Movie Review: STAR WARS The Force Awakens (no spoilers)
Fresh from the vision of this much-awaited movie, here are some of my immediate thoughts – rigorously spoiler-free, of course.
All things considered, I truly enjoyed it, even though it was not perfect, mostly because it added nothing new in the way of story-telling but rather seemed to revisit the themes of the original movie with new people in some of the old roles: the main character’s hero’s journey somewhat parallels that of young Luke Skywalker, and the story itself follows the same guidelines as the first Star Wars movie. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course: after all, mythology rests on a few basic concepts that are mixed and recombined in various legends, but still I would have liked to witness some new ideas. On the other hand, these concepts were executed very well, and carried by old and new faces that integrated quite seamlessly into an entertaining and exciting whole, so… no big complaints. As far as the path for this hero’s journey is concerned, it did not disappoint, and I was also fondly amused by the frequent nods to some details from the original trilogy.
That said, the story moves forward at a good pace, aided by stunning visuals and complicated battle choreographies – both on the ground and in space – that at times took my breath away: the balance between real action and CGI-enhanced scenes is excellent and facilitates the immersive experience that any good movie should aspire to. Visuals would be quite poor fare, though, if they were not sustained by believable, well-portrayed characters and strong dialogue, and the movie lacks for neither: on the contrary, characterization is indeed the strongest point of the whole experience, starting with the protagonist, Rey.
She is a true revelation, both as a fictional character and as an actress: Daisy Ridley manages to bring on screen a mixture of strength, courage and human frailness that is as endearing as it is realistic. Times have indeed changed since the original movie, and women don’t need to be princesses in need of a savior, but are rather quite able to save themselves, and others as well. Living like a scavenger rooting for mechanical parts in an unforgiving desert waste, Rey has clearly learned to fend for herself while still harboring a deep pain borne of loneliness and the unexpressed feelings of abandonment – that last detail being the more intriguing part of her mysterious past. Hard-ass heroines often tend to be brittle and aggressive, while Rey walks a fine balance between inner strength and compassion that makes her instantly likable, instantly recognizable as the true hero of the story. If the unsolved puzzle of who she is and how she came to be here represents a strong point of attraction, we don’t really need to know more beyond her willingness to help the weak, be they flesh-and-blood people or funny looking androids, and to resolutely face any challenge. I think the best representation of who she really is, deep down, comes from the scene where, after having consumed a meagre meal, she sits outside her makeshift shelter (the carcass of an old imperial Walker!) and dons an old pilot’s helmet with the shadow of a wistful expression on her face, not unlike a child who plays at being someone else, in a more exciting, better life. I think my heart went out to her in that scene, and remained firmly there.
Her counterpart Finn, played by John Boyega, opens a window on the life of Stormtroopers: for the first time we are allowed to see a flesh-and-blood person inside the hard shell of white armor they all wear, and in this case it’s someone who’s appalled at the mindless destruction the soldiers are ordered to inflict on defenseless people. Learning that Stormtroopers are taken from their families at a very young age, to be trained and conditioned in the unquestioning obedience required from them, adds a dramatic quality to their existence, and through Finn we are finally allowed to understand there are people inside that faceless casing. There is one small scene in which a superior officer orders Finn to put on again the helmet he took off in a moment of suffocating panic: the message is clear – the helmet removes any trace of humanity from the wearer, any personal or distinguishing trait, and automatons cannot afford to be reminded, or to remind others, of that humanity. All this makes Finn’s rejection of his training all the more powerful: when he appears on screen, his body language clearly transmits the anguish and horror of a young man sent – probably for the first time – into actual combat, and his need to put as much distance between himself and the evil he’s been forced to serve. He’s no hero material, that’s clear from the start, but there is a great deal of room for growth in him: he somehow reminds me of a cross between Wizard of Oz’s Lion and Tin Man, someone in search of his courage and his heart, who finds along the way much, much more than he bargained for.
The third new face in the movie is no face at all, since it belongs to a (very cute) android named BB-8: he’s clearly there for some comic relief, but I’m happy to report it’s all done with a light hand and with the right degree of humor that makes the little droid instantly lovable, also thanks to the peculiar, rolling gait due to its form. I was strongly reminded of another beloved mechanical creature, Wall-E: BB-8 possesses the same kind of innocence and openness toward the world, and its child-like attitude in some of the scenes reinforces that impression. This character might have been created with a very young audience in mind, but it can easily reach out to adults too, and that’s a great thing indeed.
Without doubt, part of the expectations for this movie centered on the reappearance on screen of the main players from the original trilogy, and they did not disappoint – even those whose air time was all too brief: I understand with hindsight that their main function was to hand over the proverbial torch to the younger generation, and that this required some bittersweet choices, hard as they are to accept. Nonetheless it was great to see familiar faces, even though they were lined by the passing of time and the inevitable grief life can burden people with: in this respect, Han Solo and Leia are the keenest example, and I liked their interactions that, while rooted in the estrangement that divided them, could still delve into the good memories they built together. There is not much dialogue between them, but somehow the looks they exchange – and the subtext being carried by those looks – are enough to fill the silence. And I liked that very much.
It goes of course without saying that Chewbacca’s appearance was greeted with joyful enthusiasm…
All well and good then? Not quite, unfortunately.
The heroes of any story need good opponents, and the “bad guys” in this movie don’t exactly fit the bill.
In the first place we have once more a power-hungry individual bent on total conquest who uses a doomsday weapon capable of shattering whole planets. Sound familiar, doesn’t it? The only difference is that this new Death-Star-lookalike is crafted out of a whole planet instead of being a mere station, so that, in my opinion, this choice robs the audience of any suspense concerning the outcome. Unfortunately, homage to the core story is one thing, simple repetition of a past pattern is not.
Last but not least, Kylo Ren: the glimpses accorded by trailers hinted at an interesting narrative thread here, while I was disappointed by this character’s very feeble motivations for his actions, especially in light of his origins – which I can’t discuss without entering spoiler territory. Considering who he is and where he comes from, his choice for the “dark side” appears more of a plot device than anything else, as unsubstantial and wavering as his personality – again, knowing where he comes from, there seems to be little reason for the way he turned out, or for his actions. My only hope is that more will be explained in the next movies…
My disappointment with the portrayal of the antagonists is not enough, however, to diminish my enjoyment of the movie: it was not everything I had hoped for, but it was enough to be a reasonably pleasing experience. And enough to warrant a second viewing in the near future 🙂