Friday, 22 January 2016

Review: Star Wars - The Force Awakens (seventh-pass / spoiler-free)

World of Blackout Film Review

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (IMAX) Poster

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (seventh-pass / IMAX 3D / Spoiler-Free)
Cert: 12A / 135 mins / Dir. J.J.Abrams / Trailer

Previous reviews:
• First-pass (spoiler-free)
• Second-pass (spoiler-free)
• Third-pass (thematic-spoilers)
• Fourth-pass (plot-spoilers)
• Fifth-pass (plot-spoilers)
• Sixth-pass (plot-spoilers)

"I worked very hard to make [each Star Wars movie] completely different, with different planets, with different spaceships – you know, to make it new… they wanted to do a retro movie. I don’t like that."

~ George Lucas

So, now that the dust is settling, an increasing number of people are noticing (or at least mentioning) the new Star Wars film's structural similarity to earlier installments in the franchise. In fact, while it's not entirely accurate, even I have a hard time arguing with this set of parallels.

Under the stewardship of Ms. Kennedy, Messrs Abrams, Arndt and Kasdan have brought us a movie which feels familiar because yes, we've pretty much seen it before, and not just from Lucasfilm. Thematically, The hero's journey has touched far more stories than the Star Wars universe, and was doing so long before 1977. The complaints (and some of them are framed as observations, but many are certainly complaints) aren't at the level of the self-entitled moaning about The Phantom Menace which persists to this day, but they're no less critical of their subject. What began as observing the film's 'narrative homage' to A New Hope (and indeed to TPM) seems to have quickly snowballed into taunts of 'story rehashing'. Y'know, as if they're really different things.

And yet, in terms of on-screen content, there's actually comparatively little recycling going on. Sure, Jakku looks and feels a lot like ANH's Tatooine, and the Resistance-base on D'Qar bears a startling resemblance to ANH's Yavin IV. And even the characters themselves in TFA compare the Starkiller Base to the Death Star (which had already been re-used once anyway). But, from those crucial marketing and storytelling perspectives, there are no planetary locations in The Force Awakens that we've seen before.

The population of the GFFA has a largely new twist to it, too, and the vast majority of faces we see on screen are new ones. Obviously, the legacy-cast of the original trilogy have been dusted down, as have the upgraded Star Destroyers, TIE-Fighters, X-Wings and The Millennium Falcon. And on an un-named level, we get more Astromechs, Gonk-Droids, and a couple of familiar looking aliens in Maz Kanata's bar-castle. But everything else (and it's a proportion which counts for a lot, is fresh from the drawing board. A new desert-world means no Jawas or Sandpeople, and the woodland-planets (three of them in this film) have neither an Ewok or Gungan in sight. Gone are the Rodians, Ithorians, Aqualish and Dugs which populated the Expanded-Universe, and in come a phalanx of (individually named, but largely dialogue-free) creatures who are already warming the pegs at your local TRU and Entertainer stores. As Hasbro have found with their various other licences, Star Wars is the only brand which can sell weird-looking figures of characters who don't speak and appear on-screen for less than five seconds.

And speaking of those toys, The Force Awakens not only brings us the re-designed Stormtrooper and TIE-Fighter Pilot, but also the Flametrooper and Snowtrooper, as well as pauldron-sporting Commander variants of them, too. No Star Wars film has ever drenched the market with new armour variations like TFA has, and that's before we get to the chrome-plated Captain Phasma. Completists and army-builders have never had their overdrafts so tested since the paint-variations of the Clone Wars era.

I'm not complaining about any of this by the way, because at its core, TFA still feels like Star Wars to me (and as an Expanded Universe veteran, I've been dealing with fatally-flawed super-weapons and Villain Of The Week bad guys for over twenty years now). Although JJ's at the helm and Disney are writing the cheques, the movies are still made by Lucasfilm, and they've been making the Star Wars I love since around the time I was born. My judgement is clouded and even I know I'm such a fanboy that I'd enjoy Episode VII whatever it contained, but the comparisons to earlier films in the canon hae been made by others before me, and while they can be debated, they can hardly be disputed.
A total cynic might even say that Disney have recruited JJ Abrams to sell you something you already own (and probably several times over). Inherently marketable and at saturation point before the film had even been released, The Force Awakens is a movie full of shiny new things which have never looked, or felt, so familiar…

In fact, if George Lucas had made this film, the media would have crucified him. Again.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

In other news, I finally a) saw The Force Awakens in IMAX, and b) saw a film in IMAX! Yep, first timer. I know, some movie-geek, right? You've probably seen loads of films on the most talked-about cinematic format, right? So, help me out here: why wasn't I utterly blown away?

Maybe my expectation was too high as someone who's heard nothing but great things about the immersive-experience for years? I'm just not sure what's so special about IMAX in 2015. For the viewer who goes to the cinema a lot (ie. me), or regularly visits more than one cinema (also me), it's little more than "a really good presentation", which is surely what you'd want and expect in 2015 anyway (and rightly so, given the price of tickets these days)?

The average IMAX screen may be six-storeys high, but the larger auditoriums in today's multiplexes feature regular ones which are four-storeys high as a matter of course. The size of the film in your field-of-vision is as much dictated by your choice and position of seat as it is by the dimensions of the screen (cf sitting at the back/top of the 'superscreen'). The curve of the screen also seems to overcompensate for its size, too. It's not going to be a deal-breaker watching most movies, but the distortion of the straight lines on the BBFC rating-card at the film's beginning tells you that the next two hours are going to show you something that the cinematographer didn't quite intend.

Speaking of which, while the curved screen doesn't 'wrap around' the viewer, it was of an overall height (or more correctly, position) by which I had the silhouettes of two heads interrupting the bottom of the frame for the entire movie. The first guy sat down directly in front of me, so I budged along a few seats (allocated seating be damned, when it's that quiet in there). By doing so, I avoided having his protruding bonce at the bottom-centre of my vision, but I'd also moved to where another patron's was then 'balanced' with the original guy. And yeah, it's not a deal-breaker, but Director of Photography Daniel Mindel didn't stand in the Abu Dhabi desert saying to the cast "Okay, for this shot you need to keep your eye-line up because the audience can't yet see beyond that post over there, but you can do what you like with that hand, because it'll be obscured by the heads of the row of people sitting directly in front of pretty much everyone!". If I can't see the entire film because of the size of the screen and the angle/gradient of the tiered seating, how is that 'better'? To further confuse matters, apparently the Enfield IMAX screen isn't even classed by purists as one of the 'big' ones, either. So who knows how much detail audiences in those theatres are missing?

But - crucially - the IMAX presentation of the film is fantastically clear, with a colour-range and depth that you don't get with regular 3D presentations. Speaking of which, the 3D itself looks really spiffy, too. Again, not really necessary for the film, but I've seen TFA enough with the glasses on to know which bits work and where the problems arise. Other than some ghosting on BB-8's lights in the droids's very first scene in the Jakku village, it seems the IMAX system is far more suited to three dimensions than regular 3D/Real-D showings (although it can be done; most animated movies don't suffer the way that live-action seems to in terms of ghosting).

For all that cineastes bemoan the era of semi-automated digital projection, I do think that general moviegoing looks better now than it ever has, to the point where an IMAX presentation of a regular movie is no longer a thing of jaw-dropping wonder, unattainable elsewhere. And sure, it was great in the days when cinemas had a specially trained projectionist, to whom it was as much an art-form as a job. But I've sat through enough slightly-out-of-focus movies and magnified-lint in my time to know that that generation hit retirement before the reels themselves did, and you could go and have a word out in the foyer (missing more of the movie), but ultimately if they were going to recognise/fix an issue at all, they'd have done it before you got out of your seat. What I'm saying is, I've got two cameras at home; that doesn't make me a photographer.

So, tell me why I'm wrong about the amount of new stuff in The Force Awakens and why I'm wrong about IMAX ;)

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
The Star Wars films.

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
Yep. It's still on, too.

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
It does, although that's not to say that it achieves all it could.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Some yes, some not so much.

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
Nope. Already had several animated discussions about several aspects of the movie.

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There certainly is.

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 0: It's Star Wars.

But to go round the houses with it: Star Wars: The Force Awakens stars Kiran Shah as Teedo, who also made an appearance in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, as did Christopher Lee, who starred in 1999's Sleepy Hollow, as did Ian McDiarmid, who was in the BBC series 37 Days, alongside Oliver Ford Davies, who took a role in the 1973 TV series Moonbase 3, whose roster also included Garrick Hagon, who appeared in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman flick, which also starred William Hootkins, who rocked up in Raiders of the Lost Ark, of course, as did Kiran Shah, who starred in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Yeah, I've decided I'm just going to keep on doing these, so that the amount of praise which is eventually heaped upon me will be gargantuan ;)

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

• ^^^ 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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