First Impression… Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I think I need to watch it again.

*spoiler free*

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Since the news was first broken to me that Disney had acquired Lucasfilm – way back in October 2012 – I have been rather excited for Star Wars Episode VII. How could I not be? As the distant voice of that BBC radio newsreader began to hurtle through the airwaves toward my car stereo, broadcasting a new chapter of space opera fantasy beyond any fanboy’s wildest dreams, the nerd inside me was transformed. Gone was the forced acceptance of the bitterly disappointing end to the Star Wars saga that a few friends and I had skipped school to witness back in 2005. In its place: hope. A new hope, if you will. Hope that Star Wars could be rebuilt, revitalised, saved. In that split second, the simple childlike thrill of entertainment-based anticipation took over. I shook in my seat; the breath I’d be holding releasing itself as audible glee through an ear-to-ear grin as I all but virtually high-fived myself. To this day, I give praise and thanks to any god who’ll listen that I was alone in the car that day. And then, finally, after just over three years of patience-testing build up, involving staggered cast and crew confirmations, teaser trailers, a festival-style website-crashing rush for tickets, and, of course, endless geeky conversations, I sat down in a packed Vancouver movie theatre to watch The Force Awakens

…Bit underwhelming in the end, eh? My immediate reaction was that the picture felt like a mashup of various directions, none of which ever quite correlated. Director/co-writer J.J. Abrams, Lucasfilm (Disney) and Co. seemingly attempted to produce all things for all audiences in the form of youngster-friendly fantasy, fan checklist-driven sequel, and new audience welcoming reboot. The result was a plot spread thin, relying a little too much on call backs and rehashes to prop up the guise of originality. The characters suffer as a result, with development and necessity lacking in favour of (erratic) tempo. For comparison, one could certainly point to Luke Skywalker’s rapid journey from desert moisture farm to Death Star in A New Hope, but the concise, focused nature of the direction, dialogue, and editing/pacing in the original meant that Luke, Obi-Wan, and the droids were far more rounded, despite the first time viewer having zero expanded knowledge of the Star Wars universe.

TFA suffers instead from various shoehorned additions in lieu of strong writing and dedicated character arcs. I appreciate that the next episode needs to be set up, but nothing felt definitive in the manner Star Wars should. After the clusterfuck of George Lucas’ handwritten, single draft prequel trilogy screenplays, it came as a bit of a surprise that the writing on TFA wasn’t picked through with a fine toothcomb to the highest possible standard during pre-production. When a studio such as Disney holds all the cards, it is inevitable that the line separating creative control from corporate involvement will begin to blur, particularly on a project of this scale. In my opinion, the expansive umbrella Disney paid $4.05b to inflate still further back in 2012 crept too far in this case, resulting in just enough of a Marvel-type atmosphere that the endearing backdrop and everlasting point of Star Wars was dented. That may sound melodramatic (and I’m sure many will disagree), but I don’t believe great escapism should be left to nostalgia alone.

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At this point I should make it clear that high expectations were not the issue here. I was excited beyond belief, no doubt, but my actual expectations were more balanced. In the age of our cynical, internet-bred generation, it’s fairly easy to be let down when it comes to the never ending franchise-based cinematic experience, so expecting great things outright is always a mistake. And yet, still I felt underwhelmed. Part of me can’t help but feel that it may just be a case of my adult brain stripping back the nostalgia filter and facing Star Wars head on; like so many who missed it during their youth will have done throughout the past year, just to see what all the fuss is about. The result is consistent with the traditional findings of said newbies; it was alright, some definite high points…but worth losing one’s shit over?

Whereas the prequel trilogy was a technological, digital-laden experiment for Lucas, with the welcome addition of a few billion dollars in revenue, the sequel trilogy’s first entry has cut out the middleman of creative reason and reached straight into our pockets. Whilst it would be easy to dismiss this as the bitter blathering’s of a no-name blogger, allow me to add that I’m not trying to imply for one moment that people shouldn’t be enjoying the hell out of TFA. The glorious thing about Star Wars is that, for almost forty years, it has inspired a vivid spectrum of varying reactions from viewers around the world, young and old. Underestimating the scale of its influence as a pop culture phenomenon is as a daft as it is futile. This is merely my first impression. I have hardly been disenfranchised by TFA to the extent that I’ll fall out of love with Star Wars in general (I wouldn’t be fooling anyone if I claimed otherwise – I still fucking love it), and of course I’ll be watching it a second time without the hype attached. If anything, Episode VIII now has an added layer of intrigue, especially with Rion Johnson at the helm.

Will the fevered, hype-based first reactions to TFA slip back into levelled out revisionism in the years following the trilogy’s completion? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, this review appears to have morphed into a depressing personal study akin to a post-trial press release given by a defeated family lawyer who’s seen the no doubt guilty murderer walk away scot-free. For those seeking a more rounded review, I’ll be presenting my thoughts on the film’s actual content and technicalities in a few days’ time via the more coherent conveyance of The Punch Up podcast, along with my good chums Phill Bartlett and Adam Blair. Until then, don’t BB-8 yourself.

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