Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

I’ll admit upfront that initially I had my concerns about Disney’s decision to launch a new trilogy of Star Wars movies.  The prequels left a sour taste in my mouth.  They said a lot of the right things, but I was worried that they would care less about the quality of the franchise than milking the franchise for all it was worth, given that they were making a new trilogy as well as spin-offs in Rogue One, a young Han Solo stand alone, and others.  But then they announced J.J. Abrams are the director.  Not my ideal choice, but it instilled confidence that it was a proven director who had handled the Star Trek franchise reboot.  And then they announced the cast, bringing back the old favorite in Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), C-3Po (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) while also bringing in new blood in the form of Oscar Isaac (one of my favorite actors), John Boyega (a terrific up and coming actor), Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Max von Sydow, Gwendoline Christie, Lupita Nyong’o, and a relative unknown in Daisy Ridley.

I became more and more optimistic as more news trickled out and trailers and stills started to be produced.  By the summer, most of my apprehensions had fallen away, and the anticipation around the movie grew and grew and expectations got bigger and bigger.  I forced myself to avoid anything after December 1st, not wanting to know too much going into the film.  I knew the reviews were very positive.  I knew it was going to make a ton of money.  What I didn’t know was whether it would live up to the hype.  I am glad to report that it does in fact live up to the hype.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens does what The Prequels failed to do, bringing the Star Wars myth alive for a whole new generation of fans.

 

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(I’m going to avoid going into depth on much of the film and it’s plot, but I will give some of the basics and very little beyond the opening of the film.)

The Force Awakens is set 30 years after Return of the Jedi.  Luke Skywalker, as it is revealed in the opening scroll (and has been widely reported on the internet) has gone into hiding and no one knows where he is.  The struggle between the Empire and the Rebellion did not end with Return of the Jedi.  Instead, two powers now fight for control of the galaxy.  A system of planets have formed their own Republic under the protection of the Resistance, the offshoot of the Rebellion, while First Order has sprung from the ashes of the Empire, with Kylo Ren (Driver), a villain who idolizes Darth Vader, leading the search for Luke with its forces commanded by General Hux (Gleeson), and ruled by a mysterious leader (Serkis).

Both sides are looking for Skywalker, and their search has led them to Jakku, a desert planet, where Poe Dameron (Isaac) and his droid, BB-8, have found the missing piece to locating Luke.  Circumstances lead to their separation and BB-8 soon ends up in the company of Rey (Ridley), a scavenger on the planet, and Finn (Boyega) a former Stormtrooper who is fleeing the First Order.  They soon find themselves in the company of Han Solo, Chewie, and a few other familiar faces while being caught up in the galactic battle between the Resistance and the First Order.

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There is a reason that J.J. Abrams was picked to direct this film.  He is not one of my current favorite directors.  I don’t think of him as an auteur.  But I believe he is a solid director, and I never thought his direction was the problem in any of his previous films (Mission: Impossible III, Stark Trek, Super 8, Star Trek Into Darkness), even if none of them rise above the good-not-great plateau.  Regardless, he has shown that he is capable of handling a lot of factors that went into making this film work; balancing nostalgia, fan service, and franchise aesthetics with telling a good story with compelling characters and getting good performances out of his actors.  While he has shown elements of this in all of his previous films, he puts them all together most effectively here.

In terms of the plot, there are a lot of similarities to Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.  It hits a lot of similar story beats that are found there: main characters coming together seemingly through chance, mentor/father figures, a fight against seemingly insurmountable odds.  But there are also some nods to The Empire Strikes Back, most notably in a big moment that looks most similar to the climax of Empire.  Earlier in the year, I criticized Jurassic World for essentially being the same story as Jurassic World only with some new gloss.  While you can maybe dock Abrams and his co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt in originality points, it’s not a detraction here, because of the mythology at play here.  (Also, if we’re nitpicking, there’s a plot point involving R2-D2 that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense or isn’t clearly explained.)  The premise for this saga, set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” lends itself to a certain mythology and a level of cyclical storytelling that myths tell.

It also helps that the new characters, who get to carry most of this film, are easy to care about and be invested in their stories.  These are actual characters and good performances, not the wooden acting we saw in the Prequels.  Again, I think this is a credit to Abrams as well, because there is ample evidence outside of the Prequels that Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, and Hayden Christensen can act.

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Given the cyclical nature of the story and the themes at play, some of the characteristics that made the characters of the original trilogy so beloved are visible in these new characters, though there are hardly any one-to-one comparisons.  One of the failings of many sequels to long-dormant franchises is that they rely too heavily on the nostalgia and fan service and the new characters just aren’t interesting enough to care about.  Abrams smartly begins the story with the new characters and then slowly re-introduces us to the familiar characters, and by the time that happens, we are invested in the new along with the old.  Also, it’s worth noting that not all of the old characters are given the same amount of screen time.

Keeping to generalities, the blending of the old and new cast is pretty well done.  Han and Chewie get the most interaction with the new cast and the it’s all pretty seamless.  BB-8 is a fantastic, glorious addition to the droid ensemble of this universe, a genuine highlight.  Driver’s Kylo Ren is an interesting villain that in some ways doesn’t measure up to what is maybe expected from the lead villain in a film this big, but I think it positions him well as a character over the arc of the trilogy.  I’m invested in Boyega as Finn.  I wish there was more Oscar Isaac, but I can always use more Oscar Isaac in anything he’s in.  And Daisy Ridley’s Rey is the cherry on top of the sundae that has been a fantastic year of female roles in 2015.  The action is also expertly done.  The dogfights between X-Wings and Tie-Fighters evoke the best of both the Original Trilogy and the Prequels.  And the lightsaber fights are more grounded in reality and less in special effects jumping around than in the Prequels.  While it was cool to see Yoda jumping around like a whirling dervish, there is none of that here.

The Prequels and several other blockbuster Hollywood releases have numbed a lot of people, myself included, when it comes to buying into the hype surrounding big releases.  They usually don’t live up to it.  Believe the hype with Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  While there is certainly some cheese (which is found in the Original Trilogy as well), there is nothing that made me groan or outright cringe as I did countless times watching the Prequels.  It recreates the sense of awe and wonder and glee at the grand storytelling of the Original Trilogy and establishes a strong foundation for the franchise going forward.  And now we get to see Rian Johnson’s Star Wars in 2017.  After seeing this a few more times, of course.

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Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

 

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