes of being a role model to inspire Finn and doing cool things in the dogfights.  Secondly, a good Star Wars supporting character makes you want more. Boba Fett did less in the whole original trilogy than Poe did in this film, and look at the cult following he’s built up. In that spirit, he gets the right amount of screen time here, but a prequel comic series, or even an anthology film, explaining how Poe got to where he is by the start of Force Awakens could be amazing.
  • On the subject of the anthology movies, it's odd that all the announced spin-off films - Rogue One, Young Han - are set around the original trilogy. That may have sounded exciting to fans before, but once Force Awakens has settled, I think there'll be a hunger for more from this new era. Same with all the new comics etc, and with Battlefront being focused on the Rebels vs Empire conflict. I'm sure that'll change with time for the other media, but the anthology films seem planned out for a good few years and it’s a shame not to have them develop the same era as the main episodes.
  • Back to The Force Awakens, and that death… It was inevitable that a major character from the original trilogy would be killed off - what better way to set up the new villain as a credible threat? Interestingly, I’d actually been spoiled wrongly there - I’d seen a blog in which someone took this shot from the trailer and interpreted it as Rey crying over Chewbacca’s dead, furry body, which seemed annoyingly convincing at the time. As it turns out, that’s actually Finn, and he’s not dead (not sure what the fur-like things are - is it the bush behind them?). So it was good to find that my annoyance at having been spoiled was actually wrong. Anyway, the unlucky soul who did die turned out to be Han. Which makes sense, as Harrison Ford famously wanted to be killed off in Return of the Jedi, only for George Lucas to refuse, so he probably pushed for a way out again. And what a good death scene! The way it offers hope that there’s still good in Ren and then flips it, Chewbacca’s mad rampage… all chillingly good. It's rare for a big franchise movie to properly kill off such an iconic character in a way that feels real and shocking, without a hint of cop-out (the death in Skyfall is the only recent comparison I can think of), and this will become one of the sequel trilogy's defining moments.
  • The big final battle - all the stuff with the guys on the ground is fantastic, but the dogfight section doesn’t work quite as well. There doesn’t seem to be as much of a narrative to it; compared to the trench run of A New Hope, in which they had the clear goal of getting to the end of the trench, this just seems to be a lot of X-Wings flying around, with a bit of a trench thrown in arbitrarily at one point.
  • Is it me, or is the destruction of all those planets brushed over rather quickly? It's hardly mentioned again.
  • Han and Finn putting Captain Phasma in the trash compactor seems a bit harsh… It’s not clear that it kills her, but we know from A New Hope that it damn well could. Killing stormtroopers in battle is fair game in a film called Star Wars, but I don’t want my heroes to brutally execute their enemies.
  • The original Star Wars was influenced by films as diverse as Flash Gordon serials and Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. I noticed similar cinematic nerdiness in the shot of the TIE fighters flying across the jungle sunset, which was taken right from Apocalypse Now. Love it. 
  • There are some stars and a war. it’s great.


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