Star Wars: The Force Awakens – “Dark Side” Review

In anticipation of the Blu-ray release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we will be offering a “Dark Side” review and a “Light Side” review of the movie, followed by a comprehensive Blu-ray review later this week after the multiple retailer exclusive versions of the film are released.

Warning: Multiple spoilers ahead. If you have not yet seen The Force Awakens, watch it first and come back here later.

Let the hate flow through you…

Star Wars: The Force Awakens was clearly the most anticipated film of 2015 and it was arguably the most anticipated film of the decade to this point. It has made over $2 billion at the box office, and was universally praised by critics and audiences alike. However, consider me a Sith Lord, because I saw The Force Awakens twice in the theaters, in both 3D and regular 2D, and I just never left the theater thinking that this movie was as amazing as all of my peers thought it was. This is certainly an unpopular opinion, and I can already see the flood of negativity coming my way, but I ask that before you run to the comment page, just hear me out. I am not out to bash The Force Awakens, but I do want to make it clear that it was far from perfect, far from being the best movie of the year, and far from being even the best in the series. In fact, although I do believe it is a step up from the Prequels, it is still quite a few steps behind the Original Trilogy in my book.

J.J. Abrams Presents: Star Wars Episode VII: A New Hope Part II

My biggest complaint while watching The Force Awakens was that J.J. Abrams played it way too safe with this entry into the Star Wars universe. Basically, it felt like I was watching A New Hope again, but everyone was older and the CGI and film technology was better. To make my points here in this section, I think it would be best to create a bulleted list with each example of how The Force Awakens was really just a New Hope remake.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Ph: Film Frame
© 2014 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved..

  • Our story opens with a rebel fighter (Poe/Leia) and his/her droid (R2-D2/BB-8), who are quickly attacked by the Imperial/First Order forces and their Sith Lord leader (Darth Vader/Kylo Ren). The rebel fighter is captured by the Sith Lord while his/her droid escapes to the middle of nowhere on a desert planet, with an important holographic message that it must deliver to the other rebels.
  • Our main character (Rey/Luke), who lives on the desert planet and has parents who are missing/presumed dead, meets up with the droid carrying the important message, saving them from destruction in a salvage yard and immediately becoming loyal friends.
  • Our main character meets up with Han Solo and Chewbacca, who helps them get in touch with the aforementioned rebel fighter and deliver the message.
  • The Imperial/First Order Sith Lord and his General have built a planet destroying, spherical-shaped space station that they plan on using to destroy the planet containing the rebel base. They test this device by destroying a planet(s) and killing millions of innocent people.
  • Our main characters, with the help of Han Solo and Chewbacca, are tasked with invading the Imperial/First Order base, shutting down the power generators (actually from Episode V) and planning a coordinated X-Wing strike, hitting the perfect spot on the Imperial/First Order Space Station and having it explode in the process, destroying the weapon and securing a victory for the Rebellion.
  • The Sith Lord ends up being related to one of our main characters (Luke/Han) and kills the older, wise leader of the group (Han/Obi-Wan).

So, some of that is just basic plot development, coincidence, or laziness and a lack of original thought. Who knows what it truly means, but for me, it meant that Abrams was afraid of straying too far from the Original Trilogy’s themes in an effort to stay on the good side of the fanboys who destroyed George Lucas before him. As we witness the backlash that a film like Batman V. Superman got from the movie-going community for being original and straying from the typical storylines (which in my opinion was a bit exaggerated, it was not great, but it was not as bad as critics and audiences thought; group thought at its finest), it is easy to see why Abrams would lean so heavily on already established plot-lines, just inserting his own characters into the generic Star Wars script like “Mad Libs”.

Personally, I was expecting something more, and I was one of a very small subset of fans that was actually a bit disappointed in seeing the old cast members pop up in trailers. I was hoping Abrams was going to take Star Wars in a direction which did not focus on the extremely powerful Skywalker family, who are now essentially the Clintons or Bush’s of a galaxy far, far away. With millions of species, planets, and galaxies in the Star Wars universe, it is mind-boggling that the entire balance of good/evil and political power comes from within a singular, humanoid family. I am a huge Star Wars fan and I get that we need to continue with the storylines of these characters to keep fans interested, but I did wish for something a bit more original after fans had waited nearly 40 years for a fresh face to take over the franchise.

The Moody Teenage Sith Lord

When moviegoers first saw Darth Vader step into focus for the first time in A New Hope, with his labored breathing, imposing figure, and samurai-esque helmet, he was immediately recognizable as a powerful and evil force which nobody would ever match. He was immediately one of the best villains in movie history, and carried the series. There were equally as many kids (if not more) who wanted Darth Vader masks and action figures as there were kids who wanted a Luke Skywalker lightsaber or figure. He was dark, mysterious, and he did not remove his helmet until the final scene of the last film in the trilogy. The enigma of his identity is part of what made him so powerful on screen, and J.J. Abrams simply missed the boat with his depiction of the Sith Lord baddie in The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren.

When first trailers were released and we saw Kylo Ren in the dark forest with his uniquely shaped lightsaber, they hype train had left the station. He had an amazing weapon, and the shot of him lumbering through the woods was terrifying. I had high hopes.  Early in the film, there is some semblance that Kylo Ren is truly a terrifying force; again with the voice, the mystery behind the helmet, and the lack of any compassion made me think we were in for another great villain. Then, he took off the helmet an hour into the first film, and everything changed. He was no longer an imposing, evil figure, and his long hair and boyish looks made his actions look much more like they were the product of a moody teenage boy who had some “daddy issues” than an evil Sith Lord who had simply lost all sight of what he used to be. In fact, when this happened in my packed theater on opening night, there was an audible laugh as he removed his helmet to “intimidate” Poe Dameron.

Now, maybe this was an intentional thing, to show that Ren was still vulnerable and had not gone quite as far as Vader had into the dark side. This plays well in the climactic scene with Han, as the viewer does feel like there is a chance that Han can turn him back, only to be heartbroken as we witness him kill his own father. But still, even with this act of murder establishing that yes, in fact, Kylo Ren is not a good guy, I still am not convinced by his evil or his power. By the end of the film, he has killed his father, but he has essentially lost a lightsaber battle to two completely inexperienced fighters, and he has done nothing to prove he is a leader of such a great and powerful force. It begs the question, why did the helmet need to come off? Did that have any impact on his actions or character building other than to establish that he was modeled after JP from Grandma’s Boy? I do not think so, and even with the premature reveal of the family ties, I think Kylo Ren is a much better and more believable villain with his identity unknown, at least until later in the series. It was much too early for that reveal, and Adam Driver is just not an imposing enough presence to have been what was behind the mask and grim voice.

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Living up to the hype

A huge reason for my disappointment with The Force Awakens was the massive hype and marketing blitzkrieg surrounding the film, being pushed for months and even years before it’s release. This does not fall on Abrams shoulders by any means, but instead on Disney. When you build up a film like this with so much press and excitement, you are asking for disappointment, and depending on the quality of the film, it could be a disaster (see: The Phantom Menace). Thankfully, The Force Awakens was a serviceable entry into the series and made the fans happy by sticking to familiar themes to avoid that disaster, but for a small subset of fans like myself who were hoping for something “out of this world” (pun intended), it definitely did not live up to the hype.

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From June of 2015 until December 2015, you could not get a cheeseburger, see a movie, buy a car, watch TV, browse the Internet, or even take a dump in a public bathroom without being exposed to some sort of The Force Awakens propaganda and marketing, and I loved it; then I saw the movie. I had been so programmed to believe that this was literally going to be a life-changing event, that I do not think that anything could have lived up to that level of excitement. I do believe this was a factor, because upon a second viewing I did grow to like the film more, and I think that as time progresses and I come to terms with the fact that this is simply a Star Wars reboot rather than an entirely original story, I will enjoy it more and more with each subsequent viewing.

3D is not for me (or anyone)

My last gripe with The Force Awakens stems from the fact that it was heavily pushed as an IMAX 3D Experience, one that was a “can’t miss” opportunity available only in theaters. I did see the film in IMAX 3D on opening weekend, on a true IMAX screen at my local AMC theater. It was a packed house, and the atmosphere was electric. Unfortunately, that was the best part of the experience.

From the start, the 3D was shallow and unnecessary, and I immediately felt as if I had screwed up and made the wrong choice. Typically I stay away from anything 3D because it hurts my eyes and I do not enjoy the format (not being able to turn your head to the side or risk losing focus is a huge issue when sitting in recliners, which my AMC’s have installed) but based on the early marketing from Disney and some early reviews, it sounded like 3D was a must-see. These reviews, and Disney’s marketing team, were sorely mistaken, and the 3D experience was a disaster. Upon second viewing on a typical 2D screen, I really started to appreciate the film’s beauty more, and I had a much more enjoyable viewing experience.

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For those of you who may be waiting to pickup the 3D Blu-ray, which Disney has not scheduled for release at this time (why would they, that would be too easy on consumers), I would suggest skipping it. The theatrical 3D experience is almost always better than the at-home 3D experience, and when the 3D was already so poor in the theaters, do yourselves a favor and get the regular 2D Blu-ray release and actually enjoy the beauty of the film without the totally unnecessary and poorly rendered 3D. I don’t blame Disney for the obvious money-grab, because people still pay premiums for 3D, but it was simply not good.

Final thoughts

I do not think that The Force Awakens was a disaster by any means, but I do not think it was anywhere near as good as many people thought it was. A lot of the reviews and audience scores were given by people who grew up with Star Wars and were desperate for a decent Star Wars movie in their lifetimes, and I believe that a lot of the positivity came from a sheer critical blindness which was caused by the utter love for the franchise, and especially the Original Trilogy. So, when Abrams puts out film that essentially remakes the Original Trilogy, it was always going to do very well critically. He was smart about this film, played it safe, and played right into the hands of Star Wars fanboys all across the world. I am a fan, but definitely not a super fan who is blinded by my love for the franchise, and so I simply feel that I was able to see through the hype and marketing smokescreen and really take a hard look at The Force Awakens for what it actually was.

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I will leave you with this. Was I highly entertained? Yes. Was I happy with my overall experience? After the second viewing in 2D, yes. Will I be buying the Blu-ray on release day? Of course. I just think that there is so much to Star Wars and the universe in which it exists that could have been explored, and I was pretty disappointed with the overall result of J.J.Abram’s efforts. His “vision” for the new movies was simply to re-hash the same storylines we already know with his own younger characters, inserting the older characters when needed. Time will tell how this new slate of films will leave their mark on the franchise, and I have high hopes for films like Rogue Squadron and the young Han Solo movie, because they will explore the undiscovered corners of the Star Wars universe. I just wish that Abrams had started us on a better, more original path with The Force Awakens and really set the tone for the next decade of Star Wars mania.

For an opposite opinion on The Force Awakens, check out the “Light Side” review.