It was a moment I had waited for all year. The lights went down, and the words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far way” came up, and even though it was 1:10 in the morning by that point, my tired brain reverted to being ten years old again. That is how delightful the institution of Star Wars is. For those who love it, it is the literal embodiment of the fantasies that we escaped into in our backyards or bedrooms. With that said, The Force Awakens has a whole lot to prove after George Lucas’ prequel trilogy. It needed to bring the euphoria back, not just for the credit crawl, but for the entire shebang. As such, it is nearly impossible to imagine the pressure TV guru and future sleeping hermit J.J. Abrams was under here. However, against all odds, when the camera pans down from space and we get our first scene, a piece of my heart felt like it snapped back into place.
Keeping things vague out of respect for those who do not want plot details, the film centers on a conflict between the evil First Order, created out of the remnants of the empire, and the Resistance. As the ruthless Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) searches for what he thinks is the key to winning the war, a new group of heroes starts to form. Finn (John Boyega) a disgruntled Storm trooper who starts to doubt his place in the army, meets up with Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger on the desert planet Jakku. When the First Order begins to pursue them, they find themselves under the wing of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) who agrees to help them complete their mission.
Although his films are generally well received, director and eternal Star Wars geek J.J. Abrams was a factor of concern for some who find his stylistic flourishes irritating. However, when watching this film, it becomes clear that he was absolutely the best choice to bring this saga back in full force. He rescues us from the boardrooms, and CGI battlefields of the prequels, and returns to the rich, “lived in” feel of the original films. There is not a frame of this film that isn’t embedded with maximum craftsmanship and detail, bolstered all the more by a masterful blend of practical and CGI effects. The creatures here are not only beautifully designed, but feel like you could reach out and touch them. This sense of weight and presence makes the effects that are created in a computer look better, they blend with the world instead of being the world itself. It has the feel of a little boy playing with his action figures, with fantastic action sequences whizzing by at a break-neck pace, and it practically pastes a smile on your face.
Both the old and new characters fire on all cylinders for the most part. John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Oscar Issac bring warmth, humor, and humanity to our three new heroes. Boyega in particular has the most interesting and occasionally tragic arc as he awkwardly tries to adjust to his newfound freedom. Ford is just as fantastic as he always was in his career defining role, practically oozing charm with every smirk and sardonic comment. However, the real break-out here is Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. It would have been very easy for Driver to simply mimic Darth Vader, but through both his development and terrifying presence (carried out mostly through his deep and unsettling voice) we find a villain guided by pure rage, who we both sympathize with and fear. Unfortunately, the film only has room for so many characters, and as such some of them do end up either getting the shaft completely, or are forced to hang out in the background until their time comes in a later film. It would be more disappointing if a sequel wasn’t absolutely guaranteed, but let’s just say I look forward to seeing more of the characters played by Andy Serkis, Gwendoline Christie, and Lupita Nyong’o.
The greatest downfall here comes from the need to play it a bit too safe in order to win people back. Most glaringly, the third act is essentially a beat for beat re-hash of A New Hope with a few tender surprises thrown in. It goes from being a roller coaster ride to being a studio tour that you’ve already been on, lots of familiar elements that just fall a bit flatter upon a repeat. Also, while many of the nods to the franchises’ past are clever and fun, there are a few that are just flat out forced, the movie stopping dead in it’s tracks for somebody to look into the camera and bring up something from the original trilogy. It’s a film that is for the most part incredibly organic self consciously checking up on it’s audience to make sure it’s pleasing them.
Minor hiccups aside, Star Wars: The Force Awakens absolutely delivers what fans of the franchise have been missing since 1982. It’s not the most narratively inventive movie in the world, but most of the time you’ll be too busy smiling to nit-pick such things. In a year when they all seemed to blend together, it certainly goes to show just how massive films like this should be getting made.With a bevy of sequels and spin offs on the horizon, it feels good to say that the future of the franchise is looking bright, and is not very far, far away at all.
You did it J.J., go get yourself some sleep.