Monday, 21 December 2015

Review: Star Wars - The Force Awakens (third-pass / thematic-spoilers)

World of Blackout Film Review

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2D) Poster

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (third-pass / 2D / THEMATIC SPOILERS)
Cert: 12A / 135 mins / Dir. J.J.Abrams / Trailer

Previous reviews:
• First-pass (spoiler-free)
• Second-pass (spoiler-free)

As mentioned above, this post contains thematic spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. No actual plot-leaks, but general outlines for the pattern which the film follows. As well as putting that out on front street (as I believe the kids say), this paragraph is also being used as a buffer, so that the spoilery-content shouldn't be automatically filtered into people's RSS feeds when the beginning of the post is patched through as an auto-preview. While I'm sure that most people who are desperate to see the film will have already done so, I know at least a couple who haven't been able to yet. Although truth be told, by the time they manage to catch it, some inconsiderate berk at their workplace/college will have no doubt spoiled the finer points for them anyway. Either way, that blood won't be on my hands.

So, we're not even a week past the opening of the The Force Awakens, and despite generally good notices all round, the backlash is beginning to simmer. Of course it is, this is the internet. From the dullards proclaiming that 'not everyone likes Star Wars' (seemingly unaware that for many of us, December 2015's newsfeeds are a deeply satisfying reversal of every time there's a footsoccer tournament happening, or somesuch), to the measured retorts of 'well, it's not doing much that's actually new'. And it's this second camp I'm going to ramble about, because in all fairness, they've got a point

Joseph Campbell's 'the hero's journey' is of course the template to which 1977's Star Wars adheres, and entirely intentionally so. The young protagonist's life is upturned by the intervention of a previously unknown third-party, and he's called/driven to adventure with the assistance of a mentor, leaving his home, learning new skills, rescuing a princess from a castle and destroying that castle. As Campbell noted (and obviously with more dexterity and depth than my previous sentence), it's not a new format and can be applied to storytelling throughout mankind's history. The fact that the film so proudly wears that badge is its strength, not a sign of narrative debt.

Now, in addition to the hero's journey, writer Mike Klimo has also delved into Ring Composition, to illustrate how the six Star Wars movies repeat themes, actions, events and consequences - again, not out of narrative debt, but in the way that themes and motifs cycle through a symphony. For example, apart from Anakin and Luke's upbringing on the desert planet Tatooine and their encounter with a Jedi which results in them leaving to better themselves, both develop their Jedi skills later than is usual for knights of the order, both lose hands in battle (a recurring SW theme in itself), and both are 23 at the point of their greatest and most pivotal challenge (Mustafar/Endor)*1. There are many, many more parallels running through the films individually, and across the trilogies as a converse pair.

Which is where The Force Awakens finds itself in slightly murky waters (and you have to remember that I say this as someone who's in still utterly love with the film, not as a basher). It makes absolute sense for the hero's journey to come into play once more, yet the way in which it's implemented feels unsure - as if the writing team of Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt don't want to flat-out carbon-copy what's gone before, so have made changes to the gender of the hero and the order in which she encounters her allies/foes, yet are afraid to explore other parts of the GFFA. Notably that the desert planet at the film's beginning, the space-station in the middle-act and greenery/stonework rebel-base at the end all bear a striking resemblance to what's come before, even though they're technically new locations. And make no mistake, this film feels like Star Wars; it feels like Star Wars because it's been so carefully engineered to do so. Whether you've been avoiding spoilers or not, the overwhelming sense of familiarity ensures that there are relatively few surprises.

Character progressions run in roughly the same mould (but with some of the motifs of The Empire Strikes Back being brought forward to the first film in the trilogy), but this is more of a necessity than the locales. By the end of the film, the heroine has been irreversibly changed as a character, and will continue to develop as the trilogy progresses. Several of the other new characters have more of a question-mark hanging over them, if only because they're just not referred to after certain scenes (you assume they're still alive, if only because you aren't shown them being killed). And while this is a new approach to the 'what will happen to X?' factor, it's not an entirely welcome one as it feels a little like the film ran out of time, rather than letting us know who was still around at the two hour+ mark (even Vader's TIE-fighter straightened itself up after the destruction of the Death Star in '77 - he didn't just go twirling off-screen unceremoniously).

While I'm sure that the Story Group will take great delight in filling any gaps not covered by Star Wars Episodes VIII and IX (and as I've mentioned, there are several), it seems a shame that they have to, really. Most movies don't have the luxury of relying on tie-in comics and novels to embellish the run-time. Then again, most movies aren't set in a galaxy as rich as this one.

On one hand, The Force Awakens feels eerily similar to what's gone before; on the other, it can feel open-ended to the point of cockiness. And neither of those suggests the control that we've come to expect from Lucasfilm, even if many people have done nothing but complain about that control for the last eighteen years ;)

Short version: I'm still drawing details out of each viewing (spoilery analysis in my next review), and it still feels incredible to be back in the Galaxy Far, Far Away at my local cinema. And it's only the drooling of the fan community and the excessive hype of the media which has convinced people they're meant to love everything about the movie.

Of course The Force Awakens isn't a perfect film, and I wouldn't want it to be.
It isn't supposed to be perfect, it's supposed to be Star Wars.
And that's more than close enough…

Is this film worth paying £10+ to see?

Well, I don't like the cinema. Buy it, rent it, or wait for it to be on telly?
No… cinema. Yeah?

Does this film represent the best work of the leading performer(s)?
Not all of them, no

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?

Oh, and is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There is, yes.
It's low in the mix, but it's in the scene where the TIE-fighter escapes from the base
(…that's not a spoiler, is it? I mean, that's in the trailer…)

…but what's the Star Wars connection?
Well, Star Wars: The Force Awakens stars Gwendoline Christie, who also appeared in Wizards vs Aliens, as did Tim Rose, who lent his voice to The Muppets Christmas Carol, as did Frank Oz of course, who also performed vocal-work in Inside Out, as did John Ratzenberger, whose voice starred in Wall-E, as did that of Ben Burrt, who made an appearance in Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, a film which starred Julian Glover, who went on to appear in Game of Thrones, as did Gwendoline Christie, who starred in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Yeah, I'm not actually sure how many more of these I'm going to be able to do, since I'm not repeating actors mentioned in the previous reviews. They're taking longer than the actual review itself. Wha? No, of course I cross-reference IMDB for these, you don't think I have these chains knocking around in my head, do you?

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 That's right, maths-fans: the anaemic-prune looking dude lying on the boarding ramp of an Imperial Shuttle, who had the touching conversation with Luke Skywalker, was in fact 46 years old. Don't do drugs, kids. Or the Dark Side. Don't do that, either.

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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