Title: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Director: J.J. Abrams
Writers: Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams, Michael Arndt (based on Star Wars by George Lucas)
Distributed By: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Peter Mayhew, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Max von Sydow, Andy Serkis, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Mark Hamill
Release Date: December 18, 2015
While the world has never REALLY been without Star Wars since its release in 1977, through various video games, comic books, novels, TV shows, etc it’s truly the big blockbuster theatrical releases that always cause so much excitement. And while there have been a few video games and a couple animated entries in the Star Wars franchise since the last film, it’s been 10 years since the last live-action entry in the Star Wars Saga (Revenge of the Sith) and 32 years since the release of Return of the Jedi (which this film serves as a direct sequel to). With the reaction to the Prequel Trilogy a mixed bag (heavily leaning toward the negative) to say the very least, the need for this sequel to be well-received was high. As a continuation of two trilogies, one almost universally praised and the other, well… not so much, let’s delve into in and see if the force is strong with this one.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first and foremost. There’s been a bit of talk that The Force Awakens is a complete rehash/remake of A New Hope. Those making such claims are mind-bogglingly mistaken. While the movie does retool certain scenes from A New Hope, it’s primarily only concerned with the set-up of the scenes, not explicitly how they play out. Certain story beats get revisited, but they’re handled very differently each time, with enough differences in character views, emotional and thematic elements, and so on that they are fresh enough to be enjoyed as a mirror of previous elements of the mythology. Because that’s what this is: a mythology. And mythologies often work in cycles, with past deeds repeating themselves, and heroes learning from the tales of long ago.
It does borrow from A New Hope, but basically in the same way The Phantom Menace utilized plot elements from A New Hope, and does so in order to establish a stronger connection with the Original Trilogy.
From the very outset, this feels fresh and new, as a mysterious man played by Max Von Sydow, bringing an always appreciated air of gravitas to the production, meets with a soldier named Poe (Oscar Isaac) and just as quickly as we’re introduced to our first characters, the villains arrive on the scene and all hell breaks loose. The camera tries to stay close on the action and the audience is pulled into the story as they realize that all bets are off and anybody can die at any moment, not just faceless soldiers, as the case has been for most (not all) of the previous films. This opening action scene is incredibly intense and sets up how the later action scenes will play out. The focal point of the action centering in on both sides of the conflict and the level of intensity and audience immersion increasing with each confrontation. After the initial action, the story slows down a bit to introduce the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper who was kidnapped and forced to be a soldier that decides to escape a life of war.
Finn is honestly an amazing character, and Boyega practically steals the scene every time he’s on screen. He’s a great character because he’s not really a soldier, or pilot, or leader, or Jedi, or smuggler, or any generic character-type. He WAS a trooper that had been brainwashed to be personality-less drone. This is basically his first day as a person. He’s a blank slate. So he’s us. He’s the audience. He’s what it would be like if someone who has NEVER interacted with the Star Wars setting was just plopped into it one day. And he’s just trying to get by, and survive, and eventually do what he thinks is right.
We get a small taste of Poe in the opening scenes, but even that is enough to know him. He’s quickly established through his interactions with the other characters as this smart, confident, charming sarcastic, hero in the vein of swashbuckling do-gooders of yore. He’s Robin Hood… in space. It’s excellent performances going off of excellent writing that can present all of this strong characterization in very short order. This leads me to my next point of praise: The script!
The script is outstanding, from strong characterization to the snappy, energetic dialogue that’s dramatic when it needs to be and short when it should be and never gets bogged down in gobs of exposition. This script was co-written by Lawrence Kasdan who co-wrote the Original Trilogy films The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and it shows in every scene. It brings in just enough of that old-timey Flash Gordon Saturday Matinee feel that George Lucas was originally trying to create, balanced out by simply damn good writing. Old characters are as we remember them: Leia is strong and driven while Han is rough yet devil-may-care and utterly sincere when he needs to be. Seeing Leia and Han still antagonistic towards each other but now for all new reasons; the palpable awkward distance between them and it slowly closing visually and metaphorically is a heart-tugging scene. New characters are unique unto themselves and are enough of their own person that they don’t recycle character archetypes and tropes.
While on the topic of avoiding archetypes and tropes, now would be a good time to talk about our leading character: Rey (Daisy Ridley). Through Rey’s introduction as essentially an orphan eking out an existence on her own, the audience is made instantly aware of her loneliness through camera angles framing her in empty expanses, growing ever larger as she’s engulfed by her surroundings. John Williams’ musical score presents a feeling of wonder and longing, tinged with a hint of despair, much in the same way his “Binary Sunset” theme did for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. This connects us to the previous hero while establishing her as more than just a repeat. And it’s here that we see Rey is an ACTUAL character, with dimension and depth. She’s not one of those few repetitive generic female characters we’ve seen regurgitated again and again in so many stories that can’t write female characters. She’s not a “hardcore bitch” or “ice queen” or “distressed damsel” or “girlfriend”. She’s her own person and not a one-dimensional trope.
Another important character is BB-8, the cutest droid since Wall-E. Droids have always been a fun and important part of the Star Wars Saga, with C3PO and R2-D2 both serving as comedy relief and plot devices throughout the series. Much like the older Original Trilogy characters taking a backseat to our new main characters, 3PO and R2 are in this movie, but take backseats to the new star BB-8. Every bit as charming and adorable as R2, if not moreso, BB-8 provides lighter moments of warmth in a fairly intense story.
The standout character of the film though is the villain, Kylo Ren. We get to see that he’s untrained and unsure of himself. He’s certainly more unhinged and unstable than any Sith we’ve seen in Star Wars ever before. We get to see His struggle with the dark side, and his temper. Seeing him throw a tantrum and slashing away at things around him harkens back to what I had wished to see from Anakin Skywalker in the Prequel Trilogy. And seeing others around him react to his emotional instability offers one of the best moments of the film. One scene late into the film, shows Kylo Ren at his most conflicted, and it’s here that the visual storytelling is quite remarkable. The lighting of the setting is such that he is bathed half in blue light and half in red. And as he slips closer and closer toward the dark side, the blues fade from sight as he’s consumed entirely by red. It’s fantastic!
The music is far more subdued in this film than any other Star Wars film, I feel. Not as bombastic and horn-driven as the Original Trilogy, nor is it as operatic and chorally inclined as the Prequel Trilogy, resting somewhere in between, with plenty of returning leitmotifs that help create a connecting through-line for all of the movies thus far. It’s less repetitive, yet also less adventurous than his previous works. But I think with repeat listening, one will find it to be one of his more technically impressive scores right up there with his music for Dracula and Munich, with more subtlety than one might expect.
Not everything is so practically perfect however, and the movie does falter in a few areas. As previously noted, the movie does pull from A New Hope, and while some revisiting is a warm welcome, sometimes the overt familiarity overstays its welcome. Another problem the movie suffers from, not often but often enough, is a lack of exposition with certain plot points going unexplained and minor plot holes left unquestioned. Though, to be fair, this could be an overt attempt to avoid the backlash over how exposition-heavy the Prequel Trilogy was, with long bouts of characters simply sitting around and explaining the plot to the audience rather than just getting on with it. But still, each film, though part of a series, feels very self-contained in their own way, while this film does not. With certain questions needing to be answered and a bigger cliffhanger ending than The Empire Strikes Back, this movie doesn’t quite feel as whole as it should.
With all that said, the film is still quite wonderful, though not perfect. Much in the same way that The Phantom Menace borrowed from A New Hope, to start the second trilogy, The Force Awakens also borrows from A New Hope to start this trilogy. Some mirroring is good, and makes for excellent homage, but revisit plot elements entirely enough times and the parallels stop being a positive element and begin to hinder the movie from truly having a life of its own. And I’ve done the math; only about a third of the movie utilizes elements of the previous movies and the rest of the original elements from the film are excellent. Also, the revisited moments were presented in unique and undeniably new ways, and were never so completely familiar that it detracted from the overall experience in any huge way.
Whereas the Prequel Trilogy got fans hopes up and generally failed to deliver on the overall experience, this new entry lives up to the standards set by the Original Trilogy and is every bit as good as they are. I’d give it an 8/10.