Monday, December 28, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

A new Star Wars movie came out earlier this month, and I finally saw it over the weekend. I figure I should probably review it. Seeing as it's well on its way to breaking into the top ten highest grossing films of all time. The Force Awakens is already the biggest Star Wars movie of all time, and is currently ranked at number five on the top ten films of 2015. Star Wars has broken records across the board this year, and this is a year that's broken records across the board. Amazing how what started as a little space-opera, with a nightmarish production history became the biggest science-fiction franchise of all time. And if you're wondering what I'm using to gauge that, it's Boxmojo's franchise index. From film alone, Star Wars is bigger than Terminator, Star Trek, and Transformers, and it's set to overtake all of them combined. And The Force Awakens has almost grossed more than the entire original trilogy combined. I certainly hope everyone is in agreement that this movie was good, because there's no stopping Star Wars anymore. The Prequels were really successful, but not very good, and The Clone Wars was really good, but not very successful. Now, after a seven year gap, without any news on the multitude of Star Wars projects that were supposedly in development, we've finally got a new Star Wars movie. Announced November of 2014 and released in December of 2015, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is here to show everyone that Star Wars is back, and it's here to stay.
For those of you who don't know, Disney said that they were completely discounting the Expanded Universe when making the Sequel Trilogy. Personally, I've got mixed feels on this. On the one hand, some of my favorite novels come from the Star Wars Expanded Universe, but on the other hand, at least we don't have to deal with The New Jedi Order and Legacy of The Force anymore.
However, there are plenty of things in Episode VII which seem to me, as a fan of the EU, to have been inspired by or copied directly from the EU. It's just that they use different names for the characters, technology and locations. Almost like they realized at the last minute that they'd shot themselves in the foot when they said that they weren't taking anything from the EU and just decided to rename it. Or maybe the crew was working on an EU inspired movie and were then told once the script was finished that they had to remove all references to the Expanded Universe. Even so, there's still plenty of fanservice, for both casual and hardcore fans alike. Personally, there are plenty of things in the movie that I would have called something else, but that's just a petty quibble. On the whole, The Force Awakens is freaking awesome. I'll try to avoid spoilers for the first half of the review. Spoiler territory will be clearly marked.
One of my major gripes with the prequels were the fact that they over-used CGI. Don't get me wrong, it looked really freaking good for the most part, but those weren't animated films, they were live-action. And even if you've got Industrial Light and Magic working on the visual effects, it's hard to make the CGI look like it belongs in the shot with the human actors. Or to make the human actors look like they belong in the shot. But everyone pretty much knows this by now.
The good thing about The Force Awakens is that they've kept the usage of CGI actors and environments to a minimum, and what's there blends in with the rest of the shots extremely well. Episode VII is amazing from a purely technical standpoint, just like most of J .J. Abrams work. If you've seen Abrams' Star Trek movies, then the space scenes in this movie will certainly remind you of those films. Not to say that they're totally unlike space-scenes from Star Wars, they're just slightly different. I don't find them quite as engaging as the space-combat scenes in the original trilogy, but they're more coherent than the space-combat scenes in Episode III. for instance.
Then we get to the planet-based combat in the movie, which feels a lot more engaging. For the most part it's reminiscent of the combat in the original trilogy, with the best elements of combat from the Prequels. The Lightsaber fights are more like they were in the original trilogy, IE actual swordfighting and not freaking dance-routines like they were in the prequels.
The Lightsaber fights bring me to a rather major issue I had with the cinematography, namely the fact that there are way too many close-ups of the characters during lightsaber fights and not enough wide views of the fighting. By the way, spoiler warning, a Star Wars movie has lightsaber fighting in it. The original cut of The Force Awakens was apparently around four hours long, and I'd love to see extended/alternate takes of the lightsaber combat where they used much wider shots, where the screen isn't filled with the actors faces. Otherwise, the cinematography is fine. Unless it's the last lightsaber fight, everything pretty much looks clear, and each scene flows into the next very well. The editing is incredibly well-done, and I wasn't left confused by any of the cuts.
Then we get to the story. It might be a little bit simplistic, but it's not predictable, and it's doesn't rely on cliche like some movies do. I'm looking at you, Jupiter Ascending. It's almost an homage to the original Star Wars, but there's enough that's different that I wouldn't call it a direct homage. More like a loving tribute, with its own original spin to put on things.
The characters are good, the acting is good, and I can't really say much else without delving into spoiler territory.
From this point onwards, we'll be discussing potential and outright spoilers, so if you haven't already seen the movie, go out and watch it now. Or wait until April when it comes out on home video to finish reading this review. Whatever you want to do. If you read beyond this and you haven't seen the movie then you've got nobody to blame but yourself. Seriously, you should go watch the movie.

Right off the bat I wished Disney hadn't shown anything from the film in the run-up to the release, because as soon as I saw the Stormtrooper hesitating in the opening, I knew he was Finn. I didn't even watch the trailer before I'd watched the movie, and I already knew who Finn was thanks to all the hoopla around the film. Fortunately, thanks to my incredibly isolationist attitude when it comes to movies I want to watch, I didn't know much else about it.
There are plenty of minor quibbles I can bring up with the locations. For instance, they introduce way too many new locations that are similar to previously established ones. The planet the movie starts on is called Jakku, but it sure looks like Tatooine, and when I originally saw the stills from the trailer, I would have sworn that it was Tatooine. Really, there's no reason for it not to be Tatooine from a narrative perspective. Jakku wasn't even around in the original trilogy, and it's depicted as having crashed wrecks of Imperial Star Destroyers on it. That implies some kind of space-battle occurred between the Empire and the Rebellion, which means Luke Skywalker would have likely been present for it. But for some reason, Luke Skywalker has become a legend despite the fact that he was the most wanted man in the galaxy for years on end. It's essentially the same issue with the Jedi and The Force being mythological in Episode IV when the Jedi were at the forefront of The Clone Wars. You know, the same Clone Wars that a kid from Tatooine, the single most remote planet in the freaking galaxy, would know about. If it was a major battle in the Rebellion against the Empire, Rogue Squadron was probably involved, and who's the person in charge of Rogue Squadron? Luke freaking Skywalker, Rogue Leader himself.
The next planet they introduce is basically Naboo, but it's called Takodana. Takodana has a bar on it managed by Chewbacca's girlfriend. Personally, I think Takodana could have been cut entirely, since there's nothing unique about it. Like I said, it's essentially Naboo.
Then we get to D'Qar, the site of the Resistance base in Episode VII. I'll get to my issue with "The Resistance" later, but my main gripe with D'Qar is that it's basically Yavin 4, but they don't bother calling it Yavin IV. Like all the other planets they introduced, it doesn't really need to be there, since they have previously established planets they could be using instead.
Really, this all comes back to my complaints about Mos Espa in The Phantom Menace, it wasn't different from Mos Eisley in any significant way, so why bother calling it anything else? Do we need another desert planet? Or another jungle planet? Or another forest planet? Not really. There's already an established galaxy,
Now that we're done complaining about the new planets, let's start talking more about the story.
It's been around thirty years since The Battle of Endor, and Luke Skywalker has gone missing. Princess Leia sends out Poe Dameron to track Luke down, but he gets ambushed by a group of Stormtroopers from The First Order, led by Kylo Ren and Captain Phasma. He gets captured, but he sends his droid off into the desert with the map chip locked inside. The droid's name is BB-8, and he is one of the cutest things in Star Wars. I'm serious, BB-8 is great. His comic-timing is perfect, he's cute as a button, and best of all, he's actually a useful character.
During Poe's capture, the Stormtroopers torch the village he had traveled to, and killed the old man who gave Poe the map to Luke. They then slaughter the entire village. Except for one Stormtrooper, who hesitates, and doesn't shoot anyone.
Kylo Ren brings Poe onboard his ship, tortures him, and then uses The Force to extract the rest of the information from him. The Stormtrooper who didn't shoot anyone in the village rescues Poe and they escape in a Tie-Fighter. Poe asks the troopers name, but he only has a serial-number. So Poe calls him Finn, after the first two letters in his number. Poe explains that he needs to go back to Jakku and get BB-8. They then get shot down and crash-land on Jakku. Finn wakes up in an ejector-seat on the surface of the planet, and only finds Poe's jacket on the Tie-Fighter. Then the Tie-Fighter is swallowed by a sinkhole. Finn strips off his Stormtrooper armor, because it's hot, and he's in the freaking desert, and tries to make his way towards town.
We cut to a girl named Rey scavenging parts out of a crashed Imperial Star Destroyer. She loads up her old cruiser with the scrap, and rides into town to trade the parts for food. On her way, she runs into a fellow scrapper who's captured BB-8. She talks the guy out of it, and takes BB-8 with her into town to find Poe.
In town, she runs into Finn. BB-8 points out to her that Finn is wearing Poe's jacket and thinks he must have stolen it. Rey attacks Finn, but he explains what's going on, telling her that he's with the Resistence, and that BB-8 has the map to Luke inside him. Jakku is then attacked by The First Order, and the three of them flee in a stolen spaceship. Did I mention that it's the fastest ship in the galaxy? Yes. They stole The Millennium Falcon. They escape the Imperial blockade and jet off into lightspeed.
Then The Falcon breaks down like it usually does, and after Finn, Rey, and BB-8 fix it, they get hauled into a Corellion Cruiser. Lo and behold, that Cruiser is commanded by everyone's favorite lovable rogue, Han Solo and his first-mate, Chewbacca. Finn convinces BB-8 to show Han and Rey the map to Luke, and Han explains to Rey and Finn about why Luke left, and that all the old legends about The Force and the old Jedi Order was true. Apparently Kylo Ren betrayed Luke and went over to the Dark Side.
Unfortunately, Han's ship gets boarded by gangs he owes money to, and Rey attempts to seal the gangs inside the ships air-locks, but accidentally lets out the monsters Han was smuggling. It turns out for the best though, since the monsters eat the gangs and buy the gang enough time to get to The Falcon and warp off. Han takes them to Takodana to meet with Maz Kanata, who's basically Guinan from Star Trek: The Next Generation, right down to her being really freaking old. She's able to get BB-8 on a clean ship to Coruscant, so he can get the map to Leia. Rey wants to get back to Jakku so she can keep waiting for her missing parents, and Finn just wants to get as far away from The First Order as possible.
Unfortunately for everyone, The First Order and The Resistance alike have been notified about the presence of BB-8 and the rest of the fugitives on Takodana.
Rey's called to the Lightsaber Luke lost on Bespin (The one Anakin lost on Mustafar), and it gives her some disturbing images. And instead of turning to the Dark-Side, she just leaves the Lightsaber where it is and flees into the forest. Seeeeeeee Anakin? This is the logical reaction to having nightmares like that.
The First Order attacks the planet, and Han, Chewie, Rey, and Finn are forced to fight their way off the planet. Unfortunately Rey gets captured by Kylo Ren, and The First Order retreats to their mobile battlestation, Starkiller Base.
The guy in charge of The First Order, Supreme Leader Snoke, orders the Imperial Commander, General Hux to use Starkiller Base (Called such because it uses stars as fuel) to annihilate The New Republic. He also orders Kylo Ren to kill his father, Han Solo. This was the point in the film where I started to suspect that they were adapting the EU despite their claims to not be doing so.
Princess Leia escorts Han, BB-8, and Finn to their base, and there they meet up with Poe Dameron.
Apparently Poe was ejected from the Tie-Fighter as well, and he reunites with BB-8, and they show their portion of the map to the New Republic's armed-forces. I'm glad to see Admiral Ackbar is still around.
Han and Leia discuss their relationship and history. Apparently they drifted apart after Kylo betrayed Luke, Han went back to smuggling, and Leia went back to leading the military.
Apparently R2-D2 has fallen into a deep depression after Luke left, and hasn't powered on since then.
Starkiller Base fires on the New Republic capital, destroying every single planet in the Hosnian system. Which is a little odd, since I thought The New Republic was housed on Coruscant, and I've never heard of the Hosnian system. It seems like they just invented Hosnian just so they wouldn't have to blow up Coruscant.
Anyways, Kylo Ren interrogates Rey with The Force, but she's able to resist it, and then mind-tricks James Bond into freeing her from her and giving her his gun.
Leia and the rest of the Resistance's military leaders work up a plan to take out Starkiller Base, which involves sending Han, Chewie, and Finn onto Starkiller to take down the shields so what's left of the New Republic starfleet can try and blow it up. Before departing, Leia urges Han to bring Kylo back to them alive.
They manage to land The Falcon on Starkiller, find Rey, blackmail Phasma into lowering the shields, and set explosives around the armor-plating on the main reactor.
Han confronts his son, Ben Solo, now known as Kylo Ren. This confrontation was amazing, and incredibly powerful. It ends with Kylo killing Han, which is something I wasn't expecting, but it's handled incredibly well, and it actually seems like something that was done for the sake of the story, as opposed to the way Chewbacca's death in Vector Prime was handled, which was purely there for shock-value.
Chewbacca goes crazy when Ben kills Han, and manages to get in a few good shots at Ben, kills a ton of Stormtroopers, and triggers the explosives. This gives Poe's Black Squadron an opening to destroy the base.
Chewbacca, Rey, and Finn flee to the surface of Starkiller and attempt to escape, but Kylo Ben ambushes them. Finn takes up the Lightsaber given to him by Maz, and duels with Kylo. He puts up a good fight, but Kylo manages to gain the upper-hand long enough to injure Finn and disarm him.
Rey then takes up the Lightsaber and duels Kylo to a standstill before they're separated by a canyon formed by the destruction of Starkiller. Chewbacca and Rey load Finn into The Falcon and fly out with the rest of the remaining New Republic's space-fleet.
Captain Phasma, Kylo Ren, and General Hux flee Starkiller as it explodes under the orders of Snoke. I don't know where they go from here, I suppose we're gonna find out in the next movie.
The New Republic mourns the death of one of their heroes, R2 wakes up finally and shows them the rest of the map to Luke's location. Rey joins Chewbacca and R2 on The Falcon, tracking Luke to a distant planet, finding him on an island.
Yes, this was an awesome film. It's freaking amazing, and it's a damn good film. I'm just gonna bring up a few things I noticed though.
"Starkiller Base" is a reference to the original name of the protagonist of Star Wars, Starkiller. Which was later used as the name of one of Darth Vader's many, many secret apprentices in the EU. And the concept of the base itself, as something which can destroy a star and an entire planetary system at once is straight from one of my favorite EU series, the Jedi Academy Trilogy. The Sun Crusher was a secret Imperial project which would destroy a sun to destroy an entire planetary system. There are differences in execution, certainly. Starkiller Base is essentially a glorified Death Star, since it still uses a laser-canon to target and blow up planets directly, while The Sun Crusher dropped torpedoes into stars, turning the star into a literal bomb, which then goes on to annihilate the planets orbiting it. As you can see, the end result is the same, a dead sun and a bunch of vaporized planets.
Then we get to the fact that Ben in essentially Jacen Solo from the EU with a different name. His origin, his personality to a certain extent, it all seems so much like Jacen that I wonder why he's not just called Jacen. Probably to make good on what they said about not adapting the Expanded Universe.
Then there's Luke's quest to find the first Jedi temple, which he actually did in the EU. Except that. You know. That temple was the Rebel base on Yavin 4. This is one of those situations where I hesitate to take the word of the author on what they're contradicting from the EU, since if you look at the Jedi Temple on Coruscant in the Prequels and the Rebel base in Episode IV, they look pretty damn similar. So since there's evidence in canonical material to support what was stated in Lost City of the Jedi, that leaves me to wonder where they're taking this. But this is just my brain on the Expanded Universe, I still haven't completely accepted that it's not canon, due to the fact that they haven't really contradicted much, they've just changed some names around and added some planets.
There's a hypothesis running around that Rey is Luke's daughter, and I'd say there's plenty of evidence to back that up. There's the fact that she's good with machines, like Anakin and Luke. She's an awesome pilot, just like Anakin and Luke. She's drawn to the Lightsaber used by Anakin and Luke. Then there's the fact that her theme-song is essentially identical to Anakin's and Luke's. Plus she's drawn to Han Solo through some pretty weird circumstances, just like Luke was. I'm almost certain at this point that Rey's last name is Skywalker.
So, let's talk about the actors. Harrison Ford is good as Han Solo as he always is, Carrie Fisher is good as Leia, and Mark Hamilll is Mark Hamill, he's always good, even though he's barely in the movie. We can skip over all of the returning actors, since everyone already knows who they are, and they're still great.
Let's get to the new actors, starting with John Boyega, who's great as Finn. He portrays a conflicted soldier who winds up turning against his own to do what's right. Finn's character arc is great, and it's nice to see a character who was conditioned from birth to obey orders and kill mindlessly rebel against that conditioning to do the right thing. However, this backs up what I say about the Clone Troopers in the prequels, there's no reason they shouldn't be able to rebel against their orders like Finn did.
Enough tangents, Boyega's performance is great, and his accent is perfect. I couldn't even tell he's British from his voice. If I didn't know better, I'd think he was American.
Then we move on to Adam Driver, who played Kylo Ren. Back in The Original Trilogy, we never saw Darth Vader's face until the very end of Episode VI, which was partially to maintain his intimidating nature. I bring this up because Kylo Ren's mask comes off at multiple points in the film, but that doesn't serve to make him less intimidating at all, and this is down to Driver's performance. His expressionism makes Kylo Ren as intimidated without the mask as he is with it, and sometimes more so.
Then we get to Oscar Isaac, who plays Poe Dameron, who feels like a mostly useless character. Not the same kind of useless as Qui-Gon Jinn, just useless in the fact that he's left out of most of the important events in the film, and the character seems to know that he's being left out of most of the important goings-on.
There's a difference between knowing very little about a character, and them not being interesting. Poe Dameron is a character we don't know much about, and he's not particularly interesting, while characters like Rey, Captain Phasma, or that Stormtrooper Finn was dueling with on Takodana are characters we don't know much about, but are interesting. Phasma due to her voice and armor, the Assault Trooper because he popped out of nowhere and was awesome, and Rey because we've traveled with her from planet to planet, through good circumstances and bad. Rey is played by Daisy Ridley, and while there's not much to go on for the character at the moment, I think that Daisey Ridley did a good job. She's suited to the role, for one thing, and for another, I think she captures the same sort of innocence that Luke Skywalker embodied in Episode IV. This is how Anakin Skywalker should have been written back in the day.
Now we move onto some random thoughts I had while writing this review and watching the movie.
It's funny how Rey's staff is quite obviously a double-bladed Lightsaber, but we never actually see it in action. Maybe the power-source is dead or something. I didn't know you had to recharge Lightsabers, but who knows?
Personally, I thought the movie started out strong, stayed strong in the middle, and then the climax seemed pretty empty. Destroying Starkiller Base in the first film seems like they were just trying to parrot the way A New Hope ended, but forgot that they needed a little more build-up, and a lot more tension to pay it off the way Luke making his shot in the Death Star trench paid off. Part of that might be the fact that we don't know jack about Poe Dameron or any of his team, and therefore have no reason to care about them. I think a much better ending would have been for Starkiller Base to be severely crippled, with it being destroyed in Episode VIII or IX.
I think that Luke needs to spend almost all of Episode VIII training Rey in the ways of the Jedi, but be reluctant to come back to the fight. Over the course of him training Rey, he comes around to the idea of returning to battle. As the tide turns against the New Republic, Rey has to return to the battlefield to confront her cousin Ben, and uses every single technique she learned from Luke in the battle. She almost succeeds, but Ben manages to get in enough good hits to cripple her. Possibly with her losing her right hand in the process. Duel of the Fates should definitely be playing during this fight as well.
As the outlooks seems bleak, and Captain Phasma's army closes in on the Rebel base, in the most dire of circumstances, when all hope seems lost, BAM! Right out of hyperspace comes Luke Skywalker, in his X-Wing, with R2-D2 in the navigation pit. He takes command of Rogue Squadron and they turn the tide of the battle. As the Star Wars theme-song swells to a crescendo, Luke flies down to the surface of the planet where Rey and Ben are having their duel, leaps out of the cockpit of his X-Wing, lands between Ben and Rey, igniting his Lightsaber. With the green glow illuminating his face, he out-duels Ben, forcing him to retreat. The battle over, the Rebel Alliance re-forms. The war may not have been won, but the New Republic's greatest hero has returned, and they've dealt The First Order a crippling blow.
After all that wild mass guessing, I figure I should probably wrap this review up, and give you a score.
All in all, I really liked this movie, and I'm oh so happy that Star Wars is back to being the greatest thing on the planet. The cinematography is great, the acting is great, the effects are great, the action is great, the story is good, the comedy is actually funny (Take note, Nickelodeon) and it's just freaking good.
In the end, I give Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens a 9.7* rating. I think this is probably my second favorite Star Wars movie at this point. Possibly third, but it's definitely at the top of the list.