Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac, Mark Hamill, Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o
Ten years after George Lucas concluded his mostly disappointing prequel trilogy with Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, a previously unthinkable scenario has come to pass. A brand new Star Wars movie is about to hit theatres with no involvement from its visionary creator. On the one hand, it feels like a miracle that a beloved franchise with so much remaining potential has been finally set free, but on the other hand, can a Star Wars movie from the mind of anyone other than George Lucas still be considered a Star Wars movie?
J.J. Abrams has already revitalized one major sci-fi franchise with Star Trek, and although fans are divided over the results, his approach here is different. He did not need to chart a new course and expand the Star Wars audience, only reconnect with existing fans. He definitely succeeds on that front with the unfortunate side effect being that the plot of The Force Awakens actually feels a little too familiar at points. Nevertheless, the movie is a great mix of old and new and it is sure to tug at the heartstrings of longtime fans.
The events of Star Wars: The Force Awakens take place approximately 30 years after Return of the Jedi with the Rebel victory over the Empire slowly giving way to a new threat from another group known as the First Order, who are essentially picking up where the Empire left off. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia have faded from public view and have become near-mythic figures. When Kylo Ren, the leader of The First Order, captures one of the Resistance’s finest pilots, he seeks information about the location of one of these long lost Rebel heroes. Little does he know, there are other heroes ready to step up, some possibly within his own midst.
While it does feel a little bit ridiculous to have everything the Rebels worked for in the previous trilogy discarded immediately, we buy into this new scenario because we want to. We saw with the prequels that galactic politics and trade disputes are not the most scintillating material for a space opera, so getting back to a simple good vs. evil struggle is instantly compelling. There seems to have been a concerted effort to avoid exposition here, which is actually a great thing. As with A New Hope, we are asked to fill in some of the blanks ourselves, while the story moves at a fast enough pace that the details become largely irrelevant.
The new characters in particular are light on back story but it keeps them unpredictable and allows us to bond with them strictly based on the things they say and do in the movie. It may come as a surprise to some that Rey is the lead of the new trilogy and but it’s a great choice and newcomer Daisy Ridley’s performance anchors the entire film. She feels like she belongs in this universe from the first second she appears on screen, managing to embody both the regal confidence of Leia and the working class naivete of Luke Skywalker. John Boyega is also great as Finn, bringing a sense of excitement and fun that can only come from an actor who is genuinely thrilled to be in a Star Wars movie. He is able to move between comedy and drama effortlessly and the two play off each other quite well.
Oscar Isaac too is completely charming as the pilot Poe Dameron (who we learn almost nothing about) and the droid BB-8 is an instant fan favourite with a personality all his own. Adam Driver as Kylo Ren is mostly solid, although there are a few comedic moments that seems to undermine him as a villain slightly. There is a sense that he is just a spoiled brat, although I’m not sure if that is intentional or not. Domhnall Gleeson makes an ideal Grand Moff-type character, while Gwendoline Christie does what she can with Captain Phasma even though it is ultimately a pretty minor role.
While we were all excited to see the old cast members return, there was always a question of whether or not they would still have it. Fortunately, they do slip back into these old roles quite easily and the writing supports them every step of the way. Han Solo and Chewie, Han Solo and Leia, even C3PO and R2-D2… the chemistry is still there and the feeling of reuniting with old friends is palpable. Some members of the original cast are more involved than you might expect and some a little less, but overall the movie seems to strike the right balance of screen time between familiar faces and new ones.
Most of today’s blockbusters seem to be measured by the scale of the effects and the impressiveness of the action sequences and, make no mistake, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is packed with plenty of exhilarating large scale battles. But unlike a lot of recent blockbusters, it does not feel like an empty shell. This movie delivers on smaller character moments, comedy and a sense of adventure as well. The big set pieces are not necessarily what I will remember from it, which speaks volumes.
There has been a lot of emphasis on the use of practical effects in the movie’s marketing, but don’t be fooled, there is still plenty of CG in the film as well. The choice to use CG characters in a few specific instances seems a bit odd, especially when there is no obvious reason for it (ie. the same thing could be accomplished with make-up), but the use of physical sets definitely marks a huge improvement over the prequels when it comes to believing what we see on screen. As always, John Williams’ score and the impeccable sound design are absolutely crucial to recreating the feel of the original trilogy.
All of this being said, the biggest problem with this movie is that it tries so hard to recreate the original films that it doesn’t entirely become its own thing. George Lucas has always used the excuse that the repetition throughout the series is like stanzas in a poem, but this time around it does feel a little derivative. Also I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that some significant plot threads remain unresolved and will carry over into the next film. Cynics will want to label this an unfortunate result of the “cinematic universe” trend but to be fair, the original trilogy had its share of cliffhangers as well.
There are also a handful of convenient coincidences and minor lapses in logic and at least one major plot point that is sure to divide fans, but in the grand scheme of things, I think it’s safe to say that this is indeed the Star Wars sequel you’re looking for. Whether or not it will capture the imagination of a new generation in the same way that A New Hope did back in 1977 remains to be seen, but J.J. Abrams has managed to right the ship. Now it’s up to Disney and their chosen creative team to allow the new cast to start carving out their own path and ensure that they too eventually become the stuff of legends. — Sean