Star Wars: The Force Awakens still

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

It’s a sad truism of writing today that the less something needs writing about, the more writing there will be on it. Major pop-cultural events like the release of a new Star Wars film are relentlessly covered, from pre-release promotional puffery to post-release criticism. The reason for this is as simple as could be: people want to read about things they care about, even if what they end up reading tells them nothing new or of substance. And so this writing is produced: publications and websites want readers because readers mean revenue, and even non-commercial writers want readers because readers are often their primary means of validation. For all such parties, it feels good to feel part of a conversation.

With that in mind, here’s a short review of the new Star Wars film!

It’s quickly apparent whilst watching The Force Awakens that there’s a greater degree of technical competence involved than in preceding instalments. It’s also clear that the film is content to roost in the shadow of those which came before. Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World was criticised for its director’s fannishness towards the preceding films; let me tell you now that The Force Awakens has set a new bar for this very modern cinematic trend. Its opening shot reframes the famous Star Destroyer shot from A New Hope’s opening, and when it comes to its acknowledgements of its forebears that reframing is about as adventurous as it gets.

Bearing in mind that I’m not a huge Star Wars fan – I think before now there was only one good film in the lot and it’s mostly Star Wars videogames that have produced my embarrassingly expansive knowledge of the franchise – here’s a list of a few of the many, many deferential references I spotted. Greg Grunberg is the new version of rebel pilot Jek Porkman whilst Oscar Isaac is the new Wedge Antilles. There’s a new version of the Death Star trench run. A young Jedi-to-be is left abandoned on a desert planet by her parents. Did you miss the grunginess of A New Hope’s cantina? Don’t worry, there’s a new version of it here. Someone falls into an apparently bottomless pit when they meet the wrong end of a lightsabre. A rebel gets captured but it’s okay because the secret plans were left with a droid. A Republic planet is blown up by a superweapon of familiar planetary dimensions.

It’s likely that slavish devotion is exactly what many audiences wanted out of a new Star Wars film – that and the guiding hand of a competent director. And on the latter point it’s difficult to fault The Force Awakens provided you’re on board with the cinematography of modern blockbusters. It’s visually stimulating when the camera pans around the film’s many varied sets and we soak in their tremendous artistry and detail, or when top-notch digital composition offers us thrilling dogfights between X-Wings and TIE Fighters in the background of similarly engaging ground battles.

The Force Awakens is certainly an entertaining film. It’s also dumb as a sack of hammers, and a sense of ennui is likely to accompany watching it – if you’re able to suppress the almost pre-sexual excitement you might feel at the thought of a new, non-terrible Star Wars movie. It’s overly long – or perhaps that’s just a byproduct of knowing exactly how almost every event is likely to turn out – and cloddishly unsubtle, something that’s campishly capped by the closing scene and its almost parodic orchestral crescendo.

And yet as well as weaving a story of individuals caught up in galactic intrigue that, for all that it’s problematic and often stupid and clearly driven by the exigencies of plot and franchise, is fun and exciting, The Force Awakens has many wonderful small moments. In its first act we see a desert planet littered with the ruins and wreckage of war on a space operatic scale, from star destroyers half-buried in the sand to a scavenger donning the battered helmet of a long-dead Rebel pilot. The new Starkiller superweapon is at once laughable as a ten-times-the-size Death Star and impressive because of its atmosphere and living ecosystems. The designs of the alien and droid extras that appear throughout are wonderfully inventive. It’s simply a shame that, at present, the priorities in film-making continue to be developing convincing and coherent visual languages whilst largely not bothering to apply the same level of thought to plot, character or setting.

Still, if you can resist the impulse to push your fingers through the wet tissue paper that is your suspension of disbelief, you may well enjoy Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s a very expensive science fiction film that is not awful, and is certainly more consistent with what the franchise has offered before now than its director’s stabs at Star Trek.

[ Want to read even more about this one film? I recommend Nick Mamatas’ review and Kris Straub’s poking of fun. ]

2 Responses to “Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
  1. Rachel says:

    It’s a very expensive science fiction film that is not awful, and is certainly more consistent with what the franchise has offered before now than its director’s stabs at Star Trek.

    Yesssss. Both SW:TFA and STID are re-hashes of loads of stuff that went before and I think part of the difference is that Abrams’ Star Wars film is a film made for Star Wars fans and he’s said that the Star Trek films are made for “regular movie-goers.” So I guess that’s why Star Trek is a great re-introduction to all these characters and STID is kind of just badly made and misses the point. It didn’t surprise me that Abrams was a Star Wars fan and admitted that he never really got into Star trek.

    Mostly TFA has made me really want to go back and read all the Star Wars books I’ve got and maybe hit the library for newer ones.

  2. Shaun CG says:

    There’s still a big part of me that wants to poke fun at reading expanded universe tie-in fiction, but I quite liked the one Karen Traviss novel I’ve read (City of Pearl) and I’ve heard her Republic Commando books were pretty good, so… instead I will suggest checking them out if you’ve not already? :)