“Star Wars” has returned. After years of waiting, one of the most highly awaited movies of all time has finally arrived and successfully manages to recapture the magic of George Lucas’ original trilogy. Under the direction of J.J. Abrams, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” beckons the world to return to a galaxy far, far, away….
Set thirty years after the original trilogy, “The Force Awakens” (TFA) wastes no time in rushing us into the movie’s central conflict between the First Order, the Empire resurgent and the Resistance, the Rebellion reborn. In the grand “Star Wars” tradition, our heroes are swept up by this galactic conflict and propelled to greater destinies. That’s all I’m going to say about the plot of the movie because it is best experienced with as little information as possible.
The success of this movie hinges on managing to not just recreate what makes “Star Wars” special, but to do so for a new generation. Perhaps more than any other aspect of “Star Wars,” it is the characters that make these movies work. No matter how epic the proceedings get, TFA wisely stays rooted in likeable and relatable characters. Rey seems to be this trilogy’s protagonist, and newcomer Daisy Ridley makes an amazing debut. Rey acts as the surrogate for new fans, experiencing many of the wonders of the “Star Wars” universe for the first time and hinting at greater things to come. While I found her character to be a bit stale at times, the events of the film promise a direction for her character that I’m excited to see unfold.
John Boyega’s Finn and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron round out the heroic trio and act as established players in the war between the First Order and the Resistance, bringing back the banter and comedic relief that were present in the original trilogy. Boyega easily crosses over between comedy and some pretty heavy material while remaining a joy to watch the entire time. Isaac gets the least focus of the heroes, but he more than makes up for it in his bombastic performance. Isaac is having the time of his life in the movie and that exuberance transfers over into Poe, who possesses a kind of joyous energy that you can’t help but be swept up in.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention BB-8, the adorable astromech droid that has been so prominent in the movie’s marketing. I’m happy to report that, like R2-D2 before him, he not only plays a key role in the story, but is also a physical prop and possesses the amazing ability to effectively emote to the audience. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Abrams and his team wisely refrain from shoving this easily marketable character into every scene of the movie, saving him for when he has a part to play.
Naturally, these heroes require villains to oppose them, namely Gwendoline Christine’s Captain Phasma, Domnhall Gleeson’s General Hux, Andy Serkis’s Supreme Leader Snoke and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, who takes most of the spotlight as his comrades are relegated to the background, likely being saved for Episodes VIII and IX.
That being said, Kylo Ren is a spectacular new villain and his upcoming character arc is going to be the topic of much speculation for the next two years. Adam Driver takes what could have been a very one-dimensional character and adds a surprising layer of depth. Kylo Ren manages to be a more interesting villain at the end of TFA than Darth Vader was at the end of the very first “Star Wars” movie, and I do not say that lightly.
As soon as the sequel trilogy was announced, there was one main question on everyone’s mind: Will the original cast return? Luckily, several of the original stars put in appearances throughout the film. Harrison Ford returns as Han Solo and plays the largest role of any previous cast member, giving us a picture of what everyone’s favorite scoundrel is like thirty years after “Return of the Jedi.” Carrie Fisher is back as General Leia, whose interactions with Han manage to be sad, touching and beautiful all at once. Finally, the less said about the return of Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker the better. All I have to say is that whenever anyone from the original saga came on screen, there were resounding cheers on opening night. However, when Luke Skywalker was revealed, the audience sat in reverent silence.
One of the more heavily publicized aspects of this movie’s production was its return to practical effects. In an age of CGI cartoons masquerading as live action movies, it is refreshing to see props, sets and characters that are actually real blending in perfectly with background computer effects. In doing so, they avoid the mistake of the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy, which heavily relied on now painfully out of date CGI. From an acting perspective, Abrams is able to get excellent performances out of his actors when they are on location in the desert with explosions going off all around them and when their blasters are actually gas powered air rifles to simulate recoil. However, in the midst of all these practical effects and creatures, two motion captured characters stick out like sore thumbs: Supreme Leader Snoke and Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata. Whenever either character showed up on screen, the CGI couldn’t be more obvious. In a way, the film’s dedication to practical effects becomes its worst enemy as it makes this CGI so blatantly obvious.
As much as every fan boy around the world wishes otherwise, this movie isn’t perfect. First things first: this movie is fast. TFA runs the risk of leaving the audience wondering what the heck just happened. While the speed is exhilarating, it often muddies character motivations and plot points. Ironically, I was left wanting to know more details about the political relationships between the Resistance, the First Order and the New Republic even though boring politics played a major role in bogging down the prequel movies. For this reason, I am willing to forgive the movie for erring on the side of caution, focusing on the action rather than background events.
Whenever a new entry in a classic franchise makes a debut, there’s always a temptation to pay tribute to the movies that came before it. In some cases, this can escalate to the point of basically copying previous movies. So, is TFA too much like the first “Star Wars?” Yes and no. The main difference between these movies is the most important part: the characters. Rey, Finn and Poe are only slightly reminiscent of Han, Leia and Luke. For example, while Poe and Han may both be hotshot pilots, their personalities and motivations couldn’t be more different. Kylo Ren is far more than just a knock off Darth Vader. Still, the structural and visual similarities to the original movie are striking. The two movies share very similar tropes and themes, but these aspects are nigh universal when it comes to fiction, present in countless of other stories.
The one exception to this is a minor spoiler so skip to the end of this paragraph if you want to go into the movie completely blind. Starkiller Base is unabashedly another Death Star. Honestly, it feels like it was shoehorned into the plot so that the X-Wings would have something to blow up. That being said, if my worst criticism of this movie is that it is too much like the original “Star Wars,” that should tell you how good TFA is.
Max Von Sydow’s Lor San Tekka speaks the first line of dialogue in “The Force Awakens,” looking almost directly into the camera and reassuring it that “this will begin to make things right.” In a way, J.J. Abrams, Lucas film and Disney are speaking to the entire world in that moment. This is only the beginning of a “Star Wars” resurgence for a new generation. It would all be for naught if Disney didn’t understand what made it special. Lucky for us, they do. Finally, you can walk out of a “Star Wars” movie and think “wow, I can’t wait to see the next one” rather than “maybe they’ll fix it next time.” What a time to be a “Star Wars” fan.