A Force Awakens Review

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I’m one of those lucky fans who has grown up with Star Wars.  I too young to see Episodes IV, V and VI on their respective opening days, but when Episode I came out I was there, surrounded by other fans, all of us generating enough excitement to launch the cinema we were at into orbit, and I was there for the opening days of Episodes II and III also.  I had always thought that if Episode VII was ever made, I would be there for its opening day too… except I wasn’t.

As the release date approached, I starting thinking about what I really wanted for this almost Holy Grail like movie.  There is definitely somethings magical about seeing a Star Wars movie with other fans, but it can also disrupt the experience quite a bit.  I decided I didn’t want to wait in line with other fans, and I didn’t want to be swept up in other people’s reactions.  I wanted to be submerged in the film and to let it rise or fall on its merits, and I wanted to start my New Year with that experience.  All of the reviews were favourable and to my mind, starting 2016 with Star Wars felt right.

Star Wars is very special to me, like it is to literally millions of people.

Like too many kids I was badly bullied at school, and for me Star Wars was my only escape.  As I left school and went on to University, the bullying eased – but I attributed that more to the fact I had started beefing up and because my acting career had taken off and people love people who are on TV and in newspapers.  The truth is, I don’t think I would have made it to my late teens and early twenties if it hadn’t have been for Luke, Leia, Han and the droids.  They have been that group of friends I have always loved reconnecting with, and as a child, they were the friends who reassured me that no matter the evils and hardships you face, you will prevail if you stay true to yourself.  I will always love Star Wars and George Lucas for that.

As I’ve said in previous posts, I didn’t hate the prequel movies, but they weren’t as special to me as the original trilogy, and I’d always thought that was because I was older, and because as a child and young teenager I’d bonded with Luke, Leia and Han and no one could replace them.

Seeing Episode VII as a chance to reconnect with my friends outside of the novels I’d been reading since Timothy Zahns first incredible trilogy, I chose to see Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens alone so I could experience it completely and without distraction or interuption and think and feel as deeply about it as I needed to.  And like I said, starting my New Year with Star Wars felt right.

I also hoped that seeing Han, Leia and Luke again would reinvigorate my love for Star Wars, which, I admit, had fallen a bit by the wayside over the years in favour of Star Trek (my favourite TV show) and other science fiction properties.

I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down in the cinema this morning for the first showing of Star Wars on New Year’s day.  Spoilers don’t worry me, so I knew all the plot twists going in, and I’d already read the first 14 chapters of the book until I’d forced myself to stop, but I had heard a mix of criticisms regarding Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher’s performances, and I’d heard way too much about how badly the trinity (including Mark Hamill) had aged.

While the spoilers didn’t spoil the movie for me, I was worried about what two media commentators had said about the performances of Harrison and Carrie – and I shouldn’t have been.  Those commentators were speaking out of their asses.

Harrison, Carrie and Adam (Driver) carry the emotional weight of the movie, and they do it brilliantly.  I’m a trained actor and director with over 25 years in the business, and an actors performance is something I pay attention to, it’s part of the magic for me.  Their performances were carefully nuanced and full of subtext.  There were moments where Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Adam Driver in particular just flawed me.  Yes, there was one point where Harrison wasn’t convincing, and one point where Carrie underplayed a moment, but that could also have been an editing issue or just an actors choice, otherwise, when you thought about their characters and everything they’d been through and were going through, their performances were pitch perfect.

The following contains spoilers, so if, like me, you have been waiting for a special date to see the seventh Star Wars film and haven’t seen it yet, turn away now.

Spoiler Alert

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is beautiful.

Max Von Sydow as Lor San Tekka, Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, Adam Driver as Kylo Ren and BB-8 (as BB-8) start the movie with excellent performances that perfectly set the tone, and it just explodes from there.

The First Order are vicious.  We all know the Empire was also, but we never really saw it.  At least not like this.  In Episode VII we see them slaughter innocents left right and centre in the opening moments of the film, and they don’t just wipe out one world and a few ships, they wipe out an entire system and an entire fleet.

It’s during the first slaughter that we’re introduced to Finn, my new favourite Star Wars character.

I want to love Kylo Ren, but I can’t.  If you’ve seen the movie, you know why.

After Finn refuses to follow the order to slaughter innocents, Poe is captured by Kylo and taken to an orbiting Star Destroyer.  Finn eventually breaks him out, and after they crashland on Jakku, Finn meets Rey and Poe disappears for quite a while, eventually popping up in time to rescue Han, Chewie and Finn from a bunch of rampaging Stormtroopers on yet another world that feels the crushing boot heel of the First Order.

We meet Rey before she meets Finn, thanks to BB-8, and it becomes clear that J.J. Abrams and the casting people on Episode VII, have gone to a LOT of trouble to find the right people to carry on the saga.

Finn, Rey and Poe along with BB-8 and the evil and tormented Kylo Ren are exceptional.  I loved Padme and Qui Gon and the young Obi Wan and Anakin, but not like I love these new characters.

Rather than run through every beat in the film, I want to focus on what was important to me.  The performances and the feeling this film gave me.  It all blew me away.  Everything was carefully and beautifully crafted.

Poe is self assured and cocky.  You can’t help but want to watch him and you can’t help but like him.  Rey is earnest, wonderfully goofy at times and compelling.  When she is on screen, she commands every scene she is in.  Finn is bloody brilliant.  He’s real.  He’s frightened.  He’s heroic.  He’s hilarious, and he’s the perfect audience surrogate.  He and Rey also look like they’re going to be this trilogy’s Leia and Han.  Their chemistry is magical.

Rey and Fin and BB-8

BB-8… I’m totally in love with the little guy.  He’s adorable and he’s like a puppy in the way he follows the main characters around, and he’s cute – and not just for the sake of being cute or as comic relief.  BB-8 is not a Jar Jar Binks.  He serves the story and is his own unique character and you will love him… you will want your very own BB-8 after you see him in action!

Kylo Ren is tormented, tortured, disturbing and captivating.  Adam Driver is an exceptional actor and he brings life and much needed complexity to the film’s new big bad.  His performance is masterful.

Kylo Ren Character Banner

Domhnall Gleeson is wonderful as General Hux.

He doesn’t like Kylo, is sycophantic toward Snoke, and is the perfect First Order bad guy.  When he gives his speech before firing the new super weapon, it is magnificent.  He channels Adolf Hitler and Grand Moff Tarkin and you hate him in those moments.  I don’t remember the last time I watched a movie and so thoroughly despised a character.

He surprised the crap out of me, and I enjoyed watching him every time he popped up on screen.

General Hux

Harrison Ford is Han Solo, and he doesn’t let you forget it in Episode VII.  He’s a lot more weary and battle worn than the Han we last saw in Return of the Jedi, and that’s just right for his character – particularly when we learn about what happened to his son.  Harrison only faltered once in his performance, and that was when he was trying to accept blame for what happened to his and Leia’s son, Ben Solo.  It looks like something was cut around that point, so maybe there was a build up that we as an audience missed, that might have made that beat more true.

Han SWTFA

Carrie Fisher is Princess Leia, now General Leia, and she brings a reserved dignity and the perfect level of emotion to a woman whose life has been plagued by war, and who has been fighting to overthrow tyranny her whole life, losing too many people she loves along the way.  When we learn who her son is, and what happened to him, we get to understand Leia’s motivation and why she is so careful and slightly detached.  She blames herself for unleashing a new evil on the galaxy and it shows.  Carrie only faltered once in her performance, and that was when she sensed the death of her husband, and her son slip further to the Dark Side.  It was a quick cut to her reaction and the time she was given to emote was no where near enough to convincingly portray the immense and complex emotions she would have felt in that moment.  As with Harrison’s not so convincing moment, Carrie might have lost a little screen time to the editing machine in an attempt to tighten the pace of the film.

Leia STTFW

Mark Hamill.  What can I say?  He was barely in the movie, but when he tosses the cowl of his cape back and turns to face Rey, my breath caught and my heart soared.

Never have we seen anyone portray a Jedi Knight like Mark Hamill.  Mark was in the movie for maybe three minutes and did not say one word, but his presence, standing there, looking out over a cliff, and then turning to regard Rey as she holds out his old lightsaber, is mesmerizing.  You instantly believe that he is the Chosen One and the most powerful Jedi to have ever existed.  It helps sell the fuss that is made of him by Snoke, and it validates the core story of the film and helps explain why everyone is looking for Luke Skywalker.  Far out that man has presence!  No one does Jedi like Mark Hamill.

Luke STTFW

I laughed out loud during this movie, at multiple points my emotion overcame me and tears almost flowed freely – when Leia says she wants her son back, when Han says that it’s all real and that the Jedi and the Force are not a myth, when Rey sheds tears when Maz Kanata tells her her family is not coming back for her, when Han dies… there were six points in the movie where I was overcome.

The special effects are magnificent.  There were three points where I had to remind myself to breathe, because I didn’t realise I’d been holding my breath – the first was when Rey did some amazing aerobatics flying the Falcon as she and Finn try to escape Jakku, the second was when a squad of X-Wings flew toward us across water and then shot the crap out of a bunch of Stormtroopers midway through the movie, and the final time was the show down between Kylo, Finn and Rey.  I gasped in air intermittently during that battle sequence and didn’t start breathing properly again until the quake happened that separated Kylo from Rey.

I didn’t believe The Force Awakens would do to me what it did to me.  Even while I was watching it.  At the beginning, it’s pacing was haphazard, and then suddenly I was lost in this wonderful film.

J.J. made some choices I don’t like, but he made a movie I love.

I said that Leia, Han and Kylo carry the emotional weight of the movie, but it’s heart is Rey and it’s spirit is Finn and Poe.

The biggest things for any long time fan were obviously the reveal that Kylo Ren is Leia and Han’s son, Ben Solo… and, of course, Han’s death at the hand of his son.

The reveal that Kylo is Han and Leia’s son disappointed me.  I didn’t like it.  I wish it had happened in a different way, but I think that’s probably because Supreme Leader Snoke just didn’t work for me.  I liked the reveal in the book, but it didn’t work for me on screen.

Han’s death?  It broke my heart.  I knew it was coming, but it still shocked me.  It was such an emotional moment for me.  My face went slack and I just sat in my cinema seat breathing deeply, wishing it had never happened.  I looked away as the sword went into him and twisted violently in my seat as if I was being stabbed.  I must have looked slightly crazy!

It’s perfect, and it’s handled magnificently by Harrison, Adam and J.J. Abrams, but it’s horrible.  It’s heart-wrenchingly horrible.

A quick snapshot of the bad and the good?

The bad?
It’s minimal, and it’s almost petty:
– I really don’t like Kylo Ren’s ship.  It’s a mutated Imperial Shuttle with a ridiculous and completely unnecessary wing span;
– Snoke falls short for me.  Andy Serkis does a great job, but the character doesn’t engage me, and he doesn’t make sense.  Leia has known about him for ages, which means Luke did too… why would Luke abandon the galaxy when he knew the Dark Side was rising, and when one of his own students turned against him because of Snoke?  I get that he might go into hiding, but as a plot point it was weak;
– The whole jigsaw puzzle to find Luke is sort of weird, and the fact everyone is looking for the all powerful Luke seems odd until the last frames of the film.  If Mark Hamill weren’t such an amazing actor, that final reveal would have destroyed the whole movie;
– The editing.  It’s brilliant but at times it is not sensitive to the emotional beats.  In previous Episodes, characters never felt like they and their moments suffered at the hands of the editing team.  People slam George Lucas for his directing, but that man and his editing team are incredible at pacing a film.  I think the editing missteps happened to trim time from the movie, because in every other way the editing is beautiful;
– Episode VII borrows a little too much from Episode IV, and it is noticeable.  Not at first, there are some nice homages liberally sprinkled throughout the the first half of the film, but then it becomes really noticeable and at time it forces you out of the movie and makes you think about A New Hope when you should be totally focused on The Force Awakens;
– Starkiller Base.  We all know that George Lucas played fast and free with physics, but J.J., Michael Arndt and Larry Kasdan really play fast and free with the physics of the First Order’s superweapon.  It makes no sense.  At all.  The Death Star (both of them) did.  Starkiller Base?  Nope.  It sucks all of the energy out of a star, channels it across space as a massive beam everyone can see regardless of relativity, and it splits into multiple beams and destroys multiple planets with one shot.  I just can’t suspend disbelief that much.  Thankfully, it’s the least important plot point in the story – which is in itself not so good.  Billions of lives are lost, the New Republic and its fleet is destroyed, and it’s all a bit of a side note.  When Alderaan was destroyed it was shocking and we felt it alongside Leia.  This time, we’re not even remotely emotionally invested in the death of billions.  That’s not great story-telling.  The book tries to make the super weapon make sense, but it’s still the most dodgiest fantasy-physics I’ve seen since stupid transwarp beaming in the 2009 Star Trek movie, and lastly;
– Rey is a little too good at EVERYTHING.  I’ve heard a lot of that over the last two weeks, and was hoping people were over exaggerating.  They weren’t.  It does get a bit distracting.

The-Resistance-Star-Wars-7-Force-Awakens-X-Wing

The good?
There are too many to mention.  So here are a few things I loved…
– The core of the story works;
– It’s right that Han and Leia and their son carry the emotional weight of the film.  This is still the story of the Skywalkers, and that was perfect;
– The casting is exceptional.  I can’t say enough good things about Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Adam Driver and Domnhall Gleeson;
– The effects are outstanding and very Star Wars;
– J.J.s directing.  He gets Star Wars.  There were two points where he seemed to borrow from his other movies, but it didn’t jar me out of the experience, even when one moment was so 2009’s Star Trek I almost laughed;
– BB-8;
– The chemistry between Finn and Rey;
– The way they aged the Falcon.  Perfection;
– The Imperial graveyard… some of the most beautiful shots were of downed Star Destroyers and AT-ATs;
– I loved the inclusion of moisture vaporators on Jakku, I know it’s a little thing but I liked it;
– The use of Skellig Michael for the first Jedi Temple.  Never could a more perfect spot have been chosen;
– The way Han’s death was handled;
– The way Luke was introduced, and last but not least;
– I LOVE these new characters as much as I love the original three.  I never expected that to happen.  It’s a compliment to the writers and it’s definitely a compliment to the amazing actors J.J. cast.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not a perfect movie, but it is a brilliant movie, it is a movie that has exceptional heart, and it is a worthy entry into the Star Wars saga.  After Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, it’s now my second favourite saga movie.

Despite having issues, it’s still worthy of five out of five (death) stars, because what it gets right, it gets really right.

5 Out of 5 Death Stars

So, this blog is all about the Skywalker family… am I going to share my theories on whether or not there is another addition to the Skywalker family besides Ben Solo?

There are so many theories, but there is only one I still think is right.  I’ve extrapolated on that original rumour a bit now that I’ve seen the movie, even though most people have abandoned this particular theory for now because of the age difference between Kylo and Rey.

The theory?

Rey is Han and Leia’s child.  Leia fell pregnant with Rey before Han left, but didn’t know she was pregnant at that time.  When she found out, she didn’t tell him because he’d basically given up when he lost his son.  Leia, being stubborn, and Han, being stubborn, they fell completely out of touch.  When Leia gave birth to Rey, she sent her to Luke’s Jedi Academy for the first years of her life – almost handing care over to Luke because she was afraid Ben’s struggle was her fault and she didn’t want to risk the same thing happening to her daughter.  When Ben became Kylo and joined the Knights of Ren and slaughtered Luke’s students, Luke evacuated Rey and didn’t tell Leia Rey had survived so Kylo could never find out about her.  Drowning in guilt over having to keep that secret from his sister and his best friend, and devastated by the loss of Ben and the death of his students, Luke went into hiding.

Why do I think that rumour is the one that will pan out?  As I was driving home from the movie, it all just clicked.  It makes sense.  It’s true to Star Wars and I just don’t believe Luke would have had a child.  He would have found information on the Jedi and learned that Jedi should not fall in love and carry on a relationship.  Since learning who is father was, Luke has been afraid of following a similar path.  So much so he would never risk that by allowing emotion to rule him and a relationship to potentially corrupt him by giving him a child the Dark Side could use against him.

Think about it.  Snoke is super interested in the girl.  She seems familiar to Kylo.  When Kylo mentions the Force during his and Rey’s showdown, she stops as if remembering something, like her training, and then suddenly turns the tables on Kylo.  It’s clear she has Force training, but none of it clicks for her until Kylo names that mystical energy.  One way or another, she was at the Jedi Academy before it fell.  Plus, Han develops a soft spot for her for no real reason and Leia, Leia seems to sense something.  The moment they share at the end of the film is very meaningful… as if the girl reminded the Princess of someone she once knew.  Plus, Rey and Kylo look a little alike, and Rey is incredibly reminiscent of a young Princess Leia and Queen Amidala.

The other side of that theory is that Rey was born before Han left, and that Ben knew he had a sister – but everyone suspected she died during the attack by the Knights of Ren.

Rey and Han

We will obviously have to wait for Episode VIII or IX.  If J.J. follows in George’s footsteps, we will get a major hint to Rey’s parentage in Episode VIII and a full reveal in Episode IX.  In Episode V we learned there was another Skywalker, and in Episode VI Ben told Luke Leia was his sister, and then, of course, Luke told Leia.

There was a moment while watching the film where I wondered if Rey could be Kylo’s daughter… but then I did the math quickly and realised it was pretty much impossible.  But that would have been a cool twist!

I love this movie, and if you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to go now.  Don’t wait.  Don’t be worried about anything, and don’t listen to the cruel things people are saying about Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill.  I don’t know what movie those people were watching but it wasn’t the same movie I saw, and of course Harrison, Carrie and Mark are going to look older.  Return of the Jedi was in 1983!

The movie is great, Carrie, Harrison and Mark are Leia, Han and Luke.  Rey, Poe and Finn are worthy successors to the Star Wars saga and, Kylo is the most fascinating villain we’ve seen on film in a long time.

This is a wonderful Star Wars movie and worth the price of admission.

I hate to end on a cliche, but the Force is definitely with Episode VII.

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