Director J.J. Abrams once said that as a youth he enjoyed Star Wars more than the Star Trek franchise he’s dabbled in, and the high-energy antics he brought to the latter franchise find the warmest of welcomes in George Lucas’ time-honored saga.
The Force Awakens feels reverent of its venerable legacy even to an arguable fault, yet thanks to its wide variety of compelling characters, interesting themes, amazing art designs, and epic battles, beyond a shadow of a doubt Star Wars’ latest entry provides a suitable and stunning look at what the renowned original films might have been like if they had been made today.
A new spin on an old classic
From the initial shot of a gigantic vessel obscuring a planet, it’s clear that Abrams and his artists know how to establish a scene and to convey important information through visuals. Enemy ships look rough, not sleek. Dark or violent colors, rough edges, and nondescript utilitarian forms define the equipment and design direction of the villainous First Order, who dictate viewer impressions and the movie’s tone by invading a village of innocent people over a search for one piece of information. The introduction to the Order’s Stormtroopers is a menacing one, with flickering lights and erratic camera positioning foretelling that these core soldiers are a real menace, not merely incompetent bodies for our heroes to shoot at, and the eye-opening massacre of dozens of individuals unfolds like a reversal of D-Day except without much in the way of (heroic) opposition.
This ‘battle,’ like all of the fights on land, in the air, and in space in this movie, feels consequential and distinguishable no matter who or sometimes what has the tactical or moral advantage. Exchanges of gunfire never feel like window dressing or background noise, and notably, many of the film’s battles lack a musical score, allowing the rich sound effects to shine through all the more clearly.
Awakens opts for a simple narrative basis that is given time to branch off into various subplots without becoming too overwhelming or feeling murky: villains are audacious, people in over their heads are given the chance to change their ways, and heroes are driven by their conscience, not by revenge or cold pragmatism. A conscience, however, is a terrible thing to waste, even for someone so individually unimportant he technically doesn’t even have a name–one lone Stormtrooper, FN-2187. His refusal of an order to slaughter civilians and his initial signs of psychological trauma, despite his additional character flaws, make his relations and interactions as complicated, intriguing, and intermittently likable as he himself is. His concern for his fellow cannon-fodder soldiers doesn’t quite get an in-depth dissection in the story, but in light of all that goes on in this movie, it’s a wonder that any of it manages to remain coherent, and yet pretty much all of it simply does.
The setting’s ever-present mystical physics make an early appearance, but true to the title, the film doesn’t bombard the viewer with magic and spectacle. People don’t shoot lightning out of their fingers, effortlessly deflect dozens of energy projectiles, or come out swords-blazing as soon as the movie begins. The “Force” feels mysterious and believable again, with many of the film’s best moments coming in the form of a simple choke or what, at one point, looks like a very realistic take on battle meditation. Its users on both sides come across as vulnerable instead of being overpowered, with the inevitable but judiciously deployed lightsaber battles offering legitimate dramatic tension as heroes and villains alike are given their fair share of hits and scars. Furthermore, the drawdown of fancy special effects places a bigger focus on the human performances, which are among the best the series has ever seen. A scene of a person holding out his hand and making someone else’s face cringe surely takes plenty of quality direction and acting to appear compelling instead of silly, but it seems effortlessly done here.
In one of the (relatively) calmest and most deeply enjoyable-to-watch sequences I’ve ever seen from an Abrams film, the focus eventually shifts to a young girl, scavenging for enough parts and resources to provide for her own sustenance. There’s little if any exposition, and the film as a whole does an excellent job of providing insight into the lives of various cultures and species through quick interactions, not usually with lectures about history or technology. She is Rey, though her name isn’t even given the first time she’s introduced. Confident, upright, brave, and agile, Rey combines many of the best character attributes from Star Wars’ original heroes, and she’s a tremendously likable main protagonist who is given plenty to do and is easily one of the most entertaining leads this series has put on display despite her simple backstory. Her homeworld of Jakku readily evokes the similar climate of Tatooine and has plenty of detail: aliens conduct transactions in marketplaces, animals (and people) savor what precious water they can find, and the wreckage of enormous ships gives the feeling that quite the epic battle must have happened there.
FN-2187, nicknamed “Finn,” takes more time to develop into a fully likable character due to some questionable decisions, but he does bring his own appeal despite being given a few too many self-congratulatory woohoo! moments! Poe Dameron, who pilots a new configuration of the classic X-Wing, gets by quite well on charisma even with a lack of story detail; he looks like the Fonz, which funnily enough gives more of a retro appeal than some of Awakens’ attempts to hearken back to earlier Episodes.
The belonging you seek is not behind you. It is ahead.
The film’s sole brief weak point occurs shortly after the prologues wrap up, where the story becomes overly sentimental as a few familiar faces appear. They feel shoehorned at first, but they do eventually earn and keep a rightful place in the plot, even as the narrative is usually at its most interesting when it focuses on its new characters. One scene more or less “eats” a path away from becoming unnecessarily complicated and feeling like one of Abrams’ sudden Star Trek detours, and from that point onward, the numerous small stories converge readily into a meaningful whole.
The abundant quantities of characters (at least four heroes, rarely all in the same place, and even several layers of villains) don’t become a mess and end up working together a lot better than I would have expected. The movie avoids the everpresent politics of the Star Wars prequels and instead gives us a war drama that feels like it’s approaching its endgame. Abrams’ lack of emphasis on hard science in his Star Trek films serves him well here, and he doesn’t focus on in-depth explanations the galaxy’s dire predicament any more than A New Hope does.
Awakens hits the series’ classic beats well enough, and often enough, but even though it proves itself well capable of recalling and giving new life to past events (one particular incident in a hangar actually had me thinking of Episode I), the film is easily at its best when it’s off exploring uncharted territory. One middle scene where the plot truly begins to show its teeth actually delves into the sort of light horror Avengers 2 utilized so well.
On that note, the film is remarkably emotionally powerful, though instead of the long-form epic tragedy found in Revenge of the Sith, The Force Awakens opts to concentrate its pathos in individual moments. One of them turns one of the series’ most important character relationships on its head. The other is a display of power that is heartbreaking, terrifying, and utterly well done. It’s quite possibly the single most impactful scene in the whole movie, not because it’s at all original but because it arguably outperforms the classic films at their own game by showcasing familiar events with a deeply uncomfortable but never gratuitous tone. Children and the especially sensitive should stay well away.
The Force shall free me.
Episode VII could have been weighed down by endless trappings and obscure references to countless moments past, but it really isn’t. Other than in the way much of the narrative unfolds, the story and the film surrounding it are allowed to exist on their own, and they’re a quality reminder of why Star Wars was worth watching in the first place.
It will be quite some time before the corrupt and powerful Kylo Ren develops the legacy of the Darth Vader role he occupies in the story, but he’s well on his way to becoming one of the most memorable villains in Star Wars history, simply on the basis of what the story allows him to get away with.
The production values are top-notch, and the vast majority of the special effects look very practical. Stormtroopers don’t all walk the same way. Large creatures look realistic and behave believably. Explosions from epic air and space dogfights that send pieces of ships flying look just as good as the sparks that shoot up whenever someone is hit with a blaster shot. The environments are gorgeous, easily enough to make me want to buy an art book (even familiar-looking places don’t seem completely derivative), and while I do have a personal distaste for characters in a knowingly lovely movie who stop to comment on that fact instead of letting the scenery speak for itself, it’s something I can live with.
The 3D is one of the few examples I’ve seen since Avatar where that technology seems to actively make the movie look better instead of at best not getting in the way. Settings feel appropriately big and look like they have depth; characters in the foreground of a shot are given suitable importance, even if that means some scenery pieces and movements look slightly blurry; big spaceships look like they poke out of the screen; and the movie as a whole is generally not too dim to make the extra dimension useful. Abrams’ manic dogfights, which surely look excellent in two dimensions but are spectacular in three, frankly fit Star Wars a lot better than they do Gene Roddenberry’s universe.
Ultimately, however, it’s not an explosion that bridges the old Star Wars and the new, but an embrace. The wonderful ending facilitates a variety of emotions, and it’s in this optimistic and hopeful film’s darkest moments that some of the best details stand out. Episode VII takes its time to awaken, and it’s worth all the time in the world.
Conclusion: Like my father before me
Blah, blah, blah, nostalgia. Maybe you grew up with the series, or maybe you’re like Daniel Radcliffe and your exposure to these stories is more recent. Either way, unless you absolutely demand a Star Wars film that is everything or nothing like the original stories, you will be well served to enjoy this installment, and it does much more of a tremendous job of reviving an acclaimed series for audiences old and new than any sort of reboot or remake ever could have hoped for. The planet of Jakku isn’t just “Tatooine all over again,” even if it evokes iconic moments such as the distinctive sunset. There’s a really funny spin on the ‘Yoda’ archetype. The story doesn’t just feel like a bunch of ragtag rebels acting and growing in the same ways they ever did. It uses the existing material for a firm foundation, but it looks to have plenty of its own ideas in store. I can’t wait to see what the future of this galaxy from long ago will bring, if it’ll be this awesome.
The Force Awakens is exciting, unnerving, tender, horrific, and simply amazing. The story is solid, the characters are interesting, the battles are intense, and the art and sounds have brought their A-game. George Lucas’ immutable contributions to this rich saga will endure, but virtually every shot in the film reveals the fervent love for this series that J.J. Abrams apparently had from the time he was a youth. Episode VII really does stand alongside the classic films, which is something I long hoped I’d be able to write, and I’m doing it now. This is a truly moving production, from its ominous opening crawl all the way to its closing credits, which are well worth staying through for the music alone.
Especially that one iconic piano chord.
(I opted for a small quantity of images in order to save time and to avoid as many spoilers as possible, especially with regard to character presence and identity.)
Image sources (property of Lucasfilm, Bad Robot, Truenorth Productions)
– Movie poster – Star Wars official site
– Rey and BB-8 droid – Star Wars official site
– Kylo Ren – source
– X-Wing shooting down TIE Fighter – source (speculation and spoilers)
– Dogfight continued – as previous