A Force To Be Reckoned With
DIRECTOR: JJ ABRAMS/2015
The new Most Anticipated Movie of All Time is finally here.
After more than three years of rampant fan and media skepticism, speculation and obsession following the big-money acquisition of Lucasfilm by The Walt Disney Company, the Force has, as it’s been touted, awakened. Fans everywhere, of all ages and intensity levels, are rejoicing.
Don’t look too hard for an “Under New Management” sign. Disney has seen fit to replace the familiar 20th Century Fox fanfare, a musical tag formerly so ubiquitous with Star Wars that it’s been included on most CD re-issues of the previous films’ musical scores, with absolutely nothing. The film opens cold with a Lucasfilm logo before giving way to familiar Star Wars tropes: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
Then the crawl. This being a spoiler free review, I won’t reveal anything about it other than to say that those put off by the opening crawl complexities of taxations and trade routes of the previous Most Anticipated Movie of All Time, 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, will have nothing to complain about this time. The premise is mercifully simple, evoking classic characters while establishing the new normals of the galaxy: The Empire, overturned in Return of the Jedi, has been replaced by a very Empire-like organization known as The First Order. It is opposed by The Republic. And on it goes, into deep space, wherever these yellow text crawls float off to.
Anyone who’s been exposed to the film’s months-old marketing push (which would be just about everyone, at this point) is no doubt visually familiar with the new characters. There’s Poe Dameron, a trained fighter pilot played by Oscar Isaac. There’s Finn, played by John Boyega, who decides that being a stormtrooper isn’t for him. And most interestingly, there’s Rey, a desert scavenger played by newcomer Daisy Ridley. Likewise, the villainous Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, is sufficiently evocative of Sith lords of yore. Thankfully, all are worthy of the attention and care that we’ve been asked since at least September to grant these fresh faces. Also, BB-8 is a fine little expressive droid.
Although much of the classic cast returns (for varying degrees of screen time), the movie belongs very much to Rey, Finn, and company. Which is a tremendous relief, considering these are the characters the remainder of this new trilogy will be tethered to. Having finally seen the film following months of being targeted to purchase toys and assorted other items bearing the likenesses of these unknowns, the prospect of revisiting them every few years is actually appealing.
When The Empire Strikes Back was released to theaters before Return of the Jedi came out, there was a television ad that announced “Han Solo is back!… Princess Leia is back!…, and so on. With The Force Awakens, the seventh official “Episode” in the saga, this is more true than it was then, when the beloved cast of (respectively) Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford were never that far away from their next appearance. As of the opening of this new installment, it’s been 32 years since we’ve seen these actors in these parts, for which they’re best known. Their promised return has been the active deal-sealer for the entire generation of original Star Wars fans. Sure, we saw the prequels, and maybe even enjoyed them. But it’s Han, Luke and Leia that occupy the center of our pop culture universe. They are the childhood heroes we thought we’d never see again. The Jedi, the princess (now a general) and the smuggler and the rest, have returned.
The Force Awakens is the second Star Wars film to be rated PG-13 by the MPAA, the other being the previous entry, 2005’s Revenge of the Sith. Sith is the far darker film, actually earning the rating more than The Force Awakens generally does. That said, parents of sensitive children should know that besides the expected occurrences of stormtroopers being constantly shot and spaceships exploding, there are more lightsaber-related acts of violence than we’ve seen in the past, and at least one shocking moment. (Yes, there is plenty to be spoiled.)
Which raises a bigger question: Does it feel like Star Wars? More-so than other film franchises, this matters deeply to fans of the series. The established cyclical nature of the saga, right down to the use of 30-frame screen wipe transitions and the presence of familiar background detail, are key. Thankfully, director JJ Abrams maintains these flourishes, even if he apparently did throw out George Lucas’ outline of Episode VII, something that was a major part of the big-money Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm. The world-building witnessed here is one of the film’s greatest strengths, as every planet that’s visited is a new one. Each one feels genuinely worthy of Star Wars; the patina, grit, and design all properly evocative. Abrams is going for classic-trilogy sensibility, what with his commitment to shoot on celluloid and using actual constructed models rather than digitally rendered spaceships.
Similarly, the screenplay by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan (back in the fold, having previously written The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), and Michael Arndt (of Toy Story 3 fame, who worked on an early draft of this film) does interesting things with the deep-rooted franchise structure of evoking and re-evoking small moments, and repeating bigger themes and ideas with variation. It’s an idea that’s rooted in classical music, and something that has been structurally integral to every George Lucas-produced Star Wars film.
Abrams teeters several time into dreaded “fan service” moments, but mostly manages to steer clear, something he failed to do with his previous film, Star Trek Into Darkness.
“The Force Awakens” isn’t Abrams best film, but it’s one of his more respectable efforts. There’s little evidence that he really understands the potential nuances and implications of the Force, but then again, he’s only here to awaken it, not explain it.
The movie does lay the groundwork for a new trilogy that is, as it should be, the continuing saga of the much-troubled Skywalker family.
What doesn’t work so well is the film’s final act. The Force Awakens leaves audiences with more unanswered questions than ever before. It’s non-resolution to the point of pile-up. Just as the first three quarters are a breezy if unchallenging whirlwind of adventure, the final quarter becomes bumpier, almost barrage-like. That said, bigger ideas about politics and religion that so fascinated George Lucas have no place here, which is kind of a shame. Perhaps such elements would’ve crowded out an already busy movie, but for this longtime fan, they are missed.
As we adjust to the existence of this film, now so instantly rooted into the original classic trilogy, and in a way that can’t be undone, we will over time no doubt become either completely accepting of it, or increasingly dismissive of it. Anticipation, like the dark side, can cloud everything – but it’s nothing a few more viewings during it’s opening week can’t help sort out.
Enjoy The Force Awakens frenzy while it lasts, Star Wars fans. This is likely to be the last time the world will ever be this excited about a new Star Wars movie. According to Disney’s current plan, by the end of 2019, there will be five new films added to the franchise, counting this one. For a movie that’s so enamored with the scrapheap of classic trilogy iconography (for example, see the massive, crashed Star Destroyer in the first trailer), JJ Abrams’ Episode VII is very alive, if not quite entirely balancing the newly awakened Force.