'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'
I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but there’s a ‘Star Wars’ movie opening this weekend. A new one too. Not a Special Edition. Not even a prequel. In fact, George Lucas isn’t involved for reasons that even he understands. It’s called ‘The Force Awakens’. You might have heard about it, briefly. Out of professional obligation, I agreed to attend it. After the endurance trials of Episodes I-III… well, I fell in love with ‘Star Wars’ again.
‘The Force Awakens’ is not a perfect movie, but it’s a hell of a table-setter for this new trilogy designed to please the crowds who have been frothing at the mouth ever since the first trailer dropped. It works. ‘Star Wars’ feels fun again. Pre-sold theaters should be filled with applause and tears this weekend, with little to no regretful ‘Phantom Menace’ hangovers.
So… plot summary… Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle. After years of relative silence, there’s a disturbance in the Force. An evil imperial force called The First Order is causing a ruckus with stormtroopers and TIE fighters. General Leia (Carrie Fisher) hopes to track down Luke Skywalker to help her cause. She sends her best Starfighter, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), to retrieve secret files with Luke’s whereabouts. Things go wrong. A new Vader-esque baddie named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is out to stop the Resistance. Young stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) goes rogue. A mysterious young girl named Rey (Daisy Ridley) on a desert planet might prove helpful. Cute droid BB-8 is caught in the middle. That’s all I’ll say. It covers little more than the iconic title crawl. Obviously, much more happens, all paced and scored (John Williams, up to his old tricks in fine fashion) for maximum entertainment value.
The biggest pleasure walking out of ‘The Force Awakens’ is the sigh of relief that comes from knowing that the movie works. It’s clear that J.J. Abrams was indeed the guy to make ‘Episode VII’. First and foremost, he has the ‘Star Wars’ geek bona fides. He adores this world and Lucas’ classic trilogy. The film is filled with fan service, but not in a pandering way. It’s the product of a genuine ‘Star Wars’ fan making a ‘Star Wars’ movie, serving up what the core audiences crave in ways that offer tingles of nostalgic glee as well as thrilling, high-class B-movie entertainment.
However, we knew all that from Abrams’ patented secretive trailer attack. What made him right for this particular film was his ability to serve up TV pilot perfection. To explain, he has a knack for delivering stories hinged on fostering a desperate audience desire to find out what happens next. He loves to withhold information and use that tension and mystery for world-building. You’ll wander out of ‘The Force Awakens’ with many of the questions that you had going in, but not necessarily in a bad way. This is a pilot for the new trilogy, a primer that thrills and tantalizes while still withholding most of the secrets. ‘A New Hope’ was the first act of a larger trilogy that had to stand alone because George Lucas had no idea if there’d ever be a sequel. ‘The Force Awakens’ was made with two more movies guaranteed. So, this film is deliberately all set-up, but in a wonderful way that will leave you as excited for ‘Episode VIII’ going out as you were for ‘Episode VII’ going in.
Abrams is skilled at creating clever characters and knows how to cast, which pays off well here. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are off to fine starts as our youthful innocents. They’re strong heroes shrouded in mystery even when the credits roll, but are given the chance to show their strengths and position themselves as the lovable badasses needed to hinge a ‘Star Wars’ trilogy upon. (there are no Hayden Christensen causes for concern here.) Adam Driver cuts an imposing presence as the series’ new villain, while holding a special back story that should bring out welcome shades of grey in the future. Oscar Isaac is essentially on roguish flyboy duty, landing somewhere between Han Solo and Wedge Antillies, but thus far he isn’t given much complexity to chew on (though the fact that Isaac got the call suggests more is coming).
Oh yeah, Han Solo. Harrison Ford is in this too. In fact, out of the returning cast, he has the biggest role and it’s a tingly delight to see him strut his stuff with Chewbacca again. He’s predominantly shot from the waist up to hide that notorious ankle injury, limiting his action potential. However, he still breathes fresh life into his iconic role without any of the growling laziness that’s been a distraction in his past few performances. Seeing Ford share the screen with Carrie Fisher once more is a beautiful thing, even if Fisher doesn’t have nearly as much to do in this chapter (ditto C-3PO, who gets one big laugh before going back to the sidelines where the droid hopefully won’t stay for long). As for Mark Hamil/Luke Skywalker… well, as Abrams has been saying for ages there’s a very specific reason why he wasn’t in any of the trailers and it’s not what you might think (or at least, not for now).
Judged purely as a work of entertainment-driven action filmmaking, ‘The Force Awakens’ is Abrams’ finest feat to date. The movie essentially starts in motion and doesn’t let up until the final frames. He’s directing with his foot on the accelerator, flying from one set-piece, plot twist, character introduction, or wild location to the next with little time wasted. The action here is frenetic and fantastic. The effects are absolutely stunning. Using a mixture of spectacular locations, large sets, puppets, models and (don’t kid yourself) plenty of CGI, Abrams plunges audiences face first into the world of ‘Star Wars’ again. All the touchstones have been vividly recreated, while the fresh flourishes feel like organic additions. It’s a rollercoaster ride, which is exactly what the fans want out of ‘Star Wars’. There’s no pausing for trade disputes or even moments of quiet grace. It’s a romp and a delight.
The movie does have some issues and it’s hard to judge how deep the problems run without seeing the sequels. For example, it’s never clear what the First Order or Resistance are or why this battle continues after the vanquishing of the Empire. Sure, that could be to save the secrets for subsequent chapters or it could be lazy screenwriting. It’s impossible to say right now. Abrams designed this movie so specifically to be the first steps into a larger story that it’s difficult to see the plot holes from the mystery boxes.
Likewise, he also uses the rhyming and repetition that Lucas built into both of his ‘Star Wars’ trilogies to create a familiarity that deliberately echoes what came before. That makes ‘The Force Awakens’ a fully engaged ‘Star Wars’ follow-up that strives to be a part of a larger whole, but it also leads to frustrating elements that only seem to be there for nostalgia. It’s unclear how or why the new Death Star-esque battle station exists in the universe or plot of this movie, but it does lead to fantastic finale set-piece. Regardless, there are many threads left dangling and the meat of what this new trilogy is truly about has yet to emerge. Fortunately, the rather brilliant Rian Johnson is in charge of the second act of this tale and, at least on paper, he’s the perfect choice to add drama and depth to Abrams’ pretty new sandbox.
For the sake of avoiding fanboy rioting, we should all be pleased that the failings of ‘The Force Awakens’ are minor. They’re mostly issues set up for resolution in subsequent stories or nits destined to be picked by fans over the next few years. The bottom line is that J.J. Abrams and compnay have made a ‘Star Wars’ movie worthy of the banner and title crawl. It’s a restless bit of blockbuster filmmaking that will indeed please crowds. There’s a warm, comforting, fuzzy feeling to experiencing the film that’s infectious.
Sure, the flick debuts to hype so steep that some folks will inevitably leave disappointed, but at least not in a way that will lead to burning ‘Star Wars’ collections like in the tragic summer of 1999. The worst that could happen here is that viewers may be forced to reconcile with the fact that they saw a damn good ‘Star Wars’ movie rather than an earth-shattering event. That’s hardly a horrible compromise, and frankly it’s incredible that this team was able to deliver such a satisfying ‘Star Wars’ movie made on demand to fit a release date. If nothing else, ‘The Force Awakens’ will transport viewers to a familiar galaxy far, far away and remind us all that the special time in which we adored ‘Star Wars’ wasn’t so long ago.