Co-written by Star Wars alumnus screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and director J.J. Abrams, The Force Awakens is an exhilarating and welcome addition to our beloved Star Wars franchise. While some plot elements are a bit loose, the movie manages to outmaneuver its shortcomings with humor, emotional highs, and a breakneck pace that flies as fast as a podracer through sheer canyon walls. Wait a second: did I just reference the prequels? That’s not exactly befitting, because The Force Awakens assuredly does everything it can to distance itself from George Lucas’ last three movies (with a few minor exceptions). The first line of the film: “This will begin to set things right,” is as much a wink to all those who have been disenchanted with the franchise’s previous course as it is a line that gets the action rolling. It’s something of an irony to me that while many have bemoaned where Lucas steered his stories, the emphasis has been put so squarely on tapping back into the charm of what he originally created. And for the most part, I believe they got it right.
Star Wars is a franchise in search of its soul, and with its seventh installment, that soul is stirring back to life.
While the movie is a definitive shift back to the core elements that made the originals so delightful, it unmistakably claims its own identity. Tailored for a young, modern audience, it’s quick, slick and shiny. While some cinephiles may lament the abandonment of the slower developing stories of the originals, the character arcs of The Force Awakens are satisfactorily realized through sheer action, moments of introspection, and snappy dialogue. This is Star Wars 2015 style, and the film (yes, actual film) asks that you strap yourself in for one helluva ride…or be left in the dust. I chose the former, to hop onboard and let it whisk me to that galaxy far, far away.
The basic gist is this: a new generation of heroes embark on a perilous quest to find the location of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, who went missing after his school of padawans was destroyed by a renegade student. The heroes are led by General Leia of the Resistance, who’s supported by the New Republic, the government that took over at the end of the Return of the Jedi. We never get much of anything on the circumstances of the formation of the Resistance, but suffice to say they seem to be the only ones actively fending off the scourge of evil in the galaxy. Opposing them is the First Order, the faction that arose from the ashes of the Empire. Bent on ruling the galaxy and finding Luke Skywalker before the Resistance does, the First Order has constructed Starkiller Base, a larger and more powerful weapon than the original trilogy’s death stars.
Thus, the stage is set.
But this is merely the first step into a larger world….
As with many of Abrams’ films, there’s a lot to digest in a short amount of time. The movie stumbles a little with its lack of backstory and logic, especially in the later act, but never loses itself. The results are wildly entertaining, if a bit head-scratching at times. There’s lots of new stuff, and a lot of familiar things, too, including a little droid hiding vital information that will help the good guys. (Sound familiar?) Yep, a lot of the narrative obviously runs right alongside of A New Hope, while also laying a groundwork of its own. It would seem, just as history repeats itself on earth, so it does in the Star Wars universe. But in The Force Awakens, things are more complex than they were in the originals. The forces of both good and evil are testing their footing, and one can almost sense that the moviemakers themselves are doing the same, as if they’ve just opened the gates to a glorious kingdom long forgotten now found.
The acting is energetic and solid. Childish slapstick is replaced with witty, fast moving banter. The freshman cast leaves the somewhat stilted performances of the prequels far behind. Jaded Jedi and bickering senators are replaced by youthful and vigorous heroes who discover themselves while going toe to toe with their enemies.
One of the new faces is Finn, played by John Boyega, a disillusioned stormtrooper who forsakes the totalitarian rule of the First Order in the name of righteousness. He has heart, wit, compassion…and perhaps even some ability with the force. Though his conscience is burdened with the weight of his decisions and possible destiny, he never takes himself too seriously and is often at the heart of the movie’s lighter moments. He’s a reflection of the movie as a whole, I’d say. There’s some heavyweight stuff going on, some intense scenes that legitimize the PG-13 rating, but underneath it all, there’s also humor and a fun factor that reminds us that this is pure fantasy pulp. To me, Finn was perhaps the most relatable character, the one that extends his hand out to the audience and takes them along for the ride.
Another new face is Poe Dameron, a hotshot pilot whose bravado is matched only by his skills. Played by Oscar Isaac, Poe’s a swashbuckler in uniform, a charismatic good guy who leads the Resistance into battle in the film’s penultimate sequence. While his screen time is a bit shortchanged in service to the story, his character, of the three new leads, seems to have the simplest, most straightforward role. His sidekick droid, BB-8, is one of the joys of the film, rolling and bounding along beside the characters like a faithful little dog. He’s the R2-D2 for a new generation, filled with life and humor. He typifies the filmmakers penchant for being able to get emotion out of “lifeless” or alien creatures in the movie.
Leading the way is a young woman named Rey. Played by Daisy Ridley, Rey is portrayed as a destitute scavenger desperately scraping a life together on the desert planet of Jakku while awaiting the return of her family. Right from the get go, her character is strongly reminiscent of both Luke and Anakin Skywalker (even though her accent was reminiscent of a Kenobi…hmm…). She displays the longing for another life, and an amazing aptitude for combat, mechanical proficiency, and piloting. This is no ordinary girl, and I enjoyed watching her character develop. It’s apparent that through her, the force is indeed “awakening.” It turns out she is very powerful, and grows only stronger as the story unfolds. But is she the daughter of Luke?
The strongest hints about Rey’s origin and destiny are inferred by Maz Kanata, a thousand year old Yoda-like character who dwells in a sort of medieval castle. After stumbling across Luke’s old lightsaber and experiencing a waking dream that incites a disturbing collage of images from the past and future, Rey is encouraged by Maz to claim the saber and let the light side of the force guide her forward. (It’s a neat sequence, and all of the scenes in and around Maz’s castle reminded me a little of Lord of the Rings – much in part because of the architecture and beautiful location.) Maz hints that just as the saber found its way to Luke, it has now found its way to her. Although Rey is rattled enough to refuse the saber and deny these images, it’s apparent that she cannot avoid her destiny, for the force is very strong in her, and her compulsions are already aimed at helping the Resistance.
As Rey is the main focus of the light side, Kylo Ren is the main focus of the dark. Ren was a triumph, a villain who, although already wielding extraordinary powers, appears to be in his relative infancy. The story made no efforts to disguise his origins as the son of Han Solo and Leia. Bearing resemblance to both Anakin Skywalker and Solo, Adam Driver is right on the money, here. He’s a tortured soul, constantly at war with himself, constantly trying to emerge from the ever looming shadows cast by his grandfather, Darth Vader. He is impulsive, prone to fits of anger. He wears robes reminiscent of a sith lord’s, and he unnecessarily dons a frightening helmet that recalls the one worn by his iconic grandfather, which he keeps as a holy relic. He is the leader of the Knights of Ren, a group shrouded in mystery, revealed only in the horrific dream Rey experienced in Maz’s castle.
And yet, despite all these trapping of evil, Kylo Ren is tempted by the light side.
I loved this facet of the story. It’s a great shift in the mythology’s running theme of good characters constantly trying to elude the persuasion to the dark side. And given Kylo’s horrific behavior, it will make his torment against the light much more severe in the tales to come, for his actions in The Force Awakens doom him to live under the cover of darkness forever…
Perhaps the most satisfying scenes in the film come when Rey confronts Kylo. You can feel the extraordinary tension between these two as they square off with their mental and physical force abilities. One has to wonder if they’re related, as well, which would strain their conflict even further. Kylo’s torment is further exemplified as he realizes Rey is truly powerful, perhaps even more powerful than he is; and in the third act, when they square off in the snowy confines of a dimly lit forest outside of Starkiller Base with lightsabers in hand, the movie is at its finest.
Ironically, it’s also here where the movie’s plot struggles the most to maintain its credibility. Given Kylo’s incredible displays of power, it could be argued whether Rey would have been able to survive an encounter with him. Kylo was badly wounded, however. And I look on Rey as a vessel through which the light side was reemerging back into the galaxy and, hence, she was stronger than the sum of her burgeoning abilities (and as we see earlier in the film, she’s no slouch with her staff). I believe that it was by the will of the force, coupled with her extraordinary power, that she survives. I’ll submit it’s a debatable standpoint, but an interesting one to peruse.
What was more of a stretch to me was the relatively short amount of time in which the Resistance planned, launched, and mounted an attack on the mighty Starkiller Base while Rey’s duel with Kylo was ensuing. While the scenes themselves were exciting and fun to behold, with x-wings and tie fighters engaged in a wild dogfight, they exemplified some of the problems I had with the movie. Logic was not always at the forefront of the story. The original death stars took far more sacrifice, planning, and effort to attack, and Starkiller Base was a much larger and more powerful construction. Given the lessons of the past, it should have been more difficult to destroy.
Earlier on, Starkiller Base was responsible for the apparent destruction of the New Republic, located in the Hosnian system. This was a major story element that was perhaps glossed over a bit too quickly. With the Republic’s fleet wiped out, the Resistance is all that stands against the First Order. While the sight of massive, sun-fueled energy beams blasting multiple moons and planets to cosmic dust was impressive and frightening, the ramifications of such a horrific act were given little consideration in the movie’s narrative. Quiet frankly, I’m not certain if the New Republic was totally destroyed, or if any vestiges remain. Repeated viewings of the movie illuminate further details on some of the story, however, and one is resolved to putting the pieces together for themselves as best they can.
These gaps in logic were counterbalanced and ultimately outweighed by the spirit, heart, and fun of the movie. The mythological aspects of The Force Awakens were far more impactful to me than the logistics, and I’m hopeful that the next two movies will flesh out some of the backstory that this movie left behind. I (and millions of others) could and no doubt will write pages and pages on each and every detail of the movie that are ripe for scrutiny, but for now we’ll move along, move along….
We get a myriad of cameos and roles that are reminiscent of the original trilogy. The First Order’s ranks included characters whose import matched those who have come before. General Hux was basically this movie’s Tarkin, while the chrome-armored Captain Phasma had a mysterious, Boba Fett-like air. Supreme Leader Snoke, who appeared entirely as a gigantic hologram, clearly stepped into Emperor Palpatine’s role. He was imposing, captivating, and his origin is yet another story aspect left up to debate. As with the Resistance and First Order’s backstory, I couldn’t help but to wonder more on these villains. But then I thought of A New Hope. How much of the galaxy did we know about, then? How much about the secondary and background characters were revealed, and how much did we understand the political systems in place at the time? Not much, quite frankly. But with the inclusion of more movies into the series, and the myriad comics, novels, and features to come, I imagine the sequel trilogy will be fleshed out in much the same way as the original trilogy – over time. Patience, fellow Jedi! The Force Awakens is merely the first course of what is sure to be a fulfilling banquet.
So what was sometimes mystifying about the movie also encapsulated some of the beauty of the experience – that it left so much to the imagination, that it made me wonder. Ah, now there’s the operative word…
As for the Resistance, we got to reacquaint ourselves with everyone’s favorite Mon Calamari, Admiral Ackbar. (I sneakily had high hopes he’d run into some sort of trap…) We saw Nein Nunb piloting an x-wing, and a few other old alien friends. Threepio had something of a limited role, but he’s all of his usual, charmingly awkward self. R2-D2’s veritable absence was softened by BB-8, who would have been tough to outshine. When R2 does “come to life,” we heave a collective sigh, for by then we have learned that it portends the possible emergence of the Resistance’s greatest ally.
A slightly sluggish Carrie Fisher appeared, and while her performance seemed a teensy bit hampered by some strangely muffled speech at times, it was still a delight to see her. The scenes with her famous smuggler ex-boyfriend were heartwarming, as both characters’ ages visibly displayed the weariness of decades of war. It was bittersweet and moving to see them together, sad to finally learn that they had loved and lost one another. Leia was particularly troubled by the absence of her son, Kylo Ren, as well, and I was moved near to tears when she exclaimed to Han Solo, “Luke is a Jedi, but you are his father. Bring back our son…”
We also learn why Luke Skywalker was completely stricken from the marketing campaign. I had to laugh at this. It was both genius and kind of frustrating (but mostly genius). His poignant…moment…will no doubt hold more weight in time, as the next movies are released. As a huge fan of Luke, I’m already counting the days to Episode 8. The look in his eyes held such yearning, and I cannot wait to see what effects the force, his friends, and the events of Episode 7 have had on him.
The real treat of The Force Awakens was the return of Harrison Ford as Han Solo, accompanied by his ever loyal Wookie, Chewbacca. Ah, good ole’ Han! Harrison Ford nails it as the scruffy looking smuggler we missed so much. No phoning it in, here. He plays it with tremendous heart. And his character’s function transcends that one, sweet note of being the lovable pirate. He’s at the root of all that we missed so much from the prequels: the wit; the wisecracking; the humor and devilish charm. And, most importantly, through Han Solo, the torch is passed from the old generation to the new. He’s the glue that binds these two galaxies together. His chemistry with the new cast sparkles, and it gives weight and credence to the new faces. Despite their admirable performances, when I first encountered Rey, Finn, and Poe, this old school fan couldn’t help a little feeling of, “Hey, who are you pushing your way into my universe? I’m not so sure, I think you gotta earn it…”
There’s a scene where Han Solo softens up and informs Rey he’s thinking of giving her a job. It’s a great little moment, for when the audience sees Han Solo accepting Rey into the fold, a part of us gives in and says, “Oh, ok, if Han Solo’s cool with her, then she’s cool with me!” It’s a brilliant and affecting scene that reminds us that Star Wars is carrying on, and even its most staunch guardians have given the new blood their approval. Han Solo is a joy to behold, but times are a changin’, and after three decades, even he’d admit it’s time to carry on. As he befriends Finn and Rey, so do we. Thanks, Han ole’ buddy, we’ll miss the good ole’ days, but with these new kids, I think we’ll be all right.
The nostalgic nuggets thrown our way are often inconsequential, but they sure are fun. One that I particularly enjoyed was when Finn inadvertently activates the Dejarik chess board on the Millennium Falcon. (The keen eye will notice that the Kintan Strider finally gets its revenge on the Mantellian Savrip that had defeated it nearly forty years earlier.) I never found the injection of nostalgia intrusive; as what many consider “nostalgic” is simply what makes Star Wars what it is. The movie clearly sets out a path of its own, with many new critters and gadgets that one day themselves may be considered nostalgic.
Nostalgia? It’s just all Star Wars to me, bub.
The special effects were convincing, and the emphasis on practical effects paid off. Make no mistake, though, there’s still plenty of CGI creations. But even after multiple viewings, I was really too enraptured with all that the movie bombarded me with to notice to any glaringly bad effects. The Force Awakens utilizes the best of Disney and Lucasfilm’s resources, while taking advantage of the beautiful locations that included Iceland, Ireland, the U.K., and Abu Dhabi. The result was an organic quality the prequels were sorely missing. The movie looked like a throwback while instituting the latest and greatest in visual effects artistry of the loftiest modern blockbusters. Abrams thankfully resisted his usual urge to brighten every other frame with his infamous lens flare, and his shaky cam use was at a minimum, used only where it was appropriate, in the most frenetic of sequences. The many wide, long-range camera views allowed one a few moments to soak in the size and scale of the landscape or space scene, despite the speed at which the movie whizzed by. And as much as the production team paid attention to the visuals, they paid attention to the sound. Tie fighters had that recognizable shriek and, for the most part, during battle, the sound of old school blasters filled the air.
The Force Awakens is breathtakingly beautiful, a feast for the eyes and ears.
So there you have it, or, at least some of it. The Force Awakens is a lot to take in. It’s not perfect, but the summation of its best moments make it a nearly perfect experience. The movie might have had too much to do, perhaps too much to prove, but it confidently carries its own weight and sets a very solid foundation for continuing the character arcs that were introduced. Fans will no doubt debate on some jarring occurrences for years to come (namely the demise of a certain major player…), but the movie succeeds in cleverly intertwining old fates with new destinies, and its humor and imagination left me with plenty to chew on.
How many stars does it get…? Well, with some shaky and rushed plot points, three and a half sounds about right…but meh, for all the heart, excitement, and fun of the movie, that feels like slightly too few; so I’ll just go ahead and give it four out of five. Ultimately, I’ll leave that score up to you. Log in, let us know what you think! The best still may be yet to come, and when all is said and done, the return to the galaxy far, far away made me feel good. I smiled, laughed, and even shed a tear or two. We who inhabit the wonderful Kingdom of Geekdom so often scrutinize these worlds we love too much with our minds, whilst fervently denying the tug of our hearts. On this day, as I sit here typing this, my heart is warm, and I feel lucky to be alive in a time when the creation of a modern myth is still steaming down the line.
Best wishes, friends and fellow fans. Star Wars is officially back, and it is our time to shine.