Star Wars: The Force Awakens – the official Nerfed Llamas Review #StarWars

It was bound to happen. The unmovable object had to meet the unstoppable Force sooner or later (see what I did there?). And so here we are, the official Nerfed Llamas review for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Full Disclosure: I am not a fan of the Star Wars series presently. I grew up with the original trilogy and liked them enough at the time. As a kid I was pretty excited by the Star Wars movies and possessed books, toys, clothes and other memorabilia that had Star Wars plastered all over it back in the 80s. Then the Special Editions were released in the late 90s and suddenly a lot of my favorite parts of the original trilogy had been altered or omitted in some fashion (I’m looking at you Han shooting second and the glaring omission of the Ewok Celebration – Yub Nub 4 life!). I could probably write an entire post about my disdain for the Special Edition/Remasters of the original trilogy, but for now just know that I was highly displeased with them. Then Phantom Menace came out in 1999 and I, like most consumers rode the nostalgia wave into the theater and watched it. It was OK, not thrilling or amazing, but a decent start to the new prequel trilogy. It went massively downhill from there. For me, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were the final nails in the coffin. The franchise was effectively dead to me.

Flash forward to this week. Having an opportunity to watch the film for free, as I was certainly not going to see a Star Wars film in a theater and/or purchase the film on Blu-Ray sight unseen, I decided to set aside my decade+ old grudge with the popular space opera, shake my head like an Etch-A-Sketch, and watch The Force Awakens with a fresh mind. So, here it is – my (mostly) spoiler free review.

What I Liked: First and foremost I very much enjoyed the new heroes, especially Rey and Poe. Rey had the best character arc by far, with both Finn and Poe being grossly underdeveloped. I know some are going to cry fowl for me not showing glowing approval for Finn, but frankly I found him kind of boring. I did not dislike Finn, and he had an interesting set up, but ultimately he never become more than just a former storm trooper trying to do the right thing. Similar to Poe, who apparently is the super charming best pilot ever who is super dedicated to the Resistance, and that’s about it. No growth whatsoever. Regardless, the new heroes are definitely the best part of this new set of Star Wars movies. Also, I find it supremely promising that they choose to show the strength of casting diversity in major roles for highly anticipated movies.

Key to this whole film is the young scavenger turned reluctant Jedi, Rey, who is tough, smart, resourceful and never needing to have her hand held by a man when the action starts happening. She is fully capable of taking care of herself. Whereas I thought she was going to have a prototypical “Skywalker” arc (not that I am suggesting that she is related, just saying I thought she was going to have a similar arc), they actually managed to give her a very different story that was emotional and engaging. Her ability to use the Force near the end with no training was a bit sketchy, but overall I quite liked her character a lot.

The combat sequences were nice as well, especially the firefights and aerial dogfights. A wonderful mix of practical effects and modern CGI brings a feeling of realness that was absolutely lacking from the prequel trilogy. There was a lot going on and in the broader and larger sequences J.J Abrams and team totally nail it. They are big, exciting, and extraordinarily well put together. Kudos to his effects and stunt team for creating such marvelous stuff.

Also, the appearances by characters from the original trilogy are handled exceptionally well. They don’t overpower the movie, or take over the plot. They seamlessly blend in to the fabric of it, as if they had always been there. This aspect of the film was a nice gift to the fans while not being jarring for new fans.

Finally, The Force Awakens feels like Star Wars. The sets are painstakingly put together and very much feel like they are pulled directly from classic Star Wars design, which I believe was always the major draw of this movie: nostalgia. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. So much of this film feels right. The score, the costume design, the technology, the character design, the whole big picture looks exactly how you would expect a Star Wars film to look like. The production of this film was lavish and well spent.

The rainbows and puppy dogs portion of this review is over, now for…

What I didn’t like: First, and really most important is that The Force Awakens feels way too derivative. In many instances I felt like I was watching A New Hope all over again with a shiny new coat of CGI. Let’s start a list of similarities between Episode 4 and Episode 7:

  1. Young hero from a desert planet that dreams of the stars and reluctantly becomes a Jedi – check
  2. A droid with vital information for the good guys is marooned on the same desert planet and found by the young hero – check
  3. The young hero and droid try to find safe travel by going to a shady bar full of aliens and asking for a ride – check
  4. A villain in a black mask and cape, that answers to a wrinkly faced old man (I shit you not), threatens his staff repeatedly and tortures heroes for information – check
  5. The villains have a large base on a massive circular object that has a cannon that is capable of destroying planets – check

I’ll stop there, as I don’t want to get into deep spoiler territory (as this barely covers the first half of the film), but you get the picture. The Force Awakens more or less follows a very similar narrative template to A New Hope. I get it, A New Hope set the franchise up beautifully and making a new story follow a similar trajectory is not necessarily a bad thing, except that in The Force Awakens it almost literally takes every major plot point from A New Hope and made it bigger and more flashy. The best way I can sum up the similarities between Episode 4 and Episode 7 is if I let James Franco do it for me…SameButDifferent

And there you have it – same same, but different, but still same. Perfect nutshelling Franco. That more or less is how the plot of The Force Awakens plays out – for the entire movie.

The only other thing that I didn’t like was Kylo Ren. The Star Wars universe needed a lot of things, an emo kid with “parent” issues that is prone to temper tantrums was not one of them. I won’t go into major detail on Kylo, as I feel my initial statement wraps things up rather nicely, but I will add one thing. Darth Vader had presence, was menacing, performed terrifying acts, and had a wonderful evil voice, in essence he was a perfect villain. Kylo had some pretty huge boots to fill, and unfortunately he came up massively short. I don’t believe this was by any fault of the actor, who seemed perfectly to portray the exact character that the writers and director wanted him to play, it just wasn’t a very good character. It’s truly unfortunate, because movies like Star Wars really need a proper villain to sell the need for the Resistance to be fighting so hard, and in the end he was kind of like window dressing. He didn’t do much, didn’t accomplish much, and was easily held off by 2 absolute rank amateurs by the end of the movie. His arc was one of the biggest let downs of the movie.

Also, the lightsaber fights were not near as engaging or as well filmed in The Force Awakens as in the original or prequel trilogy. I hope that in future Star Wars films, they up the ante on future lightsaber battles.

Bottom Line: If you love Star Wars and want to live in that universe, it would appear that Lucasfilm and Disney have got you covered with a movie that feels, looks and sounds like a Star Wars movie. It is definitely flawed, especially in regards to having an original plot and some character development issues, but still it manages to be a fun movie. Essentially, check your brain at door before you sit down to watch the Force Awakens and you’ll likely be entertained. However, if you tend to be overly nitpicky or are still jaded by the past sins of the franchise, you may not enjoy The Force Awakens as much as those that never lost faith in the first place. I find myself somewhere in the middle. I enjoyed it for what it was, hope that better things will be coming in future movies, but will not likely watch The Force Awakens again anytime soon.

Check out the official trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and then let me know what you thought of the latest film in this titular space opera series:

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