The Anticipated: Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

In All, Movies by David

Well, it happened. After years of build up, a massive disturbance in the Force was felt. This week’s edition of The Anticipated brings forth what very well may have been the most anticipated film of all time: Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. After years of a non-stop deluge of information as people tried to piece together everything they could about the movie, we finally have all the answers we seek (well, okay, not all, but definitely more). Was the new Star Wars able to live up to the hype? Search your feelings, and I am sure you will find the answer along with me.

I’ll keep these as minimal as possible, but I still need to talk about the movie, so light Spoilers Ahead

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (December 18th, 2015)

How was it? 

I so want one…

In a word (or words)—really, really good, if not great, which should really be kind of impossible, but the film really is a joy to watch. Episode VII is a love letter to both Star Wars as a whole and cinema in general, and it is just about everything I could have reasonably asked for from the movie. The film figured out how to do just the right mix of re-imaging The New Hope for a modern audience while adding more than enough original ideas to stand on its own. The film is funny, reverent, and brings about every bit of good nostalgia that it can. Few movies make you feel like a little kid again, but The Force Awakens does so with ease, creating a palpable sense of giddiness most of the time you are watching. Plus, the film is absolutely gorgeous.

Still, the greatest strength of this film is the cast, and while I appreciated the old guard presence in the movie, it is the new guard that really shines. Starting, of course, with the main two new characters, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyenga). Rey is a ray of awesomeness that marked a great end to a year of heroic, nuanced,and badass women that started with Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, and continued with Rebecca Ferguson’s scene stealing Isla Faust in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and Emily Blunt’s tortured Kate Mercer in Sicario. Rey is tough, funny, smart, and awesome, and Ridley plays her with flair and confidence. There is a little concern that the film may have been so interested in making her awesome that it forgot to give her any real flaws, but that is really more of an issue for Episode VIII than it would be for this movie. Also, this is a far better alternative than the trap a lot of films having fallen into: making an awesome and badass female character who inexplicably becomes useless in the last twenty minutes of the movie, and needs a man to save her. Trust me: Rey needs no one to save her, and man is it refreshing to watch.

Finn, meanwhile, is a modern day Han Solo, only if the actor playing Han Solo actually enjoyed being in Star Wars (we all know that Harrison Ford was so done with this role a long, long time ago). Boyega realizes he is in a Star Wars movie and that it is freaking awesome, so he is going to have as much fun as possible on screen. Boyega’s charisma is oozing in everything he does, and Finn is a fantastic combination of courageous and cowardly, who does what he knows is right, but really almost hates doing so. Boyega’s work in Attack the Block showed he had chops, but man, this guy is amazing.

Then there is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who without going into too many details is exactly the kind of villain the series needed. Someone influenced by Darth Vader without just being Darth Vader. Kylo Ren is a villain for this day and age, and at least so far is the kind of villain that people will actually hate, unlike Vader, who is kind of one of the most badass characters ever, so it’s really hard to entirely root against him. I’ll admit, at first I was not as much of a fan of who Kylo Ren ends up being in the movie, but the more I think about it, the more he fits perfectly into the kind of morality Star Wars wants to have. Just as Finn proves himself to be a hero for always choosing to do the right thing when push comes to shove, Kylo Ren does the exact opposite (at least for now, because this is Star Wars, so this can always change).

You look so cool. Why couldn’t you have done more?

In general the cast is just great, with the notable exception of Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie from Game of Thrones), who is also awesome but doesn’t have nearly enough to do, which one can hope is rectified in Episode VIII. This brings me to the few flaws that definitely exist in this movie. The film is unfortunately just too long, and because of that it runs out of steam, which is kind of a problem because so much is packed into the last forty minutes of the movie, the movie putting a little too much Empire Strikes Back into its A New Hope re-imagining. This makes the pacing simply not work at times, and forces some character short-cuts in order to get through the massive amounts of plot needed in this film. Also, while I appreciated how much this film is trying in a lot of ways to be the progressive version of A New Hope, the film is a little less innovative because of this choice. The film played it a little too safe, and because of that things are not quite as dynamic as they should have been. Also, the lightsaber fights (yes, of course there are lightsaber fights) are very meaningful, but if we’re being honest, they aren’t particularly impressive. (There is also kind of a reason for this, but that doesn’t change that it is somewhat disappointing.) Still, these are all relatively minor quibbles for a movie that for the most part is absolutely great, and has moments of sheer brilliance.

Isn’t this based on…?

I could get into how Star Wars itself is a mash up of numerous other film influences, but meh. So while this is the latest film in one of the biggest franchises in existence, it is still an original script. So this is all a bit of a gray area.

Did it warrant its selection in The Anticipated?

Nope, not at all… just kidding. When deciding on what should be on the list for 2015, I was not sure what exactly to do with Star Wars. Not being a fervent fan meant I was excited for a new film, but not especially more excited than I would be for any other new film in a franchise I particularly like. Still, this is the new Star Wars, and its impact was always going to be felt very widely, so there was no way I wouldn’t be exploring this film, even if it ended up being just as bad as most of the prequel films were. Luckily, that was not the case, as Star Wars: The Force Awakens was able to re-invigorate the franchise and set it up to return to the glory of the original trilogy. Setting up franchises has always been JJ Abrams’s greatest strength, and he does so here as well. Continuing these franchises has not been his strong suit (see Star Trek: Into the Darkness, or maybe don’t see it…), but luckily Abrams is handing off Star Wars: Episode VIII to Rian Johnson, so there are no worries that The Force Awakens will be the high mark, or that the new trilogy will descend into mediocrity.

But while it’s nice and all that I liked the film, and that the franchise is in good standing, the real question with Star Wars: The Force Awakens was always how it was going to stack up from a box office perspective. It was always obvious it was going to do well, but the question was, just how well? If the movie hadn’t actually been good, or at the very least not as good as fans had hoped, then there is a real chance that could have put a ceiling on its ultimate earnings, as shown this year with Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. Avengers 2 “only” made $1.4 billion, and as of this writing is “only” the sixth highest grossing film of all-time. These numbers seem impressive, but when you factor in that the first Avengers made over $100 million more than its sequel, and that the marketing for Avengers 2 was even more expensive than the first one’s, the numbers start to look a little less dazzling. Saying Avengers 2 is a disappointment is a bit of an overstatement (okay, a lot of one), but it certainly didn’t perform as well as Disney and Marvel had hoped it would, and its “failure” is one of the reasons Kevin Feige was finally able to more or less wrest complete control of the Marvel Cinematic Universe from Marvel CEO Isaac Perlmutter. Being the franchise that it is, Star Wars was always going to have a higher floor and ceiling than even the Avengers’ franchise (or any Marvel series, really), but the film actually being good (or at least perceived as good, if nothing else, which amounts to amount the same in this respect) is a key hurdle the new Star Wars needed to clear.

Because Star Wars: The Force Awakens has always had its eyes on one thing: becoming the highest grossing film of all time. Now, that isn’t to say if this film doesn’t achieve that goal, Disney will view it as a disappointment, because that would be beyond ridiculous, but Disney has always been aware that such an accomplishment would be in play. The hype for this movie has been virtually unlike anything we have ever seen, and so far the movie has met the hype head on without flinching. Star Wars: The Force Awakens had the highest opening weekend worldwide ($529 million), domestically ($248 million), and the third highest overseas total ($281 million)–the latter of which which is only not number one because the film doesn’t open in China until January. There is a very real chance it could surpass the billion dollar milestone in its first week (though likely it will probably take eight or at absolute most nine days instead of seven), which would break Jurassic World’s previous record of 13 days. Jurassic World set a new standard earlier this year for many box office records, and in terms of speed, Star Wars is blowing that movie out of the water. So obviously Star Wars is well on its way to smashing ever record in its path, right? Well… probably, but maybe not.

Just take all the money.

Here’s the thing: in the world of box office dominance there are basically two films and than there’s everything else. Those two films are Avatar and Titanic ($2.788 and $2.186 billion, respectively). Those are the only two films to have ever grossed over two billion dollars in the worldwide box office. Jurassic World is the number three film on this list, and has only grossed 1.669 billion. So while Jurassic World did absurdly well, it still fell far short of the two billion dollar mark, and even more short of the two films above it on the all-time list. Star Wars has started out better than every film before it, and is far outpacing what current box office king Avatar had done when it first came out, but that doesn’t mean it will be able to keep up the pace necessary to surpass Avatar overall. People just move on too quickly from things. Furious 7 was a smash hit, but then time passed and all everyone could talk about was Avengers 2–which was the biggest thing ever until a week later, when it was a mere afterthought. Jurassic World brought dinosaurmania back for everyone, but soon people simply stopped talking about it. Whether it’s movies, television, or music, the world has a short attention span. We only care about something until we can find something newer and shinier. Star Wars is burning brightly right now, but who’s say whether it can keep it up?

Still, there are a number of things Star Wars has going for it that makes it seem like it will defy normal box office conventions. First, with all due respect to everything else, this is Star Wars, which is one of the key building blocks in our entire franchise hype culture. This is the type of film that fans keep seeing over and over again, which is exactly the formula both Avatar and Titanic used to get to the top. Next, as previously mentioned this film has not come out in China yet. This is kind of a big deal, because China’s market is the most lucrative one outside the US, and we are not really that far from a future where films could start to actually make more money in China than they do in America. So the fact that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is doing so well without any help from China at all is kind of a big deal. Finally, the timing of this film’s release is perfect. By coming out now, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has avoided the summer movie bloodbath, and is looking at months where, other than Deadpool, a lot of its competition is going to be prestige films, big budget soon-to-be failures that studios are just burning off, small indie films, and other non-commercial endeavors that are released in the months of Dumpuary before studios begin really trying again in March. So while the world may have a short attention span, there may not be much to distract us for quite some time, which could allow Star Wars to stay at the top of the box office even as viewer fatigue inevitably kicks in.

All of this basically means that the worst case scenario for Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that it becomes the third film to eclipse the two billion dollar gross mark, but falls short of Titanic’s hold on number 2. Its upside, however, is that it keeps going strong, and surpasses Avatar as the highest grossing film of all time, and possibly even becomes the first film to eclipse the three billion dollar mark. If I had to guess, I feel the film will likely surpass Titanic for the number 2 spot, and than make a run at Avatar, which it has a good chance of passing or at least coming real close to passing. I don’t think, however, that we are looking at the first 3 billion dollar movie. It just feels like too big of a jump, and probably is going to have to be left for some other movie to surpass. Like Episode VIII.

Would I recommend it to others?

This feels almost useless for this particular film. If you like Star Wars, you already saw this movie, and if you don’t like Star Wars, there is a high chance you still saw this movie. After that, you are just left with the people who have never seen Star Wars, and those people have made it a point of pride that they have never seen the movies, or are simply too young. Still, there are probably people that have either never seen a Star Wars film because they just never got around to it, or people that are still so angry at the prequels that they are just done with the franchise, or are boycotting the film because of the expunging of the expanded book universe. So for those people, yeah, you should see it. This film is a fresh start for everyone, and well worth the watch, even if just so you can be a part of the water cooler conversation for the next month or so.

How does this film measure up in a post Mad Max: Fury Road world?

I really do wonder how I would have felt about this movie if Mad Max didn’t come out this year. It is just an awfully high bar to clear for any movie, and Star Wars wasn’t quite able to do it. That’s fine, because Mad Max is probably the best film of the year. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is still able to bask in the glory of Valhalla–just not from the top.

How would I rate it?

My god, the enormity of this film. So pretty…

Things get a little tricky here, because rating an actually good Star Wars film is difficult. No matter what level of Star Wars fan you may be, watching these movies still make you feel like a little kid, and little kids are not known for their discerning critical eye, but onward we must go. Thus, using our handy dandy made-up anticipation meter for this film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens receives 9.5 lightsabers duels out of 10, because this film is just about the perfect combination of commercial success and critical quality. Still, the film didn’t quite innovate as much as I would have liked, and has a couple of issues that ding it just enough that it can’t receive a perfect score. But it comes close.

For an actual rating: this film is just such a joy to watch. It’s progressive, pays heed to what came before it while setting things up for a new future, and is cast magnificently. The action is great, and the film produces star-making performances from both John Boyega and Daisey Ridley. Still, the pacing of the film is really off, as the movie packs way too much stuff into its action. It is a little too close to being a remake of A New Hope for my liking, and the last forty minutes really don’t have the same punch as what came before it. This all comes together to leave it in the no man’s land between 3.5 stars and 4 stars, like Bakemono no Ko. So I give The Force Awakens about 3.75 stars out of 4 stars. This film is great, but having time to reflect on it allowed me to see that there are some mistakes and issues that stop it from being in the first rung of best films of the year. This may seem like I am splitting too many hairs, but once you start comparing films only against other great movies, cracks begin to show in some compared to others. None of this changes the fact that this movie is awesome.

That’s it for this edition of The Anticipated. We are almost done with 2015, but there is still one film to look at with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. After last year’s massive triumph with Birdman, will Iñárritu’s next film be able to continue his run of excellence? Find out next time. Until then, I have go figure out how I am going to buy one of those BB-8 robots.

-David Robertson