Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Movie Information

The Story: Sequel to the original Star Wars trilogy. The Lowdown: Definitely a movie made for — and by — fans. It does exactly what it needs to be a crowd-pleaser in that regard. But whether it breaks any new ground ... not so much.
Score:

Genre: Sci-Fi Action
Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong'o
Rated: PG-13

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The bulk of the fans can put away their ropes, since I am not going to trash Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However, neither am I going to shamelessly praise it. J.J. Abrams’ new film does exactly what it sets out to do. It’s light, it’s fun, it’s entertaining. It makes no serious missteps, and it hits all the notes that’s expected of it. As it played out, I could see how carefully it hit all those notes, and how they were all gauged to draw whoops, laughs, gasps and applause from the audience. The audience I saw it with behaved accordingly, except there was no applause. (Maybe I had a dud audience. It happens. Only one person came dressed up — at least I think he was dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi, but he may have just been wearing a bathrobe. In Asheville, one cannot be sure.) Personally, I mostly enjoyed it, but was not blown away by it and can’t imagine wanting to see it again. But that’s to be expected, since Star Wars is not a part of my childhood, and it doesn’t tap into a well of nostalgia. For those who find deep meaning in it, and for whom its roots are embedded in their pop culture psyche, it is a different experience altogether — and I recognize that.

 

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For the movie that The Force Awakens is — and the movie that the fans wanted — J.J. Abrams was the perfect choice. Apart from lens-flare (conspicuously absent here) and a clever way with a line, there seems no particular style or signature to his work, making him the ideal director to deliver a film where the chief desire was to reconnect with the original three Star Wars films from 30-plus years ago. He clearly knows those films — certainly Lawrence Kasdan, who was on board with the screenplay, does — and he has done a good job of replicating them. There’s little here that isn’t at least a riff on — sometimes an outright copy of — something from those first three movies. In a sense, I guess that’s OK when you consider that most of the elements in the original trilogy were drawn by Lucas from from the 1930s Flash Gordon serials he saw growing up. Who better to jump-start things than someone who watched the Lucas trilogy as a child? Right? Well, maybe — depending on what you want, but it’s getting awfully close to pastiche, or even fan-fiction, on a grand scale.

 

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It’s not so much that the story is basically a reworking of the original trilogy — compressed to 135 minutes. It’s that it tries to recreate the exact same reactions to close approximations of things done all those years ago. This approach is apparently catnip to fans, but it is ultimately a little like kids playing Star Wars dress-up (or cosplay). At the point when we learn (and I don’t think this is a spoiler) that our new villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), doesn’t actually need that Darth Vader mask, but sports it to be like his hero, the dress-up aspect becomes hard to ignore. (That it also might remind you of Rick Moranis in 1987’s Spaceballs is another matter.)

 

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None of this keeps The Force Awakens from being an entertaining time at the movies. Abrams has detected one of the biggest weaknesses (apart from the bad dialogue) in the prequels (which actually started in the first two sequels) — Lucas’ love affair with special effects for their own sake. Each film boasted more than the last (this was even a selling point) until the movies were almost subsumed by cluttered, incomprehensible frames filled with effects. Abrams has junked that and taken the new film back to basics. The effects are clean and to the point. Bringing back — well, more or less — the major players from the original film is mostly handled well. The new players are something of a mix, but Daisy Ridley as Rey is clearly the driving force there. Really, if you’re a hardcore fan, the movie offers you a chance for a little reunion — sometimes bittersweet — with old friends and introduces you to some new ones. It tells its story and stays true to the spirit of the original three movies — and maybe that’s all it needed to do. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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30 thoughts on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens

  1. T.rex

    Great review. I loved it! I did walk in skeptical (learned my lesson with the prequels) but a smile stayed on my face from the opening crawl until the end. No film is perfect (Brazil is actually) and I do have teeny tiny complaints but maybe those should be mentioned later. I am quite sure I will see this many times at the cinema (record held by Batman 89 and Hunt for Red October. 4 times) I do fear Disney milking the teet too much by releasing some lind of SW movie every year. Please, just wait three years Disney. We want excitement to build.

    • T.rex

      oh… This will definitely require a road trip to Knoxville I-Max. A first.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Wait…the record number of times you’ve gone to a theater to see a movie is four? Amateur.

    • T.rex

      If we are not counting all the years I’ve worked in Cinemas, yep. Went to see Batman 4 times, dito Red October.

      • Ken Hanke

        Tommy — 16.
        The Devils — 6.
        Lisztomania — 9.
        Valentino — 5.
        Phantom of the Paradise — 8.
        Carrie — 7.
        Let It Be — 6.
        Clockwork Orange — 5.
        Altered States — 6.

        • T.rex

          Fantastic. You saw Phantom 8 times? and I thought I was a fan of it.

          • Ken Hanke

            Phantom played the midnight circuit before anyone had thought of Rocky Horror. It was a very different world then. One a movie was gone, it was gone. No VHS. No laserdiscs. Certainly no DVDs. If you were lucky a film got re-issued. If you were hardcore, you went to the black market and bought what you could find on 16mm — and what you could afford. I paid $425 for a bootleg (high quality) reduction print (meaning it was taken from a 35mm original) of Tommy.

          • T.rex

            I wish it was that way now. No tv, no home video. Films at a cinema, the way they were meant to be seen. On the flipside it was a tv show that introduced me to Phantom. USA channel used to have a late night program called Night Flight. It played for three hours and showed all kinds of crazy films and animation. The internet of its time.

          • T.rex

            btw, as much as I love the 80s blockbusters, The 70s was the true last great decade of film. New Hollywood!!

          • Ken Hanke

            You don’t really wish it was that way now (and TV was around — and was where I first saw 90% of the classics). You really want to wait years and years to be able to see a film? It’s like these people who fetishize film for its own sake (yes, you Quentin Tarantino). They think in perfect world terms of sparkling pristine prints. They don’t think in the reality of beaten-to-hell 35mm prints. God knows, I’d rather see a digital copy — even a good quality DVD projection — of Jesus Christ Superstar than the splicy, scratched, green-flecked print I saw in 1975. When Tommy was re-issued in 1976, the print I saw was garbage and missing about a 5 minute stretch. These rabid film folks are only thinking in Major Metropolitan Area terms — not out in the world most of us live in where we counted ourselves lucky to get to see a chewed up 16mm print of an old movie.

            And this whole “New Hollywood” thing…seriously, a lot — a whole lot — of crap came out in the 1970s, too. And a lot of the best of the ’70s wasn’t actually made in or by Hollywood.

          • T.rex

            Does that include the australian films and cormen esque Phillipine stuff?
            People only need one reason to love the Seventies…….. Marty.

          • Ken Hanke

            Does that include the australian films and cormen esque Phillipine stuff?

            No, but it includes Kubrick, Lester, Russell, Nic Roeg, Fellini…who did some of their best work in the ’70s.

            People only need one reason to love the Seventies…….. Marty.

            You know, you have more Absolutes than anyone I know. Mr. Scorsese (who I like more for his 21st century work) is way down the list for my reasons for loving the ’70s.

        • Yandoodan

          I’d have had you beat if it weren’t for Tommy.

          2001: A Space Odyssey — 10.

          • T.rex

            Nice! I got to see 2001 at the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville when the National Film Archive was touring it. We lost soemthing beautiful when the grand cinemas shut down.

          • Ken Hanke

            We lost something unsustainable. Nostalgia is a snare.

          • yandoodan

            Nostalgia’s a snare for sure.

            On the other hand I got to see 2001 in Cinerama. Four times. From the balcony front row, where you stare down the middle while the screen surrounds you deep into your peripheral vision. (The other six times were at progressively lesser theaters, including a drive-in.)

  3. Yandoodan

    I, too, was an adult when A New Hope *(aka “The Real Star Wars”) premiered. I believe that grownups of the era fell into 2+ categories:

    1. Serious film buffs who saw the 1970s as ushering in a New Cinema that explored new themes and new approaches in an atmosphere finally cleared of censorship. Such people idolized Michelangelo Antonioni, Sam Peckinpah, Ingmar Bergman. (Who?) These few deluded people hung out in university film departments.

    2. Nearly everyone else, who saw the movies of the 1970s as suffering from rapid deterioration. Hollywood was frightened by television, paid TV (now called cable), and soaring costs, and responded not only by squeezing budgets but also by adapting an attitude of “as long as it’s good enough for television it’s good enough.” Big Jake is the epitome of this period — it has Bennie Hill levels of continuity.

    2+. Trekkies and other nerds. Being a nerd was the opposite of cool back then, so they don’t count. Anyway, this was a subset of 2.

    To us members of Group 2 Star Wars was a glorious wake-up from movies filled with anxiety, depression, and grainy film. It was a splash in the face with a bucket of cold water. I think most adults people in Group 2 saw it as fond pastiche at the time. What we liked was the astonishing production values, but always in service to the story. It was not only looking back to the great matinees of the golden era, it was improving them, showing what they could really achieve with modern production techniques. It changed cinema forever. And for the better, say us in Group 2.

    Sorry about the long post.

    • Ken Hanke

      It changed cinema forever. And for the better, say us in Group 2.

      And there’s where you lose me.

      • yandoodan

        Yeah, but you are Group 1. Nearly all movie reviewers are. It’s a field that self-selects.

        • Ken Hanke

          Actually, I’m not. I never idolized any of the names you cited — maybe Bergman mostly for pre-70s work. I may be more of a classicist, but that’s not what you’re talking about. My contemporary enthusiasms of the era were and are Ken Russell, Peter Medak, Richard Lester, Robert Altman, Brian De Palma, John Boorman, Woody Allen. That is not your Group 1. It doesn’t work out as neatly as you want it to as a generalization.

          So what you’re saying is that the blockbuster mentality ushered in by Jaws and Star Wars was a boon to film?

          • yandoodan

            What are you trying to do? Make me think? It’s Christmas, dammit!

            Okay, okay. Here goes.

            Group 1 emphasizes the niceties of the art at the expense of, and sometimes as a substitute for, the story. Group 1 enthusiasts are “director as auteur” fanboiz. Group 2 is all story, the movie equivalent of genre fiction. Group 2 enthusiasts are “I love this fictional character” fanboiz. Some movies have both skill and story, and these are cross-overs, appealing to people in both groups.

            I love your list. I would definitely place Altman and De Palma in Group 1. The only thing in Ken Russell’s filmography that doesn’t sound like Group 1 is Tommy (and maybe Altered States, which bored me silly). Allen is a cross-over, intentionally so — some in one group (Interiors), some in the other (Bullets Over Broadway), some (Annie Hall, Purple Rose) in both. I would class Boorman as a bad Group 1 director, but all I’ve seen are Excalibur and Zardoz. I’ll give you Peter Medak and Richard Lester … but if you’re like my brother-in-law you’ll be liking Lester because, Beatles.

            My boon-to-film argument (you missed Raiders of the Lost Ark!) is basically that Star Wars rescued Hollywood from its cheap fit. The Age of the Auteurs was the flip side of the era of horridly made films by a Hollywood waiting to be killed by television; they were a cheap way of being classy. Of course, money doesn’t by quality, but poverty doesn’t buy anything. Modern blockbusters, however, suffer from the same disease as Auteurism — too much emphasis on technique, not enough on story. Star Wars issued in the Age of Story, and not merely the Age of the Blockbuster.

            Maybe JJ Abrams (the anti-auteur) will fix this. Maybe pigs will fly.

          • Edwin Arnaudin

            I would class Boorman as a bad Group 1 director, but all I’ve seen are Excalibur and Zardoz.

            So, you’re basing that on classifying Excalibur as a bad film and not having seen Point Blank, Deliverance, Hope and Glory nor The Tailor of Panama?

          • yandoodan

            I would class Boorman as a bad Group 1 director, but all I’ve seen are Excalibur and Zardoz. So, you’re basing that on classifying Excalibur as a bad film and not having seen Point Blank, Deliverance, Hope and Glory nor The Tailor of Panama?

            You got it! Zardoz and Excalibur are just sooo bad. And I was really looking forward to them until I saw them! After that, I just wanted to wash my eyeballs.

            It’s like you’ve seen The Day After Tomorrow and Godzilla and then concluded that Roland Emmerich was gawdawful, even without having seen Independence Day or The Patriot or 2012.

          • Ken Hanke

            What I have concluded from all this is that I am indeed in what Mr. Yandoo calls Group One and I’m just fine with that.

  4. Big Al

    Nice to see in Daisy Ridley a heroine whose sex appeal is from the neck up for a change.

    Almost made me forget my man-crush on Oscar Isaac.

  5. Nedvin

    The Force Awakens feels like a reboot rather than a sequal.
    I’d much rather prefer if the story’d taken a different turn than repeating the events of A New Hope.

  6. Al Paige

    >>t the point when we learn (and I don’t think this is a spoiler) that our new villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), doesn’t actually need that Darth Vader mask, but sports it to be like his hero, the dress-up aspect becomes hard to ignore. (That it also might remind you of Rick Moranis in 1987’s Spaceballs is another matter.)>>

    I hadn’t even thought of Rick Moranis in Spaceballs until I read your review. Now I will think of him every time I see a still of Kylo Ren !!!

    • Ken Hanke

      I hadn’t even thought of Rick Moranis in Spaceballs

      I imagine most people try not to.

  7. Daniel Withrow

    While the overall plot was fairly similar to the originals, I thought there were some really interesting changes:
    -Generational politics. In the originals, it’s basically a bunch of teenagers against the Evil Bad Old Guys. Sure, there’s Obi-Wan, but he dies off early, and there’s Yoda, but he’s weird and not involved in the action. So you learn from a retiree and then go off and fight the Evil Bad Old Guys. In Force Awakens, the older generation is intimately entwined in the action, working alongside the teenagers.
    -Masks off. The villains in the original series wear masks that make them dehumanized, monstrous. Who could possibly feel bad about killing a stormtrooper when you can’t see their face? This one opens with the first time a stormtrooper’s blood is ever shown, and soon afterward, you get a stormtrooper’s face and backstory. Similarly, Kylo Ren shows himself not as a monster, but as a psychotic human. You see his face. I like the way the lack of masks makes things more complex, and only wish they’d gone further in that direction (the rest of the stormtroopers were pretty clearly fun cannon fodder, which undermines the idea that we should think of them as individuals with backstory).

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