A Review of ‘The Force Awakens’: A Forced Awakening

Disclaimer: While I tried to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, my explanation of certain scenes may contain details that could potentially prompt you to draw spoilerific conclusions, and that would be your own fault. But it’s probably gonna alter your perception of the film regardless. If you have not seen the film and do not wish to be influenced in any way, please do not proceed. You have been warned.
Being this year’s most hyped up and highly anticipated film, The Force Awakens had a lot to live up to; it needed to both restore faith in hardcore fans after the flops of the prequel trilogy, and also appeal to a generation of audiences who are new to the franchise. It’s been years since I’ve watched any of the Star Wars films, hence I went into The Force Awakens with fresh eyes, hoping that while it may bring back enough of what made the previous ones great, it would also hold up as a good film in its own right.
So after buying tickets two months in advance, watching it on opening night amongst other excited, dressed-up spectators, and walking out of the theatres after the credits have finished rolling, what’s my verdict? Meh.
“What?!” says you, “Only ‘Meh’?!”
Yes. Virtually all the reviews on The Force Awakens out right now praise the film for being nothing but amazing. The nostalgic factor, the acting… I think they gave it too much credit. Yes, it was a good film; fun, thrilling, entertaining. I didn’t walk out of the theatre feeling like I wasted my time, but it wasn’t mind-blowingly good either. It wasn’t like when I walked out of the Lego Movie, or Inside Out, where I felt like my world just changed for the better. The Force Awakens just felt like another average blockbuster. Maybe I’m just bitter because the final shot of the film left a bad taste in my mouth.
The film hits all the stylistic notes that you’d come to expect from a Star Wars movie: the crawling text exposition and the iconic fanfare theme, the faded wipes, iris-close transitions. There were many nostalgic moments there to please the fans, with quick cameos of objects, props, and references to the original trilogy scattered throughout the scenes. The emergence of each of the original trilogy characters ie. Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia (Carrie Fischer), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) etc. were met with a small cheer from the crowd. Admittedly, I found Daisy Ridley’s performance as Rey to be a bit stiff at times, and the tendency for the film to constantly linger on reaction shots of her just staring at stuff didn’t necessarily help with that either (more on that later during the editing bit). Oh, and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren? Ugh. That’s all I’ll say, to prevent myself from further ruining the movie for you.
Unlike the prequel trilogy with all its long drawn out ‘council meeting’ political talk, The Force Awakens is action-packed and always moving forward. But the plot was very recycled from the original Star Wars – probably done for nostalgia reasons to play close to the hearts of fans. But this meant that it didn’t serve to make sense for the overall saga: Han Solo seemed kind of “thrown in” with a new context that wasn’t fully explained (and thus created no emotional connection – unless you were already a fan). And how many times do the good guys have to blow up stuff for the bad guys to realize that repeating the same strategy simply doesn’t work?
Additionally, certain elements in the story felt either forced, rushed, or unconvincing, given the circumstances. You know what? The whole ‘awakening’ aspect felt forced (pun intended). In particular, for me, the film went downhill as soon as the villain revealed his face (too early!). In many instances, things were done for the sake of doing it, not because it made sense to. A character should be doing something because they feel compelled in the moment; because they have a reason to do so. So during the villain’s manhunt for the protagonists hiding on the planet, why did he signal for his Stormtroopers to split and then proceed to walk out onto a tiny bridge over a massive chasm, in the most visible part of the whole planet, making himself vulnerable to the enemies he was looking for? I’ll tell you why. Because it made for a cool visual. He had no reason to be on that bridge. He did nothing useful there. He only did that because it would make for a cool wide shot during the confrontation coming up (the cinematography was indeed gorgeous). But no matter how good it looked, it was forced blocking for the sake of visuals rather than what narratively made sense for the character. Moreover, I felt that the characters in general were poorly developed or just weren’t consistent. For example, Finn, the rouge Stormtrooper who spent his whole life training under the First Order, originally had a firm moral code that killing was wrong. Heck, he even seemed to care for a dying fellow trooper in the beginning of the film. Yet once he joins the Resistance, he is perfectly content with killing away Stormtroopers (some of whom may have been his friends and colleagues) without batting an eye. Oh and also, he is somehow able to wield the mighty Lightsaber – a noble weapon of the Jedi, no less – in battle with no prior experience of using one. In fact, this whole movie seemed to have a trend of characters suddenly developing masterful skills that save their butts in crucial moments despite acknowledging the fact that they’ve had absolutely no prior experience.
But while all the above criticisms can be dismissed as petty opinion, I believe that the film’s most concrete flaw lies in its editing. In particular, the pacing of certain scenes was completely off, and ultimately created either an unintended comic effect, or diminished any of the emotional drive that they were trying to achieve. For example, in one scene where the villain was trying to extract information from a captured pilot using the force, he hovers his hand above the man’s face. We hear a rumble. The man screams. Unlike in the trailer where that scream leads to severe deforestation, in the movie that scream led immediately to a shot of the villain walking out of the room saying that he’s essentially found the answer. I laughed out loud. That wasn’t supposed to be a ‘laugh out loud’ moment. It was a badly timed cut. That being said, I’m not trying to discredit the editing completely; there were indeed other moments of intended comic relief that editing served to pull off perfectly with the right timing to get a laugh from the audience.
What irked me, however, was that none of the supposedly dramatic points in the film really had impact on me, and I believe that editing was to blame (aside from maybe the weak character development, and the stiff acting, and the uninspired plot). Dramatic moments were drawn out too long – yes I understand that they wanted to exaggerate the time to emphasize the importance or emotional gravity of a particular moment, but the cuts made no impact and thus resulted in the beat feeling a bit ridiculous. Great editing feels seamless and pulls you right into the moment to feel what the characters are feeling. But The Force Awakens seemed to overdo this by constantly cutting to character’s ‘expression’ shots: Rey’s wide-eyed wonder, Finn’s look of fear, Ren’s frustrated… I don’t even know what he was trying to feel, he just looked funny and weak (sorry, not sorry). The shots simply didn’t do it for me, and as a result, I found myself constantly noticing how unnecessarily long the characters took to ‘evoke’ emotions. In many instances during these moments, I was constantly questioning “why are they just standing there?”
As for how the final shot left a bad taste in my mouth, I’ll try not to reveal any spoilers, but lets just put it this way: Character reveals at the end of a film, when effectively done, gives the audience goose-bumps – a cliff-hanger that evokes the feeling of “oh sh*t, this guy has shown up. Now I can’t wait to see the next movie.” An example of a great cinematic character reveal is the one of Captain Barbossa at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Perfect buildup, slow reveal, and then just as the audience begins to have the “oh sh*t, he’s back?!” revelation, boom – we cut to credits, leaving the audience feeling winded, but ready to catch the next adventure. Now, lets see this as it played out in The Force Awakens (through my thought process while watching it):
Slow buildup… ok… Oh, some more montage of that buildup… Why is she taking so long to get there?… Why couldn’t they have landed the ship closer so she didn’t have to walk?… Ok, now she’s finally there… slow reveal, oh sh*t, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, he’s back!… ok… shouldn’t they have ended it right there? Why are they just standing there?… Why isn’t she doing anything?… Why isn’t he doing anything?… Oh ew, why did they just throw in that random 360 aerial shot? Whatever you do, don’t end on this shot, don’t end on – what?! They did not. They did not just end it there! They had two different gorgeous shots that they just glazed over which would have perfectly closed the movie, and they decided to end on this garbage shot?!
So what happened? The scene was drawn out too long. What probably was written in two sentences on a script turned into a three-minute-long sequence. Again, bad pacing. Furthermore, they had several perfect shots on which to end the film, but they moved right past them and picked the worst one to cut to credits. It’s like jumping off a diving board, heading straight for the pool, making a flawless entry, and then smashing your head at the bottom of the pool in a bloody mess as the spectators cringe. They nailed it. But then the nail went through the wall and fell out the other side. Was that final wide shot an important shot? Did it reveal anything new? No. It was completely unnecessary. In fact, that random wide shot in a series of intimate medium close-ups ruined the feel of the final scene. Why did they do it? Probably because the producers said to Abrams, “we spent millions of dollars renting a helicopter and crew to film this aerial wide shot. You have to put it in.” The result? A bad taste in my mouth. Regardless of how fairly decent the rest of the movie managed to hold up despite some shortcomings, that last shot was the final flaw (straw) that turned me to the dark side – to writing this harsh review (oh, I’ve toned it down a fair bit from my first draft, believe me.)
Ultimately, The Force Awakens was made for the fans. It had enough (maybe too much) of the classic characters, plot, and easter-eggs strewn throughout to bring back that nice nostalgic sensation and make it feel like you were watching A New Hope in 1977 on the big screen again, but as a movie on its own in 2015, it’s merely average. Perhaps with all the hype that surrounded the film in the past year, it simply didn’t meet my severely high expectations. Of course, there are many things about The Force Awakens that can be praised, in particular the visual effects, the cinematography, and its gender inclusiveness (not just having a strong female lead, but strong female presence throughout the diegetic world). In fact, many of you will probably love the film regardless of whether you are a fan or not. You can go ahead and read up on virtually any other review on The Force Awakens to satisfy your love for the film. But for me, The Force Awakens didn’t really introduce anything refreshing or new, and the weak unmotivated plot and mediocre editing simply didn’t cut it. Oh, and for all you aspiring film editors out there, let that final shot of the movie be an epitomic exemplar of how NOT to end a film.
By Simon Chan
The views and opinions expressed above is solely that of the writer, and does not represent the views and opinions of the University of Calgary Film Society.
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