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RPS Verdict: Star Wars Episode VII - The Force Awakens

A new hope?

Adam, Alec and Pip all went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens this week, as did many other people around the world. Yesterday, they discussed their feelings and thoughts about the film in the company of a transcription droid, which produced the following report. Plot spoilers are clearly tagged and hidden, but there are discussions of structure and character throughout so turn back now if you want to go in completely cold.

Adam: Christmas comes but once a year. And for the forseeable future, it appears that Star Wars will arrive on an annual basis as well. Episode VII: The Force Awakens opened in cinemas across the UK this week, with packed midnight screenings and all manner of excitement. We three have seen it already and the first matter for discussion is, naturally, wot did you think?

Alec: IV, V, VI, VII, I, III, II.

Mixed feelings. More good than bad, but some big reservations. Huge improvement over the last three though, without a shadow of the empire a doubt.

Adam: I might go with V, IV, VII, VI. I can’t put the prequel trilogy in any sensible order because I’ve seen all three a single time and can’t remember which bits are in which films. I’m fairly sure II is the one I like the least because it has all the lovey-dovey bollocks in, but who knows!

Pip: I've never found that ranking films makes much sense. They spiral off in weird ways and become better or worse than each other the whole way through. If we need to do something with numbers here though I will say [Original Trilogy numbers go here] then VII then we work with a number system that does not acknowledge anything greater than zero and less than 4 and thus the list is over. I'm not saying that to be a total dick about the prequels, it's more that they felt like they bore no real relevance to Star Wars as a core thing.

Alec: Just to get it out the way - no spoilers here, right? But maybe… sideways references to certain things just to see whether or not we agree?

Adam: No major spoilers for now but anyone who wants to go in completely cold should not be reading this at all because we can't discuss what we liked and what we didn't like without touching on the structure and whatnot. Considering that some people think the cast list is a spoiler, the ice is very thin.

We will have a later section where we do discuss spoiler stuff because enough people will have seen the film already to want that. It’s becoming very difficult to have a conversation about Star Wars for people who have seen it because the entire internet seems to be quarantined. I think it’d be good to have a space for a conversation about the film rather than around the film.

Pip: I liked going in totally blind. If other people want to do that they likely have stopped reading already or never clicked in the first place but I'm going to flag up here that even though we're not going to name names or plot moments you still might want to stop, go see the film and come back.

Adam: Yeah. I don’t even watch trailers unless a cinema forces me to. If I know I’m going to see something, the critics and analysis can wait until after I’m done.

Alec: I still can’t believe that Alan Yentob was the new Darth Vader, though.

Adam: If you’d been paying attention to the Expanded Universe, which often bleeds into BBC Parliament and Extreme Fishing With Robson Green, you’d have known all of this in advance.

On a Serious Star Wars Note - I loved The Force Awakens. I was thoroughly entertained, laughed far more than I expected to, and would happily watch this group of characters getting into galactic scrapes for many years to come. My main reservations are to do with pacing; it’s very much a setpiece-after-setpiece kind of film and those tend not to hold up for repeated viewing in my experience. I wanted more quiet between the storms. But I was extremely happy when I left the cinema. Bouncing.

Alec: Aye, I thought it was a little too frantic, and either needed more downtime or twenty minutes of mania chopping out. I actually phased out a little during one of the most crucial later scenes simply because I was exhausted. But that aside, it’s a hugely well put-together action adventure, exciting and funny and sometimes sad. Avoided much of the tiresome stuff many modern blockbusters - or at least the superhero ones - do with villains and building to one big incoherent CGI-off too.

But, and I need to be super-duper careful here, I was frustrated by how dependent it was on A New Hope and to some extent Empire. Like Abrams’ second Star Trek film and the Wrath of Khan, so much of it was about remixing or inverting the already beloved, and I’m worried that it’s not really its own film because of that. Having watched the first one again recently, there’s even a faint absurdity to some of the same stuff happening with different people and none of them commenting upon it. And there’s a particular event that I felt was telegraphed a mile off because it involved a character doing exactly the same thing as another character in one of the original films.

But unlike Abrams’ second Star Trek film, this wasn’t nonsense. I do worry about him as a director/writer though, can’t quite seem to do his own thing despite surely infinite creative freedom.

Pip: The pacing was good for the first half, then it gradually slips off tempo. I think it's a result of having too much it wants to impart in the final act and so you end up having to cover a lot of ground, go to a lot of scenes, and that makes it feel less sleek.

Adam: I’d be concerned if Abrams was set to direct the entire trilogy - not only because I do worry about the direction it’d go in (or the possibility that it wouldn’t go anywhere new at all) but also because I think each film should benefit from a new style, a new hand at the tiller. It worked for the original trilogy and I’m very excited to see Rian ‘Not Looper But Brick’ Johnson’s take on the characters and the world. Trevorrow less so, I guess, but he hasn’t made enough to make me turn my nose up in disgust. At least it’s not snidey Zack.

Alec: At least it isn’t necessarily setup to lead into Empire Strikes Back 2.0 at the end, though Say No More of course. But yeah, I can’t work out if this was consciously trying to remake the first film for a new generation (which is sort of sick as it risks invalidating it), that Abrams gets creative panic or that executives presented him with a ‘pillars of Star Wars’ must-have scenes list that he had to follow. I guess I’m interested to see how I feel about the film on a second showing, when I know that’s going to happen and, perhaps more importantly, that the restless quest for answers issue is partly dealt with.

That was another issue, which is perhaps more about me than anything else - it seemed so important to know the secrets that there was almost an impatience to get through the setpieces and find out what will happen and who whoever really was or wasn’t. Though really that’s Empire’s fault, which is why I don’t hail it as the best Star Wars - it set the blockbuster precedent for twists and cliffhangers, whereas the first film was so very complete, happier to have all this implied stuff and world-building around the edges rather than rely so much on the drawn-out quest for a central mythos.

Pip: I didn't feel that. The Force Awakens was setting up stories and mysteries that will unfold over the next films and I really liked that aspect. I want to know more about how the relationships built or deteriorated between characters before this film and how they develop afterwards. I didn't have the sense of impatience from that.

In terms of the referencing though… Hmm. I have a few thoughts about that. One is that I preferred the first half of the film because I think it gets bogged down in – not exactly nostalgia, but in this rather theatrical or self-conscious mirroring thing it does with the events of the original trilogy. Some of what it did with that was cool, some was kind of suffocating. I'll elaborate once we get to real spoiler territory though.

Adam: On the world-building front, I loved the opening scenes. Some of the later echoes seemed like nods and winks, but there are shots on Jakku that show how the old has been destroyed and repurposed. Even though it's a full-on action adventure movie, there are a few scenes that capture something like everyday life in these bizarre worlds, in a way that reminded me of Simon Stalenhag's art.

I was surprised and delighted by how weird some of the background characters are. It’s easy to forget how wild and bizarre Star Wars can be - the cantina scene is probably the most famous microcosmic example of that tendency. But there are so many great things to look at - huge great lumbering pack-animals that are half-robot or full-robot or semi-vehicle prime among them for me. It’s like the stilt-walker scene in Mad Max: Fury Road - colour and noise that rewards your eyes just for being in the same room. I’d forgotten how many of the memorable moments are built around that stuff: characters and species that I remember from childhood that didn’t really play much of a role at all, but stuck in my mind. I think Force Awakens has that.

And, so help me, I really loved BB-8. Before watching, I thought the thing that might ruin the film would be attempts at humour and cutesiness that fell flat. There’s something of Wall E in this little fella though. Ridiculously expressive and lovely and I want the toy right now.

Alec: Yeah, the re-appropriation of the cantina scene is the magpie element I’m most on board with - although it’s similarly designed to sell toys. I watched A New Hope with my toddler the other day (her mother has since told me I shouldn’t have and can’t do it again) and seeing the delight and excitement and wonder about who the hell all these bizarre creatures were through her eyes was wonderful. It’s what Star Wars needs, what it’s built upon, and one of the things that it’s fallen into the trap of - partly because of super-fan lore expectations - is trying to explain too much rather than simply toss something at you then move on. I hope they don’t forget to do that as the focus inevitably narrows to the arc of the new major characters.

BB-8’s lovely, yeah, but really for the same reason that R2-D2 is. I’m glad they didn’t go all-out comedy character on her though, she has pathos because of it.

Chewie was the surprise star for me though. A character I’ve come to take for granted because he can only do so much given he essentially can’t speak, but in the right hands he gets brilliant, brilliant gags and also big emotion that hits harder because it doesn’t rely on words to (over)explain it. He got all the best lines, basically. I hope this isn’t a spoiler, but the closest I got to Actual Human Tears was the first scene he and Leia are in, and the way they wordlessly greet each other with infinite affection.

Adam: I hadn’t realised that Chewie is such a perfect comic foil until mid-way through this film. Or perhaps I hadn’t realised why he works so well.

Pip: I wasn't into the nu cantina scene because that was one of the moments that felt like it was aping the older movies rather than being a kind of graceful nod to them. BB8, on the other hand, was delightful. I nearly bought one of the little toys for my partner as he loves Star Wars but I was so worried I would be throwing a hundred quid away on this year's Jar Jar Binks. Turns out BB-8 is utterly great. Expressive, sweet, and unique. I thought they might try to make it a sort of straight up replacement for R2 or something but it's kind of like R2's toddler brother or sister, or maybe R2's puppy.

Adam: The nu cantina scene was too distracting for me because I couldn’t stop thinking about what a poisoned chalice the job of picking or writing the new band music must have been.

What about the rest of the new lot? The humans? I thought they did a grand job. I'm not sure Daisy Ridley quite had the chops that her character requires, but there’s plenty of time to grow into the part and the actual character work did a lot of the heavy lifting this time around. These aren’t really films for actors to shine, I’d say, but nobody embarrassed themselves and there’s good comic back and forth between the leads. And actual menace when it’s needed as well, I thought. Finding a Vader proxy is always going to be a gamble and I think having the Vader proxy be self-aware about the fact that he is - or wants to be - a Vader proxy makes things slightly more uncomfortable in a good way. I reckon the best is to come from the Dark Side of this new trilogy.

Alec: His helmet’s rubbish, though. I don’t really understand why they didn’t just give him Vader’s helmet or a more overt variation thereof if they’re pitching him as ultro-Vader fanboy anyway. But yeah, he pulled it off otherwise, and wasn’t just a repeat of a former villain.

Agreed about Ridley, she was a bit of a weak link for me. Not bad as such, but the performance seemed a little forced, a little stagey, in a way that unfortunately evoked Keira Knightley more than her face already did. The scene where she and Finn talk over each other as they both shower the other with praise was like something out of a panto. But it doesn’t feel impossible that she can become more naturalistic, and yeah, the character has a ton going for her. I really, really liked Boyega - funny and worried and heroic. Though he felt ever so slightly underused, caught in a strange middleground between supporting character and lead character. His bromance with Poe was delightful though, more of that please.

Pip: I absolutely loved Boyega and Ridley. I loved their dynamic, I loved that at every turn Ridley's character refused any kind of damsel in distress narrative, and I actually wanted to spend more time with them. Rey particularly. I love that she exists and found her power by herself and ARGH. It's a big part of why I preferred the first half of the movie, I think.

Alec: The Rey character is great yeah, a natural and much-needed evolution of the take-no-shit persona Leia had before she sadly became Han Solo’s Love Interest. And I think Ridley is right for the part, she’s got the steeliness and the drive in addition to the heroism, just isn’t quite hitting it all the time quite yet.

Adam: Shall we do a quick spoilerific chat now? So I can get a couple of things off my chest?

Alec: I still can’t believe that C-3PO murdered Luke Skywalker.

Anyway, is The Force Awakens as good as Yoda Stories?

Adam: If I hadn’t enjoyed Fury Road as much as I did, it’d be the most fun I’ve had in a cinema all year (on that note I might write an article about Rey and Furiosa at some point). One thing that struck me is that all of the trailers beforehand (or most) were superhero films or tangentially related to superhero films. And even the Marvel stuff was all a bit doom, gloom, friends against friends and worlds gone dark. It was lovely to see a film that had heroes in it that I actually just wanted to cheer for when they were being brave and loving and kind and awesome. Obviously I would never cheer in a cinema because I’m not an American but I left feeling very happy and that’s a rare thing.

Obviously there is darkness in The Force Awakens - there's a whole Side of it - but it has a lightness of step, even when the combat is satisfyingly weighty. It's an adventure, almost a caper at times, and there's a twinkle in its eye. That's not what I want from a film all the time, but once a year? I’ll take that and be very glad of it.

Pip: I don't know what a Yoda Story is, but I am glad this film happened. Really glad. I think it had to do a really tough thing of bridging a gap between trilogies and also soothing megafans after what happened with the prequels. I'm not a megafan – not even a fan, just someone who saw the trilogy once and generally enjoyed it - so that stuff was less important to me and perhaps that's why I wanted slightly less of the callbacks. But I loved Finn and Rey. Especially Rey. Yes. It feels like a really good springboard onto the next movie and I kind of love that I have so many questions and things to ponder.

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