When back in 2012, George Lucas decided to sell Lucasfilm for $4.1 billion, he couldn’t have imagined how things would turn out in the long run. To give him credit, he put Kathleen Kennedy in charge, whom he had worked with over the years, and whom he wrongly thought, would try to protect his legacy. He even wrote outlines for the new trilogy that Disney acquired along with Lucasfilm. It was clearly stated on the contract, though, that Disney was under no obligation to use these outlines, or any of the existing Star Wars Extended Universe books that had come out over the years, to develop the new trilogy. As soon as Disney took control of the property, all said Star Wars EU content was considered non-cannon, and only movies, films, TV shows and books produced under the Disney banner, would be considered cannon from then on. Before the ink on the contract was dry, Disney started working on a Grand plan to release, from 2015 on, one Star Wars movie per year. The idea was to make back their investment as soon as possible, as they though they had overpaid for the property. So, they would be releasing a Star Wars movie from the main storyline every two years, and in the intervening years, a spin-off Star Wars movie with characters and plots relating to the main story would also come out. In no time at all, the market would be overflown with Star Wars movies, and all the related merchandise. Gone were the days when people had to wait three years, or even 16 years, which was the time that passed between the release of Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, to see a Star Wars movie. This, among other more damning circumstances, was what would eventually cause Star Wars fatigue, not only among the fans, but the occasional viewer.
Disney thought that the fans, being as dissapointed as they were with the prequel trilogy, would flock to see the new movies, as they wanted to go back to basics, and offer, both the fans and new generations, a new story, with new characters, and those characters from the first trilogy, that would hearken back to the look and spirit of the Original trilogy. All of this, in an attempt to wash out the bad taste left from the prequel trilogy. Even though I don’t agree with most people when it comes to bashing the prequels, I can see what Disney was trying to achieve here, and it does look like a sound approach, even working to some extent.
The good stuff
The Force Awakens is not objectively a bad movie. Far from it. It has all the thematic and visual tropes that a Star Wars movie would have. You’ve got your bad guys (The Empire/ The First Order), your good guys (the Resistance/Alliance), the plucky young man/lady, who’s destined for great things ( Luke Skywalker/ Rey), the cocky and daring pilot ( Han Solo/ Poe Dameron), the big baddie, complete with a mask and black outfit ( Darth Vader/Kylo Ren), and a massive threat to the Galaxy that must be eliminated at all costs, ( The Death Star/ Starkiller Base). It’s got excellent production values. Some of the biggest names in the industry like Production Designer Rick Carter, Costume Designer Michael Kaplan, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, Sound Designer Matthew Wood, the natural heir to Ben Burtt, Creature and Special Effects Supervisor Neal Scanlan, the great John Williams returning, once again, to the musical landscape of Star Wars, and an effective Director in J.J Abrams, supervising it all. So, what’s wrong with this picture?. It’s all too familiar, that’s what. Kathleen Kennedy, J.J Abrams and co, were so concerned with going back to basics, that they basically ended up re-hashing the first Star Wars movie. And that’s the problem right there. The film feels like a soft reboot of Star Wars. The characters, situations and conclusion to the story, a copy and paste of A New Hope. Sure, they change some things around, and rushly develop some characters, with no explanation whatsoever, but let’s discuss the positives first.
A return to basics, as I said earlier, is the most positive aspect of the movie. They went back to shooting in location, and built as many of the sets as they could. It was also the first Star Wars movie to be shot in film since The Phantom Menace, with a mixture of 35 and 70mm IMAX cameras. They also went back to using manually, and mechanically controlled puppets for most of the strange alien creatures seen on-screen. Actors performing in suits were also used for most of the creatures, with some added CGI to enhance the look, and some of the features. For the most challenging alien characters, like Supreme Leader Snoke and Maz Kanada, they used Motion Capture. The marriage of both techniques produced unique results, and a seamless integration with the Live Action elements of the story. Most of the sets were recreated in Pinewood Studios, England, both inside the stages, and on the Studio’s back lot. The Millenium Falcon, the First Order’s Star Destroyer Hangar, the interior of the Starkiller base and the snowbound Forrest where the final confrontation between Kylo and Rey takes place, were some of the sets built there. There were also some small and larger sets built when Principal Photography in Abu Dhabi started, which was used to recreate to junkyard town on the planet Jakku.
The dynamic between the cast was also very good; especially between John Boyega and Oscar Isaac. Both actors have very good chemistry; their friendship totally believable. So is Boyega’s Finn relationship with Daisy Ridley’s Rey. Their comedic timing is great, and they play off each other very well. As for the old cast, we only get to see Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker at the very end, and with no dialogue at all. Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford slip right back into their respective roles. C3-PO and R2-D2 are just as we remember them. So is Chewbacca, even though, due to age and injury, Peter Mayhew couldn’t get back into the suit as much as he wanted. Instead, Finish former basketball player Joonas Suotamo steps in to replace him for the most active scenes, and would come back for both The Last Jedi, and Solo, A Star Wars Story. But, who really steals the show for me is the new addition to the Droid family, BB-8. The spherical Astrodroid, which very much resembles a snowman, steals the limelight everytime it’s on-screen. A feat of engineering, they had to build several models, one to be carried around, a rod puppet operated by a puppeteer, to run around the sets, that would be painted off screen in Post-production, and a radio controlled one to move the different appendages and the rotating head.
The lightsabre fighting style was also a return to the old ways. More crude, rough around the edges, and not as stylized as the lightsabre fights on the prequels, it was more reminiscent of the Original trilogy than anything else, even though Kylo Ren’s overly designed lightsabre is, in my opinion, very impractical.
Overall, a wise mixture of old school techniques with Computer graphics, and the fact that it was shot on film, gives the final product a very filmic and organic look. They’re no flat looking digital landscapes. It has the feel of a lived-in world.
Technical and artistic aspects aside, the movie is a bit of a let down. Basically, because they didn’t have a strong enough script. Sure, they’re some interesting ideas in there; Finn’s background as a former Stormtrooper being one of them, the mystery behind Rey’s parentage, and her relation with Luke Skywalker. The rest of it is just a re-hash of old ideas, which is quite surprising given Lawrence Kasdan was involved in the writing ( his was the idea of Finn being a defecting Stormtrooper). You would think that he’d be able to come up with a more interesting overall plot for the movie. No explanation is given for the current state in which the Galaxy finds itself. Who are the First Order?. Where do they come from?. How are they funded?. Was everything that Luke and Co go through in the Original trilogy, for naught?. The main villain of the story is another massive let down. This is, in no way, Adam Driver’s fault. He does what he can with the part, given how badly written his character is. He comes off as a whiny teenager in desperate need of recognition. His tantrum when he learns of Finn and Rey’s escape and pretty much, every time things don’t go his way, is laughable. Another annoying aspect of the story, and one that doesn’t make much sense at all, is how fast Rey learns of, and develops her skills with The Force. It took Luke three movies and the loss of a hand, to become a fully fledged Jedi Master. She pretty much masters her skills by the end of the first movie. Where do we go from here regarding her character arc?. Definitely not where we wanted to, as we learn on The Last Jedi, unfortunately. This, I blame on Producer Kathleen Kennedy. She was the one who was pushing for a strong female character, and made her stronger than she had any right to be. So strong, that once her journey is complete at the end of this movie, they’re no perils, no stakes, save for finding out about her parentage. Once that was so carelessly removed from the equation by Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi, there’s no more interest for her character. That’s another issue. In spite of the good work by all the cast, the new characters just aren’t as interesting as the original ones. That is why I think the fans were so invested into this new trilogy; a last chance to reunite our heroes. That was squandered away by Abrams when he decided to kill off Han Solo. Was it a neccesary move. Some say it was. I don’t care one way or the other. It was inevitable that once they decided to bring the old guard back, some, if not all of them, would be killed. What bothers me the most, though, it’s the lost opportunity to do something interesting with these characters; something that would be further aggravated in the next movie. But that’s a story for the my next post.
Thanks for reading.