Review Roundup - New Order


So Star Wars is back, as you might have noticed. It's unlikely you've been able to avoid an advertising bombardment of this magnitude. There will be practical effects and real locations, there will be actual characters and feelings. Or so they say. Running, yelling and panicking are also sure to be included, after all this is a J.J. Abrams movie. Though it's a decade since the last major release in  this series, the film makers faced the minor issue of delivering something that followed films from much longer ago than 2005 - picking up from 1983 rather than continuing in the vein of the... problematic prequel series.

Besides the fact that many of the original writers, editors and cast members had been absent, the tone and style were quite different to say the very least. Of course getting one of the original writers on board along with director of the Star Trek reboot were logical if commercially safe decisions, which isn't a surprise to anyone; after all the sale of Lucasfilm to the Disney corporation was big news with a big price tag. However Abram's sequel to his Kirk and Spock reboot was something which magnified the issues I have with the original and Lawrence Kasdan hadn't written a classic feature in a long time. But... they do have TIE Fighters, and muppets, and Han Solo. With my concerns set aside is this simply a fun adventure and a good time or a worthwhile expansion of the classic trilogy?

The Force Awakens begins as it means to go on - in familiar territory. Perhaps too familiar. I don't have a problem with a standard heroic journey so this wasn't a major issue for me. After all even other Lucasfilm movies like Willow took huge chunks from Star Wars (or A New Hope if you really must) which itself had moments from The Hidden Fortress and Dam Busters amongst many others. Still, the desert and glacial locations have that same-but-not aesthetic which is distracting, and many other story beats and scenes are replayed or remixed along the way. Rey (Daisy Ridley) a down on her luck scavenger hopes to be more than she is, soon meets new faces who drop in from a larger world to whisk her away on an adventure. They meet a mysterious stranger from the past and head off to fight evil - not without a stop at a seedy watering hole first. You know the drill.

There's enough character conflict here to keep things interesting, particularly with Rey's new friend Finn (John Boyega) and the masked villain of the piece Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Themes of family, loyalty and moral righteousness are present and correct although it makes for an mildly unfocused story line at times with some getting more to do than others, particularly Oscar Isaac's fighter pilot Poe Dameron, who is introduced early but is absent for long stretches. There are a lot of cast members to get through, and this includes veterans from the original Rebel forces with their own reasons to appear... even when some are given importance because the audience knows them, rather than because the plot demands it.

There are also plenty of neat creatures and sets as promised, at times there are moments when it feels like something you'd find in a classic 1980s fantasy production. But some inclusions do feel out of place that in a couple of key sequences including a full motion capture character which isn't a crazy alien, but just a normal guy. He's really not that convincing either which is pretty jarring. Elsewhere there are plenty of action beats with laser gun battles, spaceship chases, space wizards, and evil plans. While the character motivations here are good enough many these moments aren't all that memorable, though there are a couple of big dramatic scenes in the third act.

This isn't helped by a John Williams score which is lacking in big motifs bar one great character theme. Pacing also is a mixed bag, with a slow build up early focusing on Rey's daily routine being replaced shortly after with a big rush to the climactic battle. The stop-start nature of this is noticeable when simultaneous conflicts begin, and the editing between each location is kind of choppy at times. Which is strange when there are some great long shots to sell fighter battles and other major spectacle highlights. It should have kept that slower feeling so that when things heat up there's more tension during the typical impending doom and race against time elements. The ticking clock feels tacked on which is probably due to the studio replacing Michael Arndt with Kasdan and having rewrites done.

Ultimately there are things to enjoy but like the last couple of Star Trek movies I mentioned there are a number of fridge logic moments where it begins breaking down a little. The might of the First Order is an impressive visual treat but lose sight of that for one moment and you'll start to wonder how they get funding or how their enormous planet sized base remains hidden. Plenty of familiar faces arrive from Return of the Jedi, but why they're still underdogs in a Resistance movement instead of helping the official rulers is a bit strange (though avoiding any kind of lengthy scenes of political debate is probably a good move). Even the big secret which gets the whole plot moving seems like an odd thing to have in the first place, though to discuss this further would be saying too much.

There's also a lot of sequel bait, and many details that are glossed over to presumably reveal later in the series or explain in merchandise comics or tie-in novels. Two of the main actors in The Raid films appear and get mere seconds on screen, so why cast them - maybe they were cut? It's ultimately fast moving and it does have lots of energy, and fights are at least fuelled by drama not just over done choreography. Even if the humour sometimes misses the mark they at least have central actors who can add flavour to the proceedings. To be honest it's pretty forgettable stuff, but in the end it's no disaster. The gravitas, mythology and depth of the best of Star Wars is absent, but so are the embarrassing parts of the worst it has to offer. It sits in the middle, setting the stage for the behemoth of incoming future releases and spin-offs.