WHEW! 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Actually Works
J.J. Abrams brings the well-worn franchise into modernity with a familiar style.
Mixed feelings I have. Star Wars means a lot to me, as I'm sure it does to you. We go back, Star Wars and I, to the humid summer nights of my childhood in front of the TV. I was always told to stay away from the "idiot box" by my father. But I knew the truth. He watched Murder She Wrote every night. Some of the most thrilling, scary moments of my youth were spent in rapt paralysis watching heroes like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo evade death and emerge in glory on a glowing 27" screen in the darkness of my family room.
I used to have nightmares about the inside of the Jawa Sand Crawler. Sick, dead-eyed droids were prodding me, trying to rip my arms off. It was awesome. Star Wars was that real. Now that I'm older, I know it'll never be that real again. CGI has cheapened science-fiction/fantasy filmmaking. Ironically, by making it more expensive. The newest Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, is a fun new chapter in the franchise. But it's an absolute glossy imitation of the original in almost every way. That turns out to be a good and bad thing.
Credit should be given to co-writer/director J.J. Abrams for playing it safe and giving the fans what they want. He goes overboard in fact. I won't discuss the story at all in this part of the review, but Star Wars scholars will find themselves having déjà vu throughout the movie .
Abrams wrote The Force Awakens' screenplay with Michael Arndt (Catching Fire) and Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back) and the writing dream team went back to the fundamentals of storytelling. The hero's journey is retraced. Exposition, senate hearings, and Jar Jar Binkses are nowhere to be seen. This is a throwback adventure movie straight out of the '70s with CGI sheen. However, some of the first spoken words of the film feel strangely like an inside joke. "This will begin to make things right." Lor San Tekka, a Jedi played by Max Von Sydow, sets the course of the film in motion with this line. In 1977, it was "Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope." As beautiful as the set up is, we've seen it before.
You'll find more inside jokes along the way. Some of Abrams and Co.'s nods to the original film are so knowing, The Force Awakens feels like Spaceballs at times (wait and see how C-3PO appears). The result is a deathly-serious action movie mixed with some out-of-place humor. And it all feels familiar. Another seventh film of a franchise, Creed, did the same thing to greater effect this year, albeit on a lesser scale. It rewrote the Rocky screenplay with smart, updated adjustments and inside humor. In The Force Awakens, the elbow-nudges get heavy-handed. Luckily, the movie is so likable, it doesn't ruin the experience.
The beginning of The Force Awakens sets the tone. After the familiar scroll, a monstrous ship blocks out the moon. This is a well-known film image that references Buñuel and others, but also pays homage to George Lucas' unforgettable opening scene of the franchise that watches an impossibly large Star Destroyer enter the frame and just keep going. That's the idea, to make you feel like you did when you first saw Star Wars, and it works. This is a fan-made movie and Abrams is geek enough to give us all what we want.
Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) all return in The Force Awakens and they're a sight for sore eyes, of course. You'll find other old friends as well. The film is stocked with those tight ancillary characters hipster Star Wars fans love to represent. Some appear for a length of time, and others a brief second. Likewise, the creatures of the film all feel more in line with the original trilogy than much of the stuff in Episodes I-III. You'll also notice Abrams goes out of his way to represent all Earth's nationalities in the film. Character actors like Ken Leung, Iko Uwais, and Emun Elliott all have small roles. This is a very Disney thing to do, but Abrams wanted the movie to reflect society today as well.
The Force Awakens is, like Star Wars, a true adventure story. The hero, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a nobody scraping by in life when fate changes the course of her trajectory. She meets Finn (John Boyega), a former Storm Trooper who's had a crisis of conscience, and BB-8, who possesses something that has far-reaching galactic implications. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) hunts them for it. He's 2015 Vader: masked, cloaked in black and given to fits of violent rage. His crossguarded light saber is the single coolest thing about the film. It crackles and burns red with violent intent, an extension of its master. These new characters all bring the franchise into the present and they succeed because each of these actors does amazing work. Ridley, in particular, is a joy to watch and listen to.
Disney, who paid George Lucas $4 billion for the rights to make Star Wars movies from now until the end of time, will not be disappointed in its investment. It may even get half of it back from this film alone. As for Lucas, who has given much of his Star Wars money away, he must feel relieved the franchise is in capable hands. But I bet the filmmaker in him is yearning to get back on the playing field. I'm sure the The Force Awakens stirred his imagination. It certainly did mine.
The best thing I can say about The Force Awakens is it feels like a real Star Wars movie. But I can say the same thing about Episodes I-III. They're just soulless and melodramatic, lazily-made films. The Force Awakens has more heart, and I give credit to the spirit instilled in it. Abrams and everyone involved has made the past year a real Star Wars experience for fans and every trailer and press release has felt in lock step with Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Consider Episodes I-III thoroughly erased. Let us never speak of them again. There's a new sequel in town.
[The rest of this review will discuss plot and characters more in depth. If you've seen The Force Awakens, read on. Otherwise, you'll have some things spoiled for you.]
The Force Awakens, the seventh Star Wars film and sequel to 1983's Return of the Jedi, begins 30 years after the events of that film. Luke Skywalker has disappeared and so has peace in the galaxy. The Galactic Empire, crushed in Jedi, has reemerged in the form of The First Order. As in the past, they're led by a powerful masked villain who takes orders from a specter who materializes only in hologram. Kylo Ren does the bidding of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), a giant, alien-faced monster who wants the dark side to cover the universe.
Ren leads the First Order's hunt for Skywalker, but only a little droid knows where Luke is. BB-8 belongs to ace rebel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and he's not about to give up. Dameron is captured by Ren and stormtroopers, led by Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), but BB-8 escapes.
Before long, the little droid has hooked up with a scavenger named Rey on the desert planet Jakku. She senses there's something important about the little guy and keeps him around. Meanwhile, a First Order stormtrooper named Finn has a crisis of conscience. He breaks Poe out and joins the rebel alliance. When they crash land on Jakku, Poe disappears, but Finn finds Rey and BB-8 and a new team of heroes is born. With the help of those aforementioned "old friends," the newest rebels emerge as crucial in the war against the First Order and darkness in the galaxy.
The Force Awakens is a rollicking adventure, full of vivid characters, old and new, and a knowing sense of humor that plays heavy-handed at times, but works overall. Finn, for example, leaves the First Order after witnessing an atrocity and committing many (we assume) himself in the past. But he snaps right out of it as soon as that storm trooper armor comes off. There are shades of character development, but they're not fully-formed...yet. Abrams takes narrative shortcuts in The Force Awakens, knowing he can trust his audience to let the story play out. We've been letting it play out for almost 40 years now, what are another few hours?
Abrams does beautiful justice, however, to the characters of Rey and Kylo Ren. The two opposing forces are the grand accomplishments of The Force Awakens and the biggest reasons why Episode VIII (which Rian Johnson is filming now for a 2017 release) is poised to be the best installment of this new chapter of films. Rey is one of the great heroes of 2015 and Ridley proves the perfect actress for Abrams' vision. She's authentic in the same way Hamill was as a young Luke Skywalker on Tatooine. And that's exactly what Abrams is going for. Like Luke before her, Rey embarks on a journey that takes her places she never dreamed of and Ridley brings a toughness and enthusiasm to the journey that's wholly contagious.
On the flip side of the coin is Kylo Ren, a villain who actually has a personality in-between temper tantrums. His humanity makes him unpredictable to a degree, and sympathetic to a lesser one. He carries the symptoms Anakin Skywalker once had: fear, anger, and jealousy. And Driver makes it all visible, whether he's wearing the mask or not. Take solace in the characters of Rey and Kylo Ren because The Force Awakens will not surprise you much along the way. It carries on the franchise's tradition of huge reveals, but you can see them coming if you know Star Wars.
Fans will see this film and see two things: nostalgia and formula. Abrams' story hits some major plot points of Star Wars. You can judge that to be lazy, but it seems an inevitability no matter what. I give him credit for embracing the original film and trying to duplicate it. It made me appreciate the tweaks that much more. BB-8, for example, is beautifully-designed droid that looks just like R2, but is more versatile. He's The Force Awakens in microcosm. Abrams has taken Star Wars, stripped it down and dressed it back up with modern improvements. His movie is shinier and more produced than Star Wars, but it captures that film's spirit and introduces great new characters, which is about the best we can hope for.