Note: I’ve tried to make this review as spoiler free as possible. That said, one person’s reaction is another person’s spoiler. I can’t make this 100% devoid of spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.
Star Wars – The Force Awakens is directed by J.J. Abrams, and it is the first new Star Wars film in 10 years. Easily the most anticipated movie of the year, The Force Awakens could have been the biggest disappointment since, well, The Phantom Menace. Thankfully, this is not the case.
This part is unavoidable, but it must be mentioned. Hearing John Williams’ now iconic score accompanying a new title crawl is chill-inducing. Anticipation mounts to astronomical levels, regardless of the amount you had going in.
However, this aspect is not new material, per se. “How is the film?” I hear you asking. I will say this: If it is viewed solely as an homage, it is a purely enjoyable experience.
Indeed, the film sets itself up as a rehash of the 1977 original. Characters are archetypes of those that came before (who were, in turn, archetypes of classic Hollywood cinema). Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is set up initially as a Han Solo type with his witty banter and roguish attitude. Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) jointly embody the inherent heroism of Luke Skywalker. Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) character is initially a Darth Vader knockoff, and he is labeled as such in the film’s diegesis.
The narrative itself, without divulging spoilerific plot points, follows Episode IV‘s lead as well. It begins with a very important droid (sound familiar?) carrying a very important message (sound familiar?). There is still an oppressor-rebellion dynamic involved, only the names have been changed from Empire to First Order and Rebellion to Resistance.
This all said, The Force Awakens is taking the safe approach to a Star Wars reboot, and it does it effectively. Gone are Galactic Senate politics and midichlorians. Back are classic (and even more overt) fascist undertones and good ol’ dogfights in space that don’t overexert themselves by literally throwing in the kitchen sink.
Let me unpack this for clarity’s sake. The Force Awakens is a quality film. Cinematography of a new era mixed with classic model-based effects and less “green-screeny” CG makes for an immersive visual experience.
Still, the film lacks new direction or originality, and this is to be expected. Abrams would have been crucified for making even a slight lateral move away from the original trilogy’s trajectory. So, he created a copycat with a mix of old and new faces.
What results is a spectacle with less substance and more flair, but, in a way, flair is all that can be hoped for. Anything else would be blasphemy or an unintentional parody.
I don’t say this to demean this movie, because, where it works, it really works.
I can go deeper–only a little–without divulging spoilers.
The acting, for a Star Wars film, is acceptable (the bar has never been high in this regard). Essentially new faces to the screen Ridley and Boyega do not shy away from the massive undertaking they are involved in. It is believable, and enjoyable, to see them take up the mantle left behind by the likes of Hamill and Fisher.
The characters in the film, beyond being archetypes, work well as a group. We get a de facto team similar to the original trilogy that mixes old and new, and it all seems to work. What I don’t like is that certain characters connect in ways that happen too fast with little motivation (being intentionally vague here for the sake of non-spoilers). Once they are connected, there is also an emotional connection to the audience that is established, but the road to that point is rushed.
Kylo Ren, the main villain of the trilogy, is a major force in this film. Will he live up to the Vader legacy? The simple answer is: Perhaps. His character has depth enough that it could flesh out into a great character. The emotion in him is raw and untapped until late in the film, and clearly it is being set up for more in future films.
The secondary villain identity, Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux, is the weakest character in the film. Gleeson, an actor I generally enjoy, is over-emphatic as the dictatorial First Order leader. His character, in my mind, is largely unnecessary, which heightens his one-note personality. Perhaps he will expand to something greater in future films, but, as far as I’m concerned, he’s no Grand Moff Tarkin.
The real performance of this film, surprisingly, comes from an old hat. This movie is like Harrison Ford’s swan song. He has returned to the character that made him famous, and he slips back into that jacket and blaster as if he never left. It is a wonderful performance from Ford that could have been phoned in but simply wasn’t.
The humor is certainly something that merits a mention. There is a lot of it. This is almost never a bad thing, as most of the humor works and feels reminiscent of Han Solo quips of old. But, at a point, it gets to be a bit much, with essentially every character getting their humorous jabs in.
I will say this about the humor, though, it mixes fan service and average moviegoer service well. This is to say, the humor is about 50/50 in terms of what is inside the Star Wars mythos and what is available for any moviegoer to laugh at.
What I can commend the film the most for is the fact that it does not force plot points. Certain reveals are not overly-prolonged or sentimentalized. They are simply presented as facts, which makes sense, because they are simple facts of the universe these characters live in.
Similar plot points, such as the interactions of old characters in this new world, is certainly not forced or sentimentalized. For the most part, these actors return to their roles in a way that is handled with deft scripting so as to not allow the moments to overshadow the film itself. It is easy to believe that these characters have continued existing in this universe, and now we are just dropping back in on their lives. This effect is possible due to careful attention placed on where these characters show up in the plot of this film.
Here is the bottom line, the sheer sea-level bottom line: this film satisfies. Fans should be happy. Non-fans should enjoy the spectacle alone. Abrams took the safest path from A to B to create something that is universally palatable. That might sound like the coward’s way out, but for the weight on his shoulders this is the best output anyone could have hoped to expect. Just don’t go in expecting a neo-classic destined to re-invent cinema.
A final word: I’m looking forward to seeing this film again.
Guys, you probably aren’t even reading this article anymore considering its length. But, if you still are, let me know what you think/expect from the new Star Wars film/franchise. So much is revolving around this new batch of sequels, and I want to know what you think. Let me know in the comments!
The Force Awakens is available to buy on Amazon Video here.
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)