REVIEW: Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)

 

Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015): Dir. J.J. Abrams. Written by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt.  Based upon characters created by George Lucas. Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Peter Mayhew. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence. Running time: 135 minutes.

 

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterThe Force Awakens faces the impossible task of both living up to its own hype and measuring up to the legacy of the original trilogy. Star Wars has so enveloped our lives that we don’t register it as a separate realm from our reality. The Star Wars films have transcended what they are, and so this new one must aspire to more than a movie if it is to be satisfying experience.

 

So how do you avoid disappointing people? In this case the filmmakers have opted for a movie that recalls (and even retreads) moments from the original trilogy, while also offering fresh directions for characters both old and new. I think that’s why J.J. Abrams’s film feels less to me like a faithful successor to Star Wars than a well-crafted fan tribute. There’s good and bad from that—good when you utilize the universe to tell unique stories, bad when you wallow in blatant fan service. And for a film that tries so hard to honor the originals, it’s the newer concepts that bode well for the series.

 

The tension between idolatry and novelty informs the plot this time around, with a military junta calling itself the “First Order” standing in for the Empire and the Rebels continuing their mission to restore order in the Galaxy. And just as in A New Hope, we follow a number of young tyros who happen to get wrapped up in the fray: an ex-Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) and self-reliant scrapper named Rey (Daisy Ridley).

 

Boyega and Ridley represent two of those newer elements that work so well; they have no problem fitting in with familiar characters and futuristic settings. Boyega proved he had the pure physical presence to lead a movie in 2011’s Attack the Block (a high recommendation from this reviewer). Here he’s the resident joker, ready with quips both intentional and accidental. He’s got charisma to burn, and his survivalist tendencies are smartly tested by the film’s screenplay.

 

Though as much as I love Boyega here (and other great actors from Harrison Ford to Oscar Isaac), it’s Daisy Ridley who makes the strongest impression. She has ferocity and grit to spare, but she need not sacrifice strength for compassion. By the end of this movie I think I have more faith in her taking down the First Order singlehandedly than the Rebels themselves. She and Boyega have great chemistry together—their love for one another seems to go beyond romantic, hinting at something more fundamental.

 

In addition to its appealing leads, the film looks utterly impressive; not a single cent of its $200 million budget is wasted. I tend to prefer the grungier, lived-in quality of the original trilogy’s production design, but it’s hard to deny the appeal of sleek starships or expressive droid creations. Perhaps the most visually arresting scene is a climactic lightsaber battle in a snowy forest, not once making us think of the silly antics on Endor in Return of the Jedi.

 

And there is some ripe material in our villains this time around. I’m not yet sold on Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis as a giant…Gollum?), but the fact that he’s only represented in hologram form means we may not be getting the whole picture. His lackeys are Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, both youthful acolytes who betray their inexperience and doubt with overcompensating sneers of command. Driver pulls it off, because he always seems to be wrestling between the two sides of the force. Gleeson, on the other hand, plays the General too stiff (as if he’s attempting to channel every prior Imperial commander), but the following films may showcase different shades to his character.

 

As I stated at the beginning of the review, the film is undeniably beholden to its forebears. This wouldn’t bother me so much except that it recycles designs, set-pieces, and plot points intended to evoke the original trilogy. The planet Jakku may as well be named Tatooine for its generic desert setting, and there’s even a trench run of sorts that pales in comparison to the one in A New Hope. You might wonder if the screenwriters were given a quota by Disney executives, to avoid any possibility of referencing the prequels.

 

But it’s easy to get caught up in the thick of the action. J.J. Abrams is perhaps best defined by his frenetic pacing, and there’s something thrilling about watching characters get to know one another as they struggle with learning starship controls or evading death by Lovecraft-inspired Rathtars.

 

Yet I wish the film would have taken some time to breathe. It’s easy to forget how much time A New Hope spends on Tatooine, biding time, building relationships, before jumping to the breathless jailbreak from the first Death Star. A relentless pace means even a major plot point has its emotional impact blunted, even though it should hit us harder than anything that’s come before. We’re also introduced to characters that intrigue but have nothing to do; presumably we’ll see more of them in the sequels.

 

Abrams and his screenwriters find real heart in smaller moments rather than set-pieces, especially between different generations. This sensibility leads to some lovely moments, as Finn tries to help an injured Chewbacca or Rey impresses Han Solo with her starship knowhow. And for all the callbacks, the best moments are the ones you can’t anticipate: a blaster beam frozen by the Force, the camera focusing on a vulnerable face, or the way a hand caresses that face as a firm rebuttal to lethal violence.

 

I might have preferred a different approach to this film than the one taken, though I must admit I’m suitably excited to pick up with these characters in 2017 (especially in Rian Johnson’s hands). The Force Awakens foreshadows some great things on the horizon, even if it’s a bit too eager to please.

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