After much fanfare and speculation, Star Wars: The Force Awakens delivers under J.J Abrams direction, hitting many of the notes that made millions of people fall in love with the franchise 40 years ago.
The Force Awakens follows a young scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her ex-stormtrooper companion Finn (John Boyega) as they discover the mystical power of “the force” while assisting in a rebellion against a totalitarian regime that’s trying to take over the galaxy. Led by a mysterious “supreme leader” (Andy Serkis) and his mask-wearing, light saber wielding second in command Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), The First Order attempts to find and destroy the last remaining Jedi- Luke Skywalker while the resistance group led by familiar faces (Appropriately named The Resistance) attempts to find Luke and once again restore balance in the force.
Sound familiar? That’s because The Force Awakens is as much a reboot for a new generation as it is the continuation of the story that began 40 years ago. Many beats from the original trilogy are carried over here including:
Rey discovering a connection to the force ( thankfully no mention of midichlorians),
The evil First Order building a weapon that is remarkably similar to a Death Star but apparently is now a “Starkiller Base”,
The mentor figure dying at the hands of the villain
The unlikely hero being dragged into the story because a droid is carrying valuable information
The similarities may cause some fans of the originals to be a little disappointed with the story but again I feel like this stems from Disney and Abrams acknowledging that it must redeem Star Wars by showing it can return to form before taking any huge risks. There is nothing groundbreaking about the film from either a technical or story standpoint but where The Force Awakens succeeds is in its ability to return to its roots learning from the mistakes it made in the prequels.
Credit has to be given to Abrams and fellow writers for not complicating the plot realizing that audiences are more interested in the battles rather than space politics and intergalactic trade regulations. It is simple but effective – an invaluable aspect preventing those new to the franchise from feeling bogged down trying to understand the lore. At the same time, the film respects the many hardcore fans of the series with nods to the previous installments, easter eggs and cameos scattered throughout.
Abrams keeps the audience engaged with action scenes spaced nicely throughout the film giving it a good pace. These action scenes are the highlight of the film particularly a wonderfully shot Millennium Falcon chase scene that is thrilling and establishes the new characters’ rapport quickly. It is here that The Force Awakens shows significant improvement over the originals as the battles (both the air and light saber variety) look and feel better thanks to the technology available as well as the improvements made in fight choreography over the years.
Mercifully Abrams’ usage of CGI is not as noticeable as it was in the “specialized” remasters of the originals or in the prequels which is a welcome change. The set pieces by in large feel authentic (as authentic a futuristic space epic can look) and he restricted the hologram communications to just one recurring scene which helps the chemistry between the cast as interactions are mostly person to person and not person and green screen.
The performances from the cast are another noticeable improvement from the prequels. This is aided by the dialogue which is significantly less clunky, opting for clarity rather than the convoluted – trying too hard to be profound – mess that was the prequels (basically avoiding this). With the exception of one awkward Boyega/Ridley exchange in the new cantina, most of the dialogue is simple and clean. Taking this approach is the smart move but prevents the film from having a standout performance from any of its actors. Regardless, everyone from Ridley/Boyega down to the droids handles what they’re given admirably.
In fact, it is the way these characters are presented which helps to overcome some of the issues the plot has – yes the story is similar but these characters feel different than their original counterparts. Partially this is because the new trinity (Rey, Finn and Oscar Issac’s Poe) is more diverse than before featuring no white men – something virtually unheard of in Hollywood blockbusters but it is also because the characters are less defined to a certain role. Rey, for example, is a mixture of all three members of the original trilogy, she is the new apprentice much like Luke was in A New Hope but also has Han Solo’s extraordinary flying skills and Leia’s “I answer to no man” fearlessness. While each character possesses their own unique level of expertise in different fields, they are not solely defined by that attribute, This makes the characters seem more true to life thereby giving them a higher degree of investment with the audience.
The only issues with characterization come from Kylo Ren who loses some of the intimidation factor after he removes his mask. Trying to humanize the character may point to a potential change of heart down the line but for this film makes him feel weak especially in comparison to Darth Vader. Furthermore, his inability to completely destroy two people who have no force or lightsaber training is disappointing (I don’t care how connected to the force Rey is, no way someone who picked up a lightsaber for the first time should be able to defeat someone like Kylo Ren). I realize he was injured prior to this exchange but seriously, the guy can’t even get information from a girl who just discovered her powers (literally as in 2 minutes before Ren interrogates her). While I think Adam Driver does a decent job with what he’s given, the character doesn’t really give you anything that screams “wow that guy is scary” in the same way Vader did from the opening scene of New Hope
Of course, no Star Wars film is complete without a John Williams score. As usual, the score contributes nicely to the atmosphere of the film but I do feel this time around, it is lacking that one iconic song (your Duel of the Fates if you will) but many old favorites still appear that will have fans feeling nostalgic. Nonetheless, Williams proves he still has it.
The name may be The Force Awakens but this is the film that should be called a New Hope. It is the beacon of hope that finally gives Star Wars fans the true follow up it deserves after 30 years of waiting. Led by a diverse cast of likable leads, the film overcomes some plot issues to give a very entertaining two-hour epic utilizing nostalgia and new technologies to full advantage. Though relatively simple and safe, there are enough unanswered questions that Rian Johnson (director of episode VIII) and the creative team can spin the story any way they choose. J.J Abrams has revived the franchise hopefully allowing more risk to be taken from here on out especially after the resounding success that the Force Awakens turned out to be.