DC Filmdom note: Josh Hylton is a dear friend and fellow WAFCA member. Sadly, he’s made the announcement that he’s retiring at the end of this year, so we at DC Filmdom have asked him to do a guest review for us. We have posted this in a fashion similar to his reviews on his website. DC Filmdom wishes Josh Hylton well and are proud to post his last review of 2015.
When J.J. Abrams rebooted “Star Trek” in 2009, the critical consensus was overwhelmingly positive, as critics praised it for its flashy visuals and intense action. Indeed, it was a terrific summer sci-fi blockbuster, yet it wasn’t a great “Star Trek” movie. While it worked on a basic, visceral level, it failed to convey the sense of wonder and hope that the best movies and shows in the franchise did, replacing its thematically rich exploration of the human condition and replacing it with loud, bombastic action. Though not written by Abrams, “Star Trek” served as a great example of his weaknesses, as he excels with action, but lacks in characterization and narrative intellect.
This is why he’s better suited to write and direct “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.” While the franchise has certainly explored various themes, as all films do, it was always more about explosions, lightsaber clashes and space battles, something Abrams is adept at visualizing. However, “The Force Awakens” is still a disappointment. It’s certainly not a bad movie, but while some aspects soar, others are a mess, culminating in a film that is almost certainly not going to live up to the hype machine its marketing has produced.
The opening crawl sets it all up: Luke Skywalker is missing. Leia (Carrie Fisher), having dropped the “princess” moniker and now a general of the Resistance, is simultaneously looking for Luke and trying to defend the galaxy from the First Order, an evil organization that rose from the ashes of the fallen Empire. On nearby planet, Jakku, a desert world that is home to scavengers like Rey (Daisy Ridley), who scavenges for parts in fallen ships to sell for rations, Poe (Oscar Isaac) is ambushed by the First Order who are in search of his droid companion, BB-8, who holds a map with Luke’s whereabouts. During the ambush, a Stormtrooper known only as FN-2187 (John Boyega) finds a conscience and partners up with Poe to escape the First Order.
This description of the first few minutes of the film is about as far as I care to go, as any further details could give away much of what Abrams and company have kept so secret for the last couple years, even though the story itself, while not conceptually weak, lacks the momentum or intrigue to truly shine, its chief problem being that, save for a moment or two, the story beats are predictable, causing the more dramatic moments to land with resounding thuds. It’s in these moments, the quiet ones away from the admittedly exciting action, that “The Force Awakens” shows its true form, as it constantly struggles to keep things going and, bafflingly, reveals one of its major secrets far too early and manages to build only the slightest bit of drama from it.
Many of its story problems, however, are due in large part to two things, one being that it takes a page out of the “Star Trek Into Darkness” book and tries far too hard to reference, or even mimic entire scenes from, the original trilogy. The film never forges a path of its own; this is, for better or worse, the same “Star Wars” as before, which I imagine many fans will want, though it is nevertheless frustrating to see so much potential squandered.
The other is the dialogue that fluctuates from serviceable to overwrought to downright embarrassing, with seriously lame attempts at humor like, “Droid, please!” Frankly, the dialogue and the narrative tone are in constant conflict, as the former attempts to be goofy far too often, which simply doesn’t mesh well with the “fate of the galaxy” story at hand. Never mind that their evil plot is absolutely absurd, even by outlandish science fiction standards; some seriously evil events are carried out by the First Order, led by new antagonist Ren (Adam Driver), an appropriately menacing villain who is about as good a replacement for Darth Vader as fans could hope for, but everything is hammed up so frequently, those events hardly have any impact. Even worse, when the film slows down for these dialogue driven scenes, rarely is anything substantial said, aside from gross amounts of exposition. The dialogue from scene to scene can very easily be summed up as, “This is what’s happening now and here’s what we’re going to do about it.”
With all that said, “The Force Awakens” is still an entertaining science fiction movie, even if its story fails to resonate. The action is top notch, as is expected from a J.J. Abrams-helmed production, and practical effects are used whenever possible, giving it an unexpected level of authenticity, which is more than one might expect given the franchise (it sometimes feels like the writers forgot about the “Star” part of the title). New characters, while not always written to their full potential, are welcome additions as well, particularly BB-8, who is destined to be a franchise favorite, as the cute little droid easily manages to eclipse its human co-stars, though I’m not sure that’s necessarily a positive when the narrative focus is inarguably on the latter.
Despite all my issues with “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” it was undeniably satisfying when the iconic music began playing and the opening crawl began, even if that crawl now exists more out of tradition than of necessity. The movie may not keep that high throughout its 135 minute runtime, but it never stumbles enough to be bad. This is “Star Wars” through and through; the Stormtroopers still can’t hit the broad side of a barn (while Rey, having never brandished a gun before in her life, lands a kill on her second shot), but that’s part of its charm, isn’t it? Simply put, it’s familiar, nostalgic and welcome and it’s nice to see these characters onscreen again. Still, “The Force Awakens” is like seeing an old high school friend after many years apart. It retains some of the qualities that made you want to spend time with the franchise in the first place, but it has changed and you’re not quite sure it’s for the better.