Review: Star Wars Episode VII

It's difficult to put together a cogent response to this film because of how heavily the media/merchandising storm in front of it distorted my preconceptions. I live under a rock and have a mild allergy to advertisements and I couldn't get away from it. But it seems fitting to me that the significance of the film would feel small compared to the significance of everything around it. Episode VII would feel like this even if it had been released into a vacuum, because it isn't a significant moment in cinema. It isn't even a significant moment in Star Wars. This isn't the resurrection that Doctor Who had. The franchise wasn't dead, the franchise never died.

The truth about Episode VII is that it's just another Star Wars film. Despite marking the beginning of a new trilogy -- indeed, very probably a trilogy of trilogies, extending decades into the future of both the Star Wars universe and our own -- it feels like business as usual.

Episode VII begins during the events of A New Hope, with our protagonist, Jabe Ylan, being one of just a handful of people to escape the destruction of Alderaan by evacuating on a departing starship. Jabe is just a boy and sees his homeworld and his entire family destroyed in an eyeblink. He moves to a slum on a backwater world where he experiences the remainder of the events of Episodes IV, V and VI second-hand, via news media. A New Republic is born and the Galaxy begins to recover from the Star Wars. Meanwhile Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo retreat from their unimaginable new-found fame, and go into hiding.

But not everything is as it seems, and Jabe stumbles on a greater evil which is stirring in the shadows between the stars. Jabe races to gather the heroes of the Rebellion together again to confront a disturbingly familiar foe whose identity has been pretty thoroughly spoiled by this point. And good, ultimately, battles evil.

Numerically, the film is fine. A ridiculous number of Star Wars boxes get ticked. Every Ben Burtt sound effect is back, a pretty spectacular lightsaber fight goes down and there's a climactic set-piece star battle which obviously fails to be as gripping as the Death Star trench run of IV. R2-D2 bleeps, C-3PO fusses, Chewie roars, the Falcon breaks down and somebody has a bad feeling about something. Abrams goes out of his way to put his unique stamp on all of these tropes, to the point where it actually becomes somewhat tiresome; I got a sharp impression that he thinks "classic Star Wars" isn't up to snuff.

That was the easy part, though, because all anybody really needed to do was go through the previous trilogy and add dittos.

The story is thrilling in any given moment but immediately fractures if subjected to the slightest inspection. Unlike Star Trek Into Darkness it does rise on a clear path to a climax, but is fraught with so many "I am your father"-esque twists -- and I don't care how spoiled you are, you do not have all of them -- that by the end I had to deliberately stop thinking about it and passively accept everything I was being told. (I imagine there's a novelisation which straightens the whole thing out, which is nice for the novelisation.)

The real question is whether Jabe earns it. It was never realistic to expect the entire original cast to pick up where they left off, and... well, they don't. This had to be Star Wars: The Next Generation and Jabe had to lead it, so I don't need to explain to you that Jabe the original character needed to earn a kiloton of audience respect right out of the gate. The trouble is that a character can't do this just by accidentally being in a place at a time. Jabe has very little agency of his own. He spends much of the film being thrown into circumstances by other people. The only thing he really tries to do for himself is drag the old crew back together. And why? Because There Is Evil And It Must Be Fought? It really feels more as if he misses his childhood heroes and the only way to bring them together again is for there to be another Star War. Which makes him a very bad person! It doesn't help that "young blond human male with decent teeth and a mild dry wit" is the cinematic equivalent of the number zero.

This film is an episode of Star Wars. It's not Empire-notable and it's not Phantom Menace-notable. Mechanically, procedurally, a hundred more Star Wars episodes could be built along the lines of this one, and they clearly will be. People will always see them, people will always enjoy them. At what point does reviewing them become pointless?

Postscript

If you haven't seen the film you should skip this section.

A lot of people have made a great deal out of Abrams' playing with the "A long time ago..."/"STAR WARS!"/title crawl sequence, which was standard for what I guess we're all going to have to get used to calling the Original Trilogies. It seems like Abrams' directorial trademark -- other than having an attractive young actress take her top off and reveal her bra -- is to make a highly obvious and dubious directorial choice which can act as the scapegoat for most of the criticism. With Star Trek it was lens flare. With Star Wars it's (momentarily) ditching the title crawl.

(George Lucas did the same thing with Jar Jar Binks. So much hatred was focused on that single character that Episode I's far more fundamental flaws were obscured by heat haze. A brilliant move.)

This shake-up seems to have taken such deep root in fandom that I feel that I need to address it specifically. Firstly, it wasn't something which came entirely as a surprise to me, even without the pre-production whispers, because I'm familiar with the way Abrams likes to tell a story, and dragging the viewer through two laborious paragraphs of textual exposition is not how he tells a story. He throws you right into it, face-first. (Sometimes literally, you've seen the pilot for Alias, right?) Secondly, it's an inspired way to jolt the audience. Just with this one move he sent all of Star Wars fandom into a tailspin. "If he didn't think the structure of the opening was sacred, what else is he going to tread all over?" But that's the whole point. Everybody went into this film expecting something; but nobody went into it expecting this. Right from scene one, what Abrams is trying to tell us is the same thing he told us in Star Trek: forget what you knew. The old generation is over. The Emperor is dead. Anything can happen.

The problem, as I've said, is that it kind of doesn't. What happens is pretty much the same thing that's always happened.

For an entirely different treatment of the same concept

Star Wars Episode VII Bingo

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Discussion (7)

2013-06-14 23:14:31 by Sam:

Right now the Star Wars franchise is a thrown die in the air, and as a writer it's fascinating to me just how many different ways it could land. The possibilities of the franchise are limitless, but choosing any single possibility to be the canonical Episode VII immediately rules out scores of others, which I'm sure is leading to unimaginable tension among the people who, at the time of writing, are just beginning to try to put this thing together for real.

In the absence of any concrete production information at all, this is my best guess of one way that things could go, based on what I know about Star Wars and what I know about JJ Abrams. I don't intend to revise any of this in light of new information. This review is now frozen. It'll be interesting to see how much turns out to be hilariously wrong. Obviously there will be a real review at the appropriate time - some two years from now.

2013-06-14 23:24:17 by Sam:

Oh, and there's a very good chance that Disney/Abrams will go down the route of trying to rejuvenate Fisher, Hamill and Ford, whether by complete CGI replacements, makeup or a combination of the two. In my opinion this is by far the biggest and most imminent fork in the road ahead. The above review obviously makes the opposite assumption, if only because I think there's no way that the first option could possibly be made to work...

2013-06-15 01:01:42 by JeremyBowers:

Duuuude, if you break the press embargo like this, they'll stop inviting you to the prescreenings!

2013-06-15 03:31:30 by Dustin:

Oh, they'll revive Han, Luke, and Leia all right... as ZOMBIES!

2013-06-24 23:29:25 by Lazarus:

What am I missing? Sam, did you figure out time travel?

2013-06-24 23:31:22 by Lazarus:

Never mind. Don't I look the fool.

2013-09-07 11:28:32 by Luc:

@Lazarus: No, I almost commented as well if I hadn't seen your comment. Then I found the answer :)