Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. The Force Awakens is a fantastic film. Not ‘just’ a good Star Wars film, or even ‘just’ a good action-adventure or science-fiction film; it’s a good story. From craft to writing to characters, emotions and pacing, the whole package is here. Ardent anti-fans will still hate; it’s their loss. Film purists will likely be unable to unstick their noses from the cloud; too bad. For the rest of us, those who come alive through the power of fantastic storytelling, who delight in far away places and where the power of imagination can take us … what a ride. What an amazing ride!
The reoccurring — the single biggest — criticism of the prequels (e.g Episodes I – III) is they feel flat and empty. The issues with the prequels are many and complex, but in effect they have no depth anywhere in them, and the world the three movies attempts to create and show us has a distinct lack of that important quality all great storytelling has; immersiveness. Suspension of disbelief. It’s always been a little curious because Lucas was able to somehow achieve this with Episode IV, but then lost whatever he had and never applied it again.
The Force Awakens shows the marked difference between the biggest flaws in Lucas’ abilities as a director and creator and those of JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan; attention to detail and how to layer it into the story and onto the screen. Lucas’ only ‘direction’ given during all of his work is “faster, more intense.” It gets mentioned in all the behind-the-scenes accounts of his Star Wars films. He famously was ill during the Star Wars shoot, and having trouble talking well; the crew made him a sign to hold up that said “faster, more intense.” The footage from between takes bears this out too; we see the actors looking to Lucas for reaction after shots, and then jokingly bobbing their heads and muttering “right, faster, more intense, okay.”
That’s not direction; that’s a refrain. Natalie Portman’s career was nearly derailed by her appearances in the prequels; other directors genuinely thought she couldn’t act. Hayden Christensen’s career basically has been derailed, for the same reason. Portman is an actress with talent, as she’s proven. As I recall, she had to be white knighted for a time after the prequels by another director who knew she was a good actress, until she was able to establish a non-Lucas base on her resume to bear out her true abilities.
JJ Abrams is a ‘real’ director; he knows how to evaluate and express the depth and emotions he’s looking for in his stories. This second part is the key; he can express it. That communication from him to his actors and crew allows everyone to know what they’re working toward, what they should be trying to do. And then they can more accurately and honestly try to bring it forth to allow finished product to match director’s vision. In effect, the simple act of being able to express lets the expression of the finished film be something that the team can be genuinely more sure and more aware of as it relates to their director’s vision. They don’t have to do something and hold their breath as they show it to the director; they can take their instructions and what’s been communicated to them, and come back with a more concrete ability to know and show that “this is what you asked for.”
And it shows in The Force Awakens. I’m not going to argue that the cast of the prequels are all bad, or that TFA’s is good; others can masturbate to that exercise. Having seen the TFA twice, I feel Abrams and his casting team have selected some very good actors to inhabit the roles; but most importantly they all are being given the chance and guidance to live and breathe as actors. And that brings their characters to life; breathing that life into the roles and making them people the audience can attach to.
Part of the difference between TFA and the previous Star Wars films is the progression of effects. Modern effects are exceptionally more detailed than what was possible in the 70s/80s. But that argument falls kind of flat when applied to the prequels; yes it’s been fourteen years since Episode I, but what we see on the screen in TFA could have been replicated in Episodes I-III if the effort had been there. I want to be clear; I’m not criticizing the prequel effects teams and crews. They only delivered what they were asked and told to. The overall difference is, again, the directorial attention to detail and how that detail shows up in the final film.
The easiest to point to example of this is visible in the TFA trailer; the starfighting. When the X-wing shoots up the tie fighter in the trailer (and in the film), several laser blasts hit and chip/eat away at the tie’s structure before the last one finally breaks it up. And the tie then actually does break up; while pieces and parts crumble off during the ‘build up to destruction’, and the actual destruction yields even more “bits and debris” breaking up and being flung away from the doomed ship. The tie doesn’t just get hit by a laser blast and disappear into a simple “explosion”.
Other specific examples can be given, but they would start to verge into spoiler territory. But throughout TFA, everything has texture and layers. Not just the effects; everything. The effects are just the easiest to point to and explain. But the entire production is just so detailed; from what you see to what you feel, to how it’s all presented and created and laid out. The world doesn’t feel like a background; it feels like a real world that the characters really are a part of. The extras and things have the depth that being really there imparts. The prequels famously use green screen backgrounds everywhere; TFA almost exclusively puts its actors on real sets and everyone interacts. In the prequels, and the OT for that matter, a lot of the “flavor and life” shots are all asides and have no impact on the viewpoint characters. What do I mean?
Take Episode IV, when Obi-wan and Luke arrive at Mos Eisley. We see strange creatures and aliens and so on inhabiting the town. More of them are in the bar. Our heroes ride past them, look at them. In TFA, these “background details” are part of the story. Very minor, though obtuse, TFA spoiler here; at one point a character is drinking from a trough that an alien animal is also drinking from. This alien animal is something — the kind of thing — Luke and Obi-wan rode past in the Lucas films; in TFA the animal interacts with the viewpoint character. We’re not shown, and then moved on from, this strange alien animal. We see it, and the animal is part of the scene that has an impact on the character we’re attached to.
That’s what I’m talking about. It might seem like a small thing, but it’s the difference between being on the tour bus looking at the new city’s street market, and getting off the bus to walk that street and mingle with the vendors yourself. The difference in how the audience reacts is actually quite large; the impact, the visceral feel we get from the so-called background, is markedly different from establishing shots. Putting an actor in an actual mask, so the ‘alien’ and the hero can actually interact with each other is a remarkably different feel from being forced to watch Liam Neeson awkwardly starring at an imaginary place where JarJar’s eyes were supposed to be. And, especially, in the final shot not even really bothering to attempt to line up Neeson’s eyeline with the CGI JarJar’s.
Everything about The Force Awakens is like this. The film has a depth and feel that is far more immersive than the prequels. The audience is left with much less of a gulf to traverse from their seats to the suspension of disbelief that all storytellers strive for. All this work that shows up on screen, the layers and depth, reach out to us and invite us in warmly rather than forcing us to wind up and jump blindly for the far side of the cliff. And to require we cling to that cliff edge and awkwardly attempt claw our way up to solid storytelling ground.
The Force Awakens is a fantastic piece of storytelling. I have no interest in debating with people I’d term “film elitists” about it. One of the reasons I ignore the Academy Awards is they consistently ignore so-called “populist” fare; and that includes science fiction as well as action-adventure style stories. The Academy is happy to give SF and adventure films technical accolades for effects and costumes and sound editing and so forth; but when it comes to creative awards they turn their noses up. I feel my position is only bolstered by looking back in time; very often, especially now that we’re ten or twenty or thirty (or more) years on from when the Best Picture or Best Director or Best Writer award was given, those ‘awarded’ films are lost to us. That is, they aren’t remembered by the bulk of the modern audience, haven’t entered the common lexicon of culture, and have no following.
Does a film have to be popular, to have a fevered fan following, to be great? I’m not going to go that far, but I think looking at the lists bears out my point. 1977 Oscars heralded Annie Hall; which received Best Picture and Director. Star Wars swept the technical categories, but was otherwise ignored. How often to you hear anyone talking about Annie Hall? How many people — even those over the age of 40 — will actually not give you a blank stare or ask “huh? what?” if you mention it to them? Yet Star Wars is something known worldwide. This same pattern is repeated over and over for movies that score well with audiences but not with the nose-in-the-air tastes of the rarefied elite. James Cameron’s work was ignored, repeatedly, until he used the same techniques he’d brought to Terminator and The Abyss to a film more in-line with the Academy’s tastes — Titanic, being a period piece and historical recreation even though it also incorporated a disaster and action-adventure plot as well — was lauded creatively as well as technically.
Somehow, come time for Oscar announcements, I just know we’re going to again see the technical crew named and the creative left out in the cold. Which, quite frankly, really sucks. The tech guys and gals did an amazing job on TFA; no question. But to snub Abrams and Kasdan and the cast … that’s just not fair. Simply because they had the nerve and gall to work on a science fiction film over a period piece or an esoteric little art house flick? Daisy Ridley’s not going to have the struggle that Natalie Portman faced; she’s in the same position that Harrison Ford was after Star Wars took the world by storm. Ford said, about the enormous success of Star Wars, “Great, now I can finally get to work.” Because Star Wars opened doors for him and gave him industry credibility that he’s, as we now know well, built into a fantastic body of work.
Ridley has that same career ahead of her. The work she puts on screen in TFA is fantastic. Rey is an amazing hero that we’re going to have a lot of fun following over the next two films. All the pieces are there for Ridley to thrive as she inhabits Rey. And from Rey, she’ll leap out into the rest of her acting life and be with us for a long time. Deservedly so. She’s an great actor, and you don’t have to be told it; you can easily see it by watching the film.
That’s not to take anything away from the rest of the cast. Hardly. John Boyega is in the same position; Finn has so much life and heart that it’s hard to understand why anyone wouldn’t attach to him. Boyega was perhaps a bit better known than Ridley, but now he too will find doors (and windows, hatches, hastily hacked holes in the wall; just about any opening other projects can manage to create for him) opening as he goes forward from TFA. Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, Adam Driver as Kylo Ren … they all deserve the opportunities they’ve created with the performances they turn in on TFA. The so-called “new generation” of Star Wars are not pretty faces cast for looks but lacking in ability; they deliver. They’re great actors who are integral pieces of their characters.
The Force Awakens is a great film. It’s a wonderfully well put together piece of storytelling that uses the full range of craft to build itself into a story we’ll be enjoying for a long, long time. Unlike the prequels, this is a movie that you don’t have to apologize for or excuse. You don’t have to say things like “yeah, well, it’s still Star Wars.” It’s a film that you can be proud to enjoy, that deserves to be lauded.
Because that’s what it is; a great damn movie.