This post contains SPOILERS, however I keep specific plot details out of it until the “plot” section, so that’s the most spoiler-heavy part of the post. Proceed at your discretion…
Charm and Enthusiasm
Atmosphere and Cinematography
Terrible. Hands down the worst cinematography in a Star Wars film, and there’s a complete lack of atmosphere throughout the movie (with little exception).
I’ll break down the problems. By far the biggest problem is the constant use of the moving camera, and close-ups/zoom-ins. It just doesn’t allow the audience to absorb the atmosphere of the galactic worlds. In fact the final scene in the film is just about the only time we actually get to see a reasonable depiction of an interesting looking planet before we meet its inhabitant, much like how we’re introduced to Dagobah in Empire Strikes Back, however none of the other planets got this treatment in this film.
The cinematography is like comparing “Man of Steel” to Donner & Lester’s Superman films. And that’s no exaggeration, it just doesn’t look at all like a Star Wars film. Say what you want about Lucas, but he knew how to balance different scenes and different filming and camera techniques: he simply has a better sense of cinematography. With JJ’s film there’s just no elegance or subtlety to the camera work, allowing the audience to absorb the atmosphere. To compare it directly to another SW film, consider the “speeder chase” sequence in Attack of the Clones, except now imagine that the camera hardly ever pulls back to show you what’s going on properly, and never sits still (which it does quite a few times in the speeder chase scene), and there’s constant zooming and close-ups throughout the scene, and that kind of cinematography lasts not just for that one sequence, but the entire film even when there isn’t an “action” scene.
The close-ups are the biggest sin in terms of the cinematography. This film is not in Academy ratio, it’s not even 1.85:1 which still allows for close-ups – it’s in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio like all other Star Wars films, and that widescreen format is not suited for close-ups. If you don’t believe me, watch any Disney animation older than Lady and the Tramp, like Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, or Alice in Wonderland. Then watch Lady and the Tramp. You will see two distinctly different styles, especially when it comes to the use of close-ups. Lady and the Tramp was exhibited in the 2.55:1 widescreen format, and so the animators didn’t make the same use of close-ups that they would have if it was to be exhibited in academy-ratio.
There is one part in the film where a General is making a speech to the troops of the First Order and the camera – starts close on his face, and then zooms right in (not even subtly or anything, just a fast extreme close-up zoom), it then cuts away to show the troops being addressed, then cuts back to the General and repeats the exact same zoom from the same starting position again. Utter shit, that’s no way to use the “zoom” function, and it’s completely overused throughout the entire film, and even if the film was in academy ratio it would still be oversaturated with close-ups and zoom-ins.
Sound & the Laws of Physics
By far the worst musical score in a Star Wars film. Hands down. There’s just no elegance or subtlety to the score at all.
Furthermore the sound effects are atrocious. Sound cannot travel through space, and yes in the other films they do sometimes break this basic law of physics (for example when Alderaan is destroyed). But JJ just makes it appear as if space is full of different sounds travelling together, despite the impossibility of this.
And by the way, that’s not all JJ does to defy physics – oh no – now whenever a character is hit by a blaster they get blown-away. Yes that’s right, they fly backwards 12 feet or so, again defying the laws of physics – and it just looks goddamned awful. We’ve already established that blasters don’t cause people to be thrown back 12 feet in the previous 6 films, so why start now?
In another part of the film, the characters who are travelling at light-speed decide the only way to penetrate the shield that the First Order has surrounding a planet is to penetrate the planet atmosphere at light-speed and then slow to a nice safe landing. Yes really. It breaks two different laws of physics really, the first is g-force that a human could survive when the breaks are applied , and the second is that objects can only travel at the full speed of light in a vacuum – not through air! Never in the original trilogy does anyone try to travel at light-speed through air!!
This is of course science fiction, so I’m not going to criticise the use of “lightsabres” etc, that’s part of what makes Star Wars special, but at least get some of the basic physics right – especially when previous films have either got them right or have done much better at not bending them as far. The simple fact is that this movie breaks the suspension of disbelief with such appalling use of physics-defying manoeuvres.
Really there is no regard at all for trying to marry practical effects with special effects in a seamless way, the special effects are obvious and overused just as Lucas himself would have done. And as if that’s not bad enough, Kylo Ren’s lightsabre has a new a unique look to it – instead of its edges being smooth and straight like every other lightsabre we’ve ever seen, it looks like it’s jetting out flames.
Bland and two-dimensional. There’s no real character development from the leads. Oh and Kylo Ren, who I guess is like the Darth Vader of this movie, communicates with his “overlord” similar to how Vader communicates to the Emperor (except of course that he doesn’t in the original SW, they save that for ESB just like they probably should have saved this one for later), and unlike the subtle depiction of the Emperor that we get in ESB, we instead get an extreme close-up of the commander that Kylo Ren serves. And probably one of the things I hated most was seeing Kylo Ren take off his mask, and he then looks like Anakin in Revenge of the Sith and reminded me of the relentless whining that Anakin does in Attack of the Clones: “Waa Waa, I couldn’t save my mamma, Waa, so I slaughtered all the Tuskans, Waa, they’re ANIMALS and it’s all Obi Wan’s fault, Waa, Waa, Waa”, you get the picture. Why oh why unmask him? Vader never got unmasked until he was 2-minutes from death, had killed the Emperor, had denounced the dark-side, and wanted to see his beloved long-lost son face-to-face. Not only that, but many of the greatest villains had their faces hidden throughout movies, like Michael Myers, or Leatherface, or Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
The lead character is strong, and stronger than Luke in the original film, and certainly better than Hayden Christensen’s Anakin. So credit where credit’s due. But every single supporting character is inferior to a comparable supporting character from any of the other 6 films, without exception. The supporting characters in the original 1977 Star Wars film included Ben, Tarkin, Han, Leia, and of course Vader. All had great performances from their respective actors. If we think back to The Phantom Menace the supporting characters included Padme, Obi Wan, Qui Gon, Palpatine, and Darth Maul. And again all great performances from those characters. Even Daniels delivers a bland performance for 3PO in this film, it just felt off.
And, yes there was a blatant overuse of CGI characters as well in this movie. For comparison I think of the scene where Anakin and Obi Wan chase down the assassin working for Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones. From the moment she leaves her crashed speeder and enters the bar we don’t see any CGI characters all the way through Obi Wan and Anakin going into the bar, exploring, finding her, lobbing off her arm with a lightsabre, and then exiting the bar. Much like the cantina scene in the original film (well of course there wasn’t CGI in 1977, but you get the idea). In this film, however, there’s a scene where the characters enter a bar of some sorts and pretty much 1/3rd or even half the characters in it are CGI.
Some SW traditions, for example only using Subtitles for dialogue and never for place names, were respected. Others were thrown out the window, for example the iconic SW depictions of holograms.
This is the one thing I have nothing but positive things to say about for this film. The film’s humour was pretty much spot-on.
Warning this section contains explicit story-related spoilers, scroll down to continue.
What can I say? The most unoriginal Star Wars film sine Return of the Jedi. Strike that, it’s even more unoriginal than that. The plot is basically a complete remake of the original Star Wars. There’s a droid carrying information important to the Rebels/Resistance, that finds its way onto a desert-like planet, only to be unwittingly put into the hands of one of the planet’s inhabitants who just happens to be an excellent pilot, who then escapes from an attack by the Galactic Empire/First Order by fleeing from the planet in the Millennium Falcon, and then makes their way to the Rebel Base on the Millennium Falcon accompanied by Han Solo and Chewbacca, and meanwhile learns to use a lightsabre and the force. Also, Darth Vader/Kylo Ren kills a senile old man with his lightsabre.
Then there’s a Death Star for them to destroy, or in this case a Death Planet which is several times larger than a Death Star, but as it turns out just as easy to destroy with a few tie-fighters flying down a long straight trench to mount their attack – coordinated of course by Leia Organa. Again, of course, goodbye suspension of disbelief as a few tie-fighters destroy an entire planet (and I thought that only the Death Star/Death Planet had enough fire-power to achieve that!) In the original film the Death Star only destroys one planet, but in this film the Death Planet destroys a handful of planets all at once, from a far further distance away. Basically it’s the same, except that the Planet is “more powerful” and the corridors are painted a darker shade of battle-ship grey.
If you’re expecting a “better” movie than the prequels than don’t. I don’t think the prequels are awful movies, but I do think that the original trilogy are the better films. I like the diversity in the prequels: they do build great atmosphere and show us different places, and their stories go in quite different directions. On of the problems with the Original Trilogy is that Return of the Jedi duplicates much of the story from the original Star Wars. My favourites location introduced by the prequels has always been Naboo. It’s just such a beautifully designed planet, and it really draws you to it. Those iconic looking buildings, and the beauty of the landscape make it a beautiful addition to the Star Wars universe. In this film, the planets we see are pretty bland quite frankly. We don’t get to explore them in the way we do in other Star Wars movies, and consequently they don’t rally have any character or atmosphere to speak of.
The Force Awakens just does not feel like a Star Wars movie. The whole design of the movie just feels off, for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. And the fact is that Force Awakens just blatantly duplicates the story of Star Wars instead of building its own plot line, and that’s just awful lazy writing. In my opinion the Force Awakens is by far the worst Start Wars movie yet.
My rating: 1.5 stars out of 5