A Non-Spoiler Review & Commentary of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

18 Dec

By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)

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To witness Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the same fervour as this franchise got exciting in the later parts of the original trilogy, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, is exhilarating. The subtitle says more about the potential of where this latest instalment is going sounds like a return to form — in keeping the mystique that surrounds The Force — and from there I was sold! I wondered what can transpire in a property that is now managed by Disney. Are they doing it because the property is a cash cow or because Lucas is out of ideas? In what the new writing team developed brings a new hope to a franchise that’s now 38 years old.

As the narrative in the trailers have indicated, there’s something in those “eyes” of the old and new heroes who find themselves in this war. In traditional story-telling fashion, they are often regarded as a window to an individual’s soul. Quite often, writers use that angle to show how people can recognize family lines of individuals they have not met. Take, for example, the Harry Potter films where the hero is often told, “You have your mother’s eyes.”

Just who is Finn (John Boyega), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Rey (Daisy Ridley), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)? They make up the cast in this latest film which is emphasizing the fact that a few of them may be related to one another, or to an individual from the past.

In what’s presented, there’s drama and intrigue to suggest who is related to whom. Finn is a stormtrooper who has seen the light. He starts questioning orders and his eyes have widely opened to the events that’s unfolding before him. He knows that he does not like it and abandons his post. The only details revealed here are only in what the trailers are revealing instead of the movie. He finds himself on the desert planet of Jakku and he meets Rey. What happens next catapults them into an ongoing cosmic war. They encounter people whom they consider legends, and in where they go next fondly recalls visual and storytelling elements from A New Hope to Return of the Jedi which makes the thrill of seeing this movie exciting. Boyega nicely exhibits a sense of bewilderment to all that’s unfolding before him as Finn. This character does not quite know how to process his feelings, and all that’s known about him is that he was once a stormtrooper. Hints of how these soldiers are treated starts to recall one of the story arcs from The Clone Wars. Are they machines or men?

Rey

As suggested in the promotional material, Rey is definitely the focal point for this latest instalment. She’s a scavenger who comes across a ball-shaped droid that everyone is after. BB-8 actually belongs to Poe, a Rebel Alliance pilot, but an incident caused them to separate. I had reservations if I can like this droid. Part of it was more with the design (which I finally got used to, since even tech has to improve over time) instead of personality. Not a lot of the latter was revealed in the trailers. After seeing him fully involved in the action, I feel he belongs to a special club occupied by Wall*E and C1-10P (aka “Chopper” in Star Wars: Rebels).

Isaac needs more screen time before I can cast judgement.

As for the villain, Ren is a character with a very complex background. He’s torn and conflicted in myriad ways, and if I was to read into what the trailers are saying all along about the eyes, I suspect both Ren and Rey are somehow related. Having similar names that’s only one character different suggests possibilities. Could they be related?

The Force Awakens is a masterpiece of technical filmmaking. Back when Lucas was producing and directing, Industrial Light and Magic had to invent new and innovative ways to create the illusion of the X-Wing and Tie Fighters duking it out WWII style. They did not have the time to fully make the technology perfect. To put multiple objects on-screen meant layering several reels of celluloid and the copy process back then meant losing a bit of detail every time a copy was made. Nowadays, the computer helps with all this compositing and to make the illusion of large forces look real feels much more effective now than any film made in the 70’s to early 90’s. The effects in TFA reminds me of Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins, where even some effects shots were handled with physical models.

When the camera is put too close to any old spaceships from films back in the days, the lens can pick up on showing the glue used to assemble these ships together. A fair number of items were kit-bashed in the original trilogy, and some of that love can be seen in the Millennium Falcon when it finally gets revealed. It’s amazing to see how many bits get flung out of a Tie Fighter when a laser bolt hits. The model-making and set designs used in this film have improved. They feel overwhelming because nearly everything was built. If Disney said the sky’s the limit to the accountants trying to figure out the budget for each department involved in making this new trilogy, then no expense is spared.

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Writer/Director J.J. Abrams made sure that The Force Awakens is a love letter to the fans. He pays homage to the tropes that defines the saga. The story he’s weaved with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt recalls moments from the original trilogy without feeling overtly “the same.” There’s enough alteration to make what’s old feel new.

Unlike the lamented part of the Star Wars saga (Episode I to III), Abrams carefully moves between key emotional to high-action moments with ease. There’s time to breathe instead of just jumping ahead. The visual cues to show shifting personalities are great and the dog-fights are elevated to an all new level. Many perspectives are used to get a sense that the fight takes place in a fully realized three-dimensional space. The 3D conversion is largely wasted, as nothing truly jumps out at audiences. A few cheap shots were used to appease fans of this format; they simply served no purpose. Disney/Lucasfilm could have saved some money if they did not bother with this fad. That includes two tiny moments inserted for humourous effect much like how Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull insisted on spotlighting a whole bunch of prairie dogs in the opening act. In a film that’s nicely paced, the excitement begins with seeing how the die gets thrown between the new leads with the classic cast — Luke (Mark Hamill), Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han (Harrison Ford).

A proper commentary about key plot points will get posted around Christmas, after I see this film for a second and third time. I very rarely will want to see a film again on the big screen, and for a saga like Star Wars, all the chapters simply must be seen on the big screen hands down.

4½ Stars out of 5

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