Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) Movie Review

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens_Theatrical_PosterStar Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) Movie Review

Introduction

Hello. This is Nehal and I just saw the new instalment in the Star Wars franchise at one of the first public release screenings here in Korea. And now, I have a lot of thoughts going through my head. None of them is about how good the movie was. Setting aside whether one likes the barebone story the film has or how much one enjoyed the metric tons of fan service for a moment, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is the most poorly told story by A level movie production I’ve seen this year. This even includes “Fantastic Four” (2015) and “Terminator Genisys” (2015). At least with “Fantastic Four” (2015), you get the sense that the director was trying actually to construct a solidly told story, but the whole project imploded on to itself. With “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” its problems are basically intentional as the story is just a platform for fan service.

I think you can write an excellent graduate-level thesis paper on how and why “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a poorly told cinematic story. Since I have no time and no one will actually read that thesis, I’ll just give you my “condensed” version. And the term “condensed” is actually key to everything.

The plot

Before I drill down to my thoughts, I’ll give a brief summary of the plot with the intention of being vague. However, there will be minor spoilers since “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” doesn’t actually have much plot to it. So the scenario goes like this.

Sometime after “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi” (1983), the galaxy is something… it’s just still a mess. The story starts with a McGuffin that is important somehow. There is a “Black guy”… I’m going to use crude descriptions in place of character names since it doesn’t matter… who, for some reason, decides to desert the “bad guys.” There is also a “White girl” who is living on SOME desert planet somewhere in the galaxy. The guy and girl for some reason stumble upon a clue to finding the McGuffin. The two are then chased by the bad guys. The only thing I can say on how they are found out is “somehow.” Then, the duo somehow stumbles on to Han solo. The three then somehow becomes great friends within less than a day before for some reason, they end up at a cantina. Then, somehow someone gets captured. The rest go to see princess Leia who is now for some reason called general. The rest is basically the end of Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) with tidbits of Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983). Roll credits.

The reason why I use “somehow” and “For some reason” so much in the description above is not to avoid spoilers. It is because I do not really know. Watching “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is basically me asking “why?” every two minutes. I’ll go over why this is so (wink wink) a bit later. In any case, for a 135-minute movie, its plot can easily fit into a 40 minute TV episode. It is that barebones. Why is it?

21st-century cinematic storytelling.

Over the decades, movies and their audiences have changed a lot. The 70s was about dowry introspection in film. The 80s were about abrasive but raw emotion and energy. The 90s was about searching for something and the rise of fandom. The 2000s is where things really started to change. In many ways, the middle of the 2000s was the time when Hollywood said goodbye to how movies were made prior but at the same time became more desperate to cling to the artifice of the old stories. Really, it is surprising how few directors, who were around prior to the 2000s, made the transition. Among the changes, I want to focus on one aspect. This is the stylistic “compression” of the story unique to movies.

The art of Story Compression

If you look back at movies of old, you will notice how short they are compared to film now. If you resemble those to modern cinema, it is not that recent movies tell longer stories. Instead, it is the opposite. In any case, modern videos cover a time span of fewer than 48 hours except for intros and outros. In the case of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” one cannot be sure since the movie is vague, but the movie seems to cover a time span of fewer than 24 hours. This is the modern brute approach to story compression. It is like the movies need almost physically to compress their story.

People talk a lot about the script as a uniform thing when talking about movies. However, there are really two aspects to a script. The first is the STORY. Everyone knows that. The second is the expression of the story in terms of a blueprint to make a movie that isn’t the length of “Moby Dick.” Unlike a serialized TV show, a movie has to conclude within 3 hours if you are not Martin Scorsese making “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013). In many ways, movie making is the process of story compression and condensing. This is more so for editing a movie.

What the old movies were more adept at was the art of “stylistic” compression of the story. It is the way of using stylistic or artistic storytelling devices to condense the story without losing its meaning or impact. Think of those storytelling devices that we see as cliché and unrealistic now. The scenes which cut to people talking about only the relevant information to the plot. The scenes where people start a conversion in one place and end it another. These are all “stylistic” or “figurative” storytelling devices meant to compress a story. In the 70s, 80s, and even 90s, the audiences were far more accepting of these cinematic short hands employed in order to condense time and space so that the movie did not go too long and over budget.

However, things really changed entering the 21st century. The audience’s taste became far more literal and less accepting of “figurative” or “stylistic” devices in their storytelling. Now, you basically have to show a lot more to move the story from point A to B., To be frank, there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach except for the fact that this takes up more valuable screen time. It is less efficient. No wonder why modern movies are getting longer and longer. This change in taste also is reflected in the rise of serialized TV. There are limits to how much an episodic TV show format can accommodate this new trend in audience tastes. Thus, the rise of serialized TV where you can basically stretch a single episodic TV story over multiple ones at one’s leisure is obvious.

However, with movies, there are limits to how long you can stretch. In addition, this literal tastes of the audience create problems in terms of editing. With the old ways of “stylistic” compression, it is far easier to swap around scenes and edit them down since the storytelling devices facilitate more modularity. You can more easily adjust the function of a scene or retain that function is a shorter form. With the new literal approach, cutting scenes become more problematic and with a higher risk of loss of meaning or purpose.

Now let’s get to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Brute Compression

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is basically a remake of “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.” The original was 121 minutes long. In modern storytelling terms, that is more like 140 minutes long if you were going to mimic it. In addition, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” has about three additional important characters to deal with. At a minimum, that adds 10 minutes to the movie. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is 135 minutes long at the moment. This means that you have to shave 15 minutes off from the story once again at a minimum. You can manage that with some crafty editing and luck.

The problem is that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” more of a collection of fan service than a movie. There is a mind-blowing amount of fan service in the movie. Basically, every 2 or 3 minutes, we get a reference, a throwback, or a familiar image. I personally am not bothered with fan service on its own. I watch anime, after all. Those shows can be 20% fan service. However, too much can be a problem. In many ways, fan service within a movie functions as a gag. It gives some breathing room to the audience by pausing the plot for a moment. Their brains can rest for a bit and focus on recalling memories in addition to other things.

This abundance and relentless nature of fan service reminded me of those “a gag a minute” comedy movies of old like “Airplane” (1980). In fact, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” has more fan service than the Star Wars spoof movie “Spaceballs” (1987) has gags. This can easily just overpower the whole movie, especially if the movie is not meant to be a comedy and actually intended to tell a story.

In addition, there is a matter of simple logistics. There is simply not enough room for everything. What this means is that you have to cut down the story drastically more to make room for the fan service. And I do mean drastic. Those “a gag a minute” comedy movies are the most compressed movie genre in terms of story I’ve seen. The second runner is a musical genre which is basically just a collection of musical set-pieces.

The total amount of story you have to cut out is not the only problem here. Because of the modern literal storytelling approach, not only do you have to cut plot points out but also have to cut within plot points. There is simply not enough flexibility within the structure of the story to accommodate the massive cuts. This leaves the audience wondering why this happened and why a character reacted in a certain way. You can speculate or guess according to the context, but you are not shown on screen. If this vagueness were the point to the plot point, it would be one thing. However, in the case of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” it is basically motivated by the need to make space for fan service.

The result is that basically, there is only 45 minutes worth of plot. When I think about it, for this type of movie, there was barely any exposition trying to provide information about the situation and the world. It is almost like the blank slate.

What is the first order? I do not know.
What is resistance? I do not know.
Why is there a death star built into a planet? I do not know.
Does the new death star actually move or just sit there?
Why does Luke Skywalker matter now? I do not know.

There is no sense of the large scope of the conflict in this movie. Even though the classic Star Wars movie was simply in this area, it was streamlined. Thus, reducing the need for elaborate explanation. However, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a fanfiction. And with most of them, it cannot avoid ending up more hungry for details than healthy. So, the lack of those details ends up a large sore point. A similar point could be made with a sense of geography in the movie. There is none. The old movies at least pretended to take time between solar systems. That is why the whole “parsec” comes up in them. This movie feels like everything is within a 15-minute ride in the family van, which is a common element in J.J. Abrams’ movies.

Conclusion

The story of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was never going to be something beyond fanfiction. It is basically a remake masquerading as a sequel after all. And we have seen them before. However, those don’t need to be terrible. They can be at least mediocre, as seen in the “Robocop” and “Total recall” remakes. In addition, a fanfiction can bring some interesting elements.

The problem is that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is focused on getting its audience super high on fan service. It ends up overpowering the story to the degree of insignificance. It does not matter. You have Stormtroopers in impossibly shiny suits not hitting people with their plasma guns. You have X-wings flying not in space but on a planet. You have one little battle in space. And the Rebels or the resistance seem like they have nothing but a few dozen X-wings available. What is with that? And you have characters using lightsabers as if they were toys. Nothing matters except for these fan service.

In this vein, “Jurassic World” (2015) is far more successful in balancing its mediocre story and considerable fan service. What a thing to say?!! I really disliked that movie after all. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” made me defend it.

So, is “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” any good? No! It is just fan service and nothing more. Well, the actual plot made me more irritated than the fan service… Thus, if you are not a seasoned junkie of fan service and actually want a story, you are more likely to overdose on fan service within the first 15 minutes and spend the rest of the time comatose

Wait a minute. Even though J.J. Abrams said that they used a lot of practical effects, there is a ton of CGI. In fact, the practical effects are more like a gimmick.

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