Since I wrote at length on how I was too afraid to watch the Force Awakens, I figured it only makes sense to share what I actually thought of it.
First things first. I liked it. I thought it was very good.
I say this now and I say this first because there is this disappointing culture of people who think passing critical comment on something is the same as negativity. Talk is a good thing. I want media that makes me think, even if it just makes me think about why I enjoyed it.
Minor disclaimer out the way, I want to talk about is spoilers. The spoiler/anti-spoiler dance for The Force Awakens reached Red Wedding heights over the Christmas period, and other than catching sight of Kylo Ren’s hair on the back of an action figure’s head in a toyshop window, I pretty much managed to avoid all spoilers before my viewing on fake-boxing-day (that’s 28th December to you).
Although someone told me that Rylo Ken was Anakin. Never mind.
The thing is, I’m not sure exactly what information would’ve “spoiled” The Force Awakens. I’ve bitched about my loathing of all spoilers and not-a-spoilers before, but with The Force Awakens, nothing felt unexpected. Every moment, even the big emotional set pieces and plot developments, felt clearly telegraphed just moments before, and everything followed a simple and predictable (although occasionally flimsy) narrative structure. There was nothing to spoil.
Is this a bad thing though? This assumption that all films contain some kind of spoil-able twist or surprise seems to have sprung from the early half of the last decade, spurred on by increasing interest in thriller novels and fucking-with-your-head-yeah? horror films. There is no reason why a movie -particularly a family action movie- can’t follow a predictable and almost reassuring format.
On first viewing, The Force Awakens doesn’t quite feel as expected. Something doesn’t sit right, and I think that has a lot to do with how the trailer first presented it to audiences.
Thematically, the trailer is fairly full of lies. Finn and Rey are portrayed as stumbling upon the wider political and mystical Star Wars universe rather than actively shaping it themselves, Han Solo appears active and engaged (that isn’t even him triggering our nostalgia by flying the Millennium Falcon), the most dramatic scenes are flashbacks and visions, a tiny village massacre is made to look like a battle, Captain Phasma is a big deal, and most importantly… Kylo Ren is a competent and threatening villain.
Attacks on Kylo Ren’s lousiness are often defended against with the cry of “But he isn’t the villain!”, which to an extent is true and fits with his narrative. Yet he was presented as the villain, through trailers, merchandising, interviews and artwork. If the pre-movie media package showed him as an angsty teen trying to walk the line between familial love and ultimate power, audiences might have respected him a little more for that when they finally got to see him.
However… as a movie in its own right, and certainly on repeated viewing, The Force Awakens works. Once the preamble is dismissed and you know what you’re watching, once you accept that the plot isn’t going to be massively original or hinge around a particular twist or turn, it just works.
The characters are distinctive, clear, and well performed, even if they don’t do quite what we expected of them, while nostalgic throwbacks to previous films are buried just subtly enough that they aren’t too pantomime, too on-the-nose or likely to alienate new audiences. It’s a part of the franchise, but it doesn’t rely on that.
It’s this clean break from George Lucas’s oeuvre and meddling that can sometimes make The Force Awakens feel a bit like a fan-film, albeit a heavily produced, heavily financed one. A new director, a different distributor, a fairly new cast and a slightly new story borrowing from older, familiar elements.. big enough and exciting enough that actual former stars and crew wanted to get involved. To a certain extent, it is fan-fiction, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
My main realisation after The Force Awakens that I don’t particularly like JJ Abrams as a visual director. This isn’t about lens flares, because he kept those to a pleasing minimum. I just don’t like the way he frames shots, what he likes to put in them, and how long he likes to keep them running. Me and him just like looking at different things. Give me a Star Wars sequel directed by David Fincher, or with Zack Snyder running the photography (while staying the fuck away from the scripts) and I might respond a little better across the board.
(TL;DR? I thought The Force Awakens was good. Good enough.)