For thirty-eight years Star Wars has captivated the collective imagination of audiences of all ages. It has continued to reel film patrons in droves with its promise of awe-inspiring entertainment and sheer cinematic spectacle. For viewers around the world it represents a bridge to the various joys of youth. It is widely seen as proof of how cinema can represent a time, a place, namely innocence, that one can travel to with repeat viewings. Director J.J. Abrams knows this. His own personal admiration for the franchise pulsates through every breathlessly exhilarating frame of the seventh episode in this succession, captioned The Force Awakens, and its endlessly engaging one hundred and thirty-six minutes. The result is a new chapter of the on-going account that showcases the series as better, faster, smarter and stronger than it has been in well over three decades.
After the lumbering disappointment of 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, 2002’s Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones and 2005’s lukewarm Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith co-writer Abrams, along with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, tap into the visually extravagant delight which helped make the original trilogy (1977’s A New Hope, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return of the Jedi) so beloved. Harrison Ford again conveys the famed role of Han Solo. Carrie Fisher comes back as Princess Leia. Mark Hamill is seen, briefly but triumphantly, as Luke Skywalker. These characteristics, after a thirty-two year absence, is enough to have fans crying out in ecstatic fulfillment. The performances by these seasoned veterans, especially Ford with his continuous assortment of amusing quips, are stalwart. None of these individuals have lost an ounce of their charisma. When other long established favorites from these past works fill the screen the merriment they instill within viewers is all the more palpable. This movie is a true crowd-pleaser in every sense of the word.
The Force Awakens could’ve made a box-office killing on the strength of these aforementioned attributes alone. Seeing these original players return to their iconic roles after so long, and in a new tale, could’ve proven enough to leave many audience members amply satisfied. This could’ve easily become an excuse to give us shoddy filmmaking. Yet, Abrams, who stylistically evokes George Lucas here like the Star Trek: Into Darkness director did with Steven Spielberg in 2011’s brilliant Super 8, provides a composition that taps into the original trilogy’s spirit with gusto.
It does this so well it’s easy to forget how much time has passed since we last caught up with these rag tag band of pop culture adored heroes. What also seems just as forgotten: the whole feature consistently captures the stand up and cheer spirit many Hollywood blockbusters seemed to have mostly forgotten along the way. There is no cynicism here. This is especially welcome as it slowly has become the case with many big-budget productions. Instead we are given escapist entertainment in its purest form.
Daniel Mindel’s vibrant cinematography impeccably imitates the veneer of the original trilogy. The screenplay from Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt has appropriate emphasis on characterization. Despite this, it never loses its urgency or, most importantly, its sense of fun. Much in line with the previous films in the Star Wars canon: the dialogue shifts between high emotion and tongue in cheek effortlessly. All of this is on par with the samurai films it was initially inspired by. The trademark transitions from scene to scene, which also mirror this factor, seem just as fresh as ever. To be fair, some of these conversions are a little too quick. Still, it doesn’t take much away from the overall quality.
Furthermore, Abrams’ production incorporates many new variations on certain familial angles. They are shared by different representatives of the story. Still, these attributes remain close to the general arc of the original trilogy. It is another sly wink at the audience. This works to keep a sense of intimacy to the proceedings. Even with this continued emphasis the effort never loses its warp speed pace. There is never a single dull moment.
This is true even in sequences that appear re-fashioned. For instance, Abrams’ is visibly inspired by the cantina sequence from A New Hope. This becomes clear in a segment situated in the first half of the endeavor. This particular moment seems like an innovative update on the legendary bit. Still, the results still play like fanboy admiration. It’s smirk-inducing, well-done and it dazzles us even in its most familiar instances. The many nods to episodes IV-VI come off as fresh and ardent. Moreover, it is an example of successful risk-taking. It is one that plays into the modern format of remaking, rebooting and sending up in a way that seems like an extension of the events it is mirroring. Still, it never feels excessive or unnecessary. Most importantly, it fits within the narrative structure. Abrams finds that rare note throughout where these turns feel natural. Moreover, they are ceaselessly in tune with what is occurring. The Force Awakens often comes off as a spectacularly charming love letter to the entries in the franchise before it.
Newcomer Daisy Ridley is handed one of the main roles. This is of the enigmatic scavenger, Rey. She is terrific; always watchable and commanding in her portrayal. Despite this, her character is hindered somewhat by a backstory which is modeled a bit too closely to Han Solo. Oscar Isaac, as Poe Dameron, fits into the shoes of his dashingly heroic pilot protagonist well. John Boyega provides a pensive, quiet intensity to Finn. He has great, palpable chemistry in the many scenes involving Rey. Rolling droid BB-8, who owes more than a little bit to R2-D2, is certainly likable. It is given many humorous bits, in a script that embodies many successful jokes, which correlate well for the overall enjoyment of the piece. This is true even if BB-8 can never quite get out of the immortal shadow cast by its obvious inspiration.
The Force Awakens fails most evidently in its presentation of new villains. The anti-heroes met in the narrative are all largely underwhelming. Moreover, they’re too similar to what we’ve been handed in this category beforehand. The series’ first female foe, Captain Phasma, Gwendoline Christie in a generic and practically indecipherable from the crowd role, is woefully underused. What is worse: her persona proves to be quite the pushover. Supreme Leader Snoke personifies the weakest effects in the film. Still, the character is given a sense of real menace by Andy Serkis’ transformative work as this brute. The result is that this antagonist remains enigmatic throughout. This is all in the movie’s favor. Kylo Ren, Adam Driver in perhaps the worst enactment in the exertion, turns out to be a whiny, temper tantrum pulling imitation of Darth Vader. The best of the baddies this time around are the classic stormtroopers. They are as nefarious and cool as ever. This endures even when used as a pawn for comedic relief. Such is the case in the one segment in the picture that does not work at all. This quality is heightened when they are seen in large armies. Such frequent shots are endlessly ravishing.
Abrams’ feature takes place over three decades after the events of Return of the Jedi. It concerns The New Order, who call to mind The Third Reich in one spectacularly done sequence, and their attempts to take over the galaxy. This is after the failure of The Galactic Empire. Rey, Finn, Dameron, BB-8 and the valiant conquerors from the original trilogy battle this new hazard. All the while they are attempting to locate Luke Skywalker. He has been missing for some time.
The action scenes, as well as John Williams’ masterful score and Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s editing, are sweepingly orchestrated and gripping. It seems precious few minutes go by before the audience is swept up in another one of its numerous jaw-dropping battles or near escapes. This is a testament to the balancing act the flick creates. It amazes us with its flashy exhibitions. Regardless, it never loses sight of the true heart here. This is, as in any truly great cinematic experience, the leads’ personal motivations.
True to tradition, the light saber duels remain the most pulse-pounding instances in the feature. Yet, the various threat-posing creatures are uniquely their own in personality and fabrication. Also, the excitement of the many distinctive and lushly designed planets explored throughout the runtime keep a sense of exhilaration and adventure at the forefront. The always rousing scenes of The Millennium Falcon speeding through the cosmos, a staple in this series, proves just as much of an adrenaline rush as the previously stated elements. These sequences are all tremendously staged and realized. It issues such a heightened sense of old-fashioned exploration that we are able to look past the occasional impression that we’ve seen much of it in one form or another before. The emphasis on largely exceptional practical effects, not the horrendous computer generated imagery which plagued the prequels, makes these flaws even more marginal in comparison.
Sadly, there are several moments which seem a bit too convenient. These come off as if simply meant to get the plot where it is inevitably headed. One example comes from R2-D2. The character is utilized here precisely when the story deems it absolutely necessary. This is done in a way that is predictable once a certain bit of information hits our ears concerning the droid. It’s as if the writers couldn’t formulate any surprising way of getting plot-point A to B. Because of this they went with the most obvious, predictable chain of events.
Moreover, the chronicle itself is generally thin and transparent. Furthermore, the whole affair could’ve easily been trimmed down to around two hours even without losing any of its impact. Despite these nitpickings, one third act event had my mind in complete disbelief as to what was taking place. This bold turn made me easily forgive these lesser components. To its further credit, it all leads to a galvanizing finale. It will have you counting down the minutes until you can see the next installment. This should create plenty of discussion for what may arise in Episodes VIII and IX.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fantastic motion picture. It is an absolute pleasure to sit through from start to finish. Abrams’ continuation of this saga that takes place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” adds to the mythology well. It may provide far more questions than it actually answers. Still, as the first of a new three act story it engages us remarkably. It may not prove to be as inventive as the trilogy which started it all. This is made all the more noticeable with its constant reliance on allusions to A New Hope. Still, The Force Awakens remains one of the best movies of the year. It is proof that Hollywood still knows how to astonish and, simultaneously, make us feel like a kid again without falling back on heavy juvenility to sell this sensation. If that isn’t reason enough to get you to see this wonderful work in its theatrical run the dark side might’ve already taken hold of you.