Film Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
With Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), director J.J. Abrams had the near impossible task of continuing the saga started by George Lucas. Audiences were burned by prequels and special editions, and the pressure of kick starting the franchise back to life must have been enormous. How do you make a film that satisfies long time fans while being fresh enough to attract new ones? That was the question Abrams and co. had to tackle, and for the most part they answered it.
This is a fast paced, rollicking, and exciting experience. Abrams (who co-wrote the screenplay with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt) learned the errors of the prequel trilogy, and brought this latest entry back to being a good old-fashioned space adventure. We have shootouts, light saber battles, and aerial dog fights between good guys and bad guys. For the first time in a long time, this felt like a “Star Wars” movie. It contains the special quality that audiences fell in love with back in 1977, a quality of joy and escapism. And for that, the production team should be commended.
For a picture that was so anticipated, elements of the story were strictly guarded. To avoid the possibility of spoilers slipping out, I’ll keep plot details down to a minimum. Let’s start with the characters. The cast is an exceptional blend of familiar faces and brand new ones. Characters that we love have returned. Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and Princess-now-General Leia (Carrie Fisher) have the most prominent roles. I was particularly surprised at how much screen time was devoted to Han Solo. In fact, Harrison Ford could be considered one of the main leads, as he jumps right into the action as soon as he’s introduced. It was nice to see both Ford and Fisher embrace the older versions of their characters – the dynamic Han and Leia share has changed but in a believable way.
All the new performers fill their respective parts with great effect. These characters feel like real people, full of conflicting emotion. Gone is the flat dialogue and stilted exchanges, there is not one bad performance to be found. John Boyega is Finn, an ex-storm trooper trying to find his place in the galaxy and do what he believes is the right thing. Boyega’s performance captures a ton of enthusiasm, and he provides plenty of big laughs. Oscar Isaac is Poe Dameron, one of the best pilots of The Resistance (aka: The Good Guys). We unfortunately don’t get to see much of Isaac here, but what we do get is that hard edged, Han Solo type personality. Adam Driver lends himself as the main villain Kylo Ren. Sporting an all black costume, including a Darth Vader-like helmet and a makeshift lightsaber, Kylo Ren is a leader in The First Order (aka: The Bad Guys), a remnant of the Empire working to get back into power. Kylo Ren is a student of the dark side but has yet to master it – his desire leading to desperate and unstable behavior.
The stand out of the entire cast is Daisy Ridley as Rey. Ridley is a relative newcomer, but she plays the role like an experienced veteran. She has a fantastic screen presence, demanding our attention without ever begging for it. Rey lives as a scavenger on the desert planet of Jakku, spending her days looking through wrecked spaceships for parts to sell. She dreams of bigger and better things, but stays on Jakku for reasons I will not tell you. Before she even realizes it, she gets swept up in an adventure of a lifetime but never allows circumstances to drown her. She’s quick to adapt and work problems out, which helps when going against The First Order. Ridley plays the role with strength and vulnerability, and Rey’s chemistry with Finn has become one of the best elements of the franchise so far. It would be no surprise to me if Daisy Ridley becomes a great star down the road.
For months, the production team hammered down the point that they would incorporate practical effects, with computer imagery only as a support tool. That effort comes across on screen, and with good results. The props, make up, and environments all have a tangible aesthetic I’m sure many people were longing for. Space battles were exciting, both because the stakes were better defined and because the special effects were expertly done. One of the best action sequences features a chase between The Millennium Falcon and two TIE fighters on the surface of Jakku. The way the camera zooms in and out, changing angles and perspectives as the chase unfolded was thrilling. The computer imagery is not perfect (example: see the scene where Han Solo and Chewbacca are first introduced), but for the most part it works. Easily, the best practical effect is BB-8, the new ball-shaped droid we’ve seen in all the advertisements. BB-8 is cute beyond measure, and the way it evokes emotion through movement and sound works the same way it did for R2-D2.
The problems that plague The Force Awakens are the same ones the franchise have always had, and it’s in the writing. There are elements that we can nitpick (If the Empire was destroyed, how did The First Order become such a massive force? If the rebellion won in Return of the Jedi, why are they now called “The Resistance?”), but the main issue – and it’s a big one – is how repetitive the plot is to the original trilogy. This may not be the fault of Abrams and co.; they had the difficult job of juggling nostalgia in a modern setting. Yet the number of callbacks and references to familiar story beats was staggering. I’m not talking about homage, there are specific plot points, imagery, and revelations that are nearly identical to what we’ve seen in A New Hope (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983). Character traits are transported in too similar a fashion. At first, seeing this happen felt like a nice ode to the fans, but then we realize that the whole story is hinged on a framework that was established decades ago. This takes away from the suspense; we know exactly how things are going to happen because we’ve seen all this before. It was as though the production was so afraid of trying something different (because of the potential fan reaction) that they turned back to the same blueprint and played it safe. The problem with the repetitiveness is too big to ignore – it almost undercuts everything that’s so good with the film. Any difference from the original trilogy is simple window dressing.
Seeing how The Force Awakens does little new in terms of story makes me appreciate what Lucas did with the original Star Wars more. He took bits and pieces of things he loved, and molded them into something new. I still enjoyed this latest installment – it’s an entertaining rollercoaster that does a lot of good things. I’m not going to pretend that I won’t be in line when the next entry is released. I just wish the production took more of a chance to create its own identity, the reward would’ve been worth the risk.