Directed by: J.J. Abrams || Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk
Screenplay by: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt || Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow
Music by: John Williams || Cinematography: Dan Mindel || Edited by: Mary Jo Markey, Maryann Brandon || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 135 minutes
Star Wars is the biggest movie franchise of all time. That is not an opinion, it is a verified fact. No other blockbuster has come close to replicating the massive, irreversible influence of the definitive space-opera of all time. Unlike westerns, high-concept science-fiction, or even comic book-movies, Star Wars is a multigenerational property — regardless of whatever decade it may, Star Wars will always be a guaranteed box office hit, it will always be in demand, and it will always capture the imaginations of children and the parents who take them to the cinema. Not only is Star Wars invaluable to Hollywood, as well as studios worldwide, it is so beloved and universally appealing to the general populace that its pop culture fandom has achieved a level of religious fervor and respect that few other properties in fiction and popular arts have ever achieved.
Put another way, if you don’t understand or have not seen Star Wars, you don’t understand movies, and you certainly can’t comprehend American pop culture. It’s as simple as that.
Thus, the day The Phantom Menace (1999) was released on May 19th, almost seventeen years ago, as the first part of George Lucas’ long awaited prequel trilogy to the original beloved saga… that was the day when hope died. Never again would any film release be so widely anticipated, nor a bigger disappointment, as the independent Milwaukee film company, Red Letter Media, explained in excruciating detail in their now famous Plinkett-review series.
What The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005) revealed was just how flawed Lucas’ decision-making process had become (or perhaps had always been), and that the franchise was in dire need of fresh blood. Entire Walt Disney and their purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4 billion, and with it the rights to all future Star Wars properties. Right away, Disney made clear their intent to revive the series which Lucas swore had been put to rest nearly seven years prior, and thus Star Wars entered the modern age of megafranchises and shared universes. After all, if Marvel, DC, and Fox’s Alien (1979-2011) franchise had started corporate domination, why on earth should a brand like Star Wars remain on the bench?
While it’s arguable whether The Force Awakens‘ hype rivaled that of the rabid anticipation of The Phantom Menace back in the day — how quickly we forget, no? — the Force was indeed awakened in general audiences’ thirst for more Star Wars, specifically good Star Wars. Massive excitement was tempered by vague doubt and fearful reminders of the dashed hopes of Lucas’ Prequel trilogy, a trilogy which had turned the term “prequel” into a dirty word. As trailer after cryptic trailer shot across the Internet, fans were fed promises of a return to form for the space-opera franchise, a return to the gritty, grimy, “used future” feel of the Original Trilogy with practical FX and on-location photography, and most of all, an encouragement to look forward to the future of Star Wars, not the past. Not only were original castmembers Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill returning, but a new generation of younger stars would emerge to whom they could pass the torch.
As Lupita Nyong’o’s character, Maz Kanata, assured in the trailers and the movie itself, “Dear child… the belonging you seek is not behind you, it is ahead!”
Before I stall further in this review, let me assure readers that The Force Awakens is the film we have been waiting for. It is the first good Star Wars movie in over thirty years, or as I would prefer to put it, the first true Star Wars film in decades. It’s far from a perfect movie and it doesn’t come close to touching this year’s best films, but that’s beside the point. Fans have long deified this franchise as some innovative, groundbreaking story that is untouchable by most films ever made. While the first Star Wars (1977) is indeed a near perfect blockbuster, and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is one of the better films ever produced, the series’ formula is in fact one of the most basic storytelling techniques known to man. What Star Wars is, are fun, well executed space adventures with likable characters and universal humanist themes. It’s basically a modern update of classical Flash Gordon serials (circa 1930’s-1940’s).
As such, the primary goals of this
seventh fourth Star Wars film were to recapture that original feeling of adventure and relatability the OT possessed and the Prequels forsook, as well as pass on the thematic generational torch from older characters to the new. That’s it. JJ Abrams, Lawrence Kadan, and producer Kathleen Kennedy have achieved that goal with flying colors.
The Force Awakens is structured such that it plays like a swan song tribute to the OT while simultaneously introducing a younger generation of heroes who are familiar with “stories about what happened…” but have much to learn about the Force. This film is as much about older fans introducing the magic of Star Wars to newer fans as it is another fun space-adventure. There was no way this film could not be self-reflexive and self-aware even if it wanted to — but the difference is that this time around, the powers that be were able to acknowledge the franchise’s cultural baggage without forgetting to make a good movie.
TFA is composed of three layers, or flavors: The novelty and call to adventure of the original 1977 Star Wars, the familial drama and emotional highs and lows of The Empire Strikes Back, and the spectacular climax and totally unnecessary superweapon plot device of Return of the Jedi (1983). Much criticism has addressed these similarities to the OT, with accusations of limited creativity and overly safe screenwriting thrown freely amidst the euphoria of the masses who actually get the message. Must I remind people of the previous three films, which were as different from the OT as possible? I must reiterate that we SW fans want films in the same style as the OT, which TFA is, and that TFA also completes the critical task of crossing thirty-plus years of actual and canonical history.
If you really want a “different type of Star Wars,” go watch the Prequels. The creator of Star Wars himself swears by them.
In any case, TFA is yet another entertaining, thematically deep space-adventure with likable, deep characters. It is therefore a screaming success for the franchise and for fans worldwide. It nails the basics of monomythic storytelling and achieves the raw, used aesthetic of Star Wars‘ science-fantasy tone. What is there to complain about?
That’s not to say everything in this film is flawless — I’m merely pointing out the convenient truth that we need not fret about its flaws. TFA is so breathlessly paced and covers so much narrative history that the story sometimes forgets to pause at opportune moments; Captain Phasma (Game of Thrones‘ [2011-present] Gwendoline Christie) is little more than a joke of a glorified cameo; the Starkiller Base (a.k.a. Death Star 3.0) is a totally impotent and forgettable doomsday weapon. There, those are the bad parts of this movie.
Moving on… [spoilers follow, it’s been weeks since the release, already…]
As per what the film gets so damned right, TFA is so action-packed and looks so good that it achieves a new benchmark for balanced special FX. Abrams and company did indeed make good on their promise to emphasize the physicality of practical FX, and the end results are glorious. Creature models, alien costumes, and props look amazing and meld perfectly with great location-shooting. The CGI that is used is done appropriately and puts every blue-screen “magic” of George’s Prequel implosion to shame. This is the best-looking film in the series.
More importantly, TFA introduces fun, likable, and relatable new characters and melds them effectively with the older castmembers. John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver are standouts as Finn, a renegade Stormtrooper, Rey, a mysterious orphan and scavenger, and Kylo Ren, son of Han Solo and
Princess General Leia and enforcer of The First Order (a remnant of the evil Empire). Each of these characters are not only well written and multilayered, but they are all different from one another. Every audience member will be able to relate to one or more of these new players, and that speaks once more to the universality of Star Wars‘ appeal.
Boyega’s Finn speaks to the haunted survivor in each of us. He witnesses horrible things as part of The First Order, and musters enough strength to cut his losses and save himself. Initially, he is not one for wars and heroic deeds, as are few of us. Ridley’s Rey represents our lonesome, curious selves, abandoned on a desert planet of longing and emptiness. She longs for a family and the belonging of which Maz Kanata speaks, to explore the world with people she loves. Finally, Driver’s Kylo Ren is a vicious, unwieldy force of youthful rage and angst, the darkest element of humanity’s uncontrollable wrath. He is simultaneously powerful and weak, intimidating yet cowardly, an experienced commander and also a petulant boy. He is everything we did NOT get in Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker!
First of all, notice how similar these characters are to the universal archetypes critical to Star Wars‘ success, how relatable they all are in some way. Then notice how explicitly I was able to describe their characters with few references to anything within the Star Wars universe. That’s how you write characters.
Han Solo is a major player in this film, much more so than he was in Return of the Jedi for that matter. This is not the forgettable, borderline embarrassing return of an iconic character that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was. It’s a true return to form for Harrison Ford, so much so that he seems like he actually gives a shit. His death scene is well staged and a true punch to the gut, a tragic yet proper sendoff for one of the most widely recognized characters in cinema.
Other characters like Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke, and fellow returning players Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, and Kenny Baker (R2-D2) aren’t too prevalent but serve their parts in the story. BB-8 is perhaps the cutest robot ever invented. Captain Phasma is a non-factor, as I mentioned, and Domhnall Gleeson does a great Space-Nazi as General Hux. I think that’s about everybody…
What else is there to say? The Force Awakens is not a perfect movie or a perfect blockbuster, but it is a very, very good blockbuster movie. Essentially, it represents everything Lawrence Kasdan wanted to do in Return of the Jedi, but couldn’t because of ole Jorge. As such, and under the watchful eyes of fresh blood (Abrams and Disney), it’s dare I say, a step or two above that final OT film. It’s everything I hoped it would be.
This is not the Star Wars movie we deserved, but it is the Star Wars movie we needed. It looks and feels like a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; it has that rawness to it, that aged futuristic feel. And most importantly, it gives us new heroes that are fun, likable, and feel like real people. It even brings back old characters to pass this thematic torch from the previous generation to the new. J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, and Lawrence Kasdan have done it. They’ve brought us an action-packed space-opera with energy, emotion, and drama.
The Force is strong with this one.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Abrams successfully recalls Star Wars‘ used-future aesthetic and executes awesome, powerful, raw action-scenes. Within these perilous battles are characters we care about and in which we see ourselves. Ridley, Boyega, and Driver are stars in the making, and Ford helps show them how to be. The story is bursting with thematic potency. Intelligent, creative expansions to the series’ source material show how Star Wars is still reinventing itself after all these years; awesome concepts like a riot control Stormtrooper, a non-Jedi wielding a lightsaber, and Force-freezing laser bolts are all just… well, really cool! And new!
— However… The Force Awakens is, at times, almost too brisk and action-packed. Several supporting characters could have been jettisoned altogether, as could the entire Starkiller Base subplot. John Williams’ score is surprisingly subdued and standard-issue.
—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
? So would people agree they made a Star Wars movie about as good as JJ Abrams’ Star Trek (2009)? Haha! 😛