“The Force Awakens was damn near everything I not only expected, but wanted from the seventh installment”
Few franchises are as cherished and as glorious as Star Wars. Since its release in 1977, it has been passed down by hardcore fans to their children in the form of repeated viewings on VHS or DVD like a precious family heirloom, or has simply found itself etched in a young child’s mind with no help from their parents. My generation endured the often tarnished prequels, but even if you’re somebody who despises the franchise’s prequels and embraces “the original trilogy,” think about that; you dislike one-half of the series, but you still have the nerve to call yourself a Star Wars fan. That’s because the Star Wars characters, universe, and experience transcends a few subpar films; it’s something that reminds us why we go see films in the first place and how they can completely transport us out of our element for an experience that we’ll always hold dear to our hearts and cherish until we pass.
There will undoubtedly be people quick to praise Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens as the best film in the series, or even second to The Empire Strikes Back, and there will be the hardcore fans that will simply not allow themselves to enjoy it for whatever reasons exist under the sun. For me, as a casual fan of the franchise who has always admired its operatic story, its limitless visuals, and grandiose scope, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was damn near everything I not only expected, but wanted from the seventh installment of this long-running, generational franchise. I wanted a compelling cast of new characters, the same kind of enriching and unique environments I had been graced with in prior installments, a desire on the screenwriters’ behalf to propel things forward and not dwell on nostalgia and past events, and offer up some new thrills in a modern, but classic package.
If you go into Star Wars: The Force Awakens expecting that, I’m convinced you will get it and emerge satisfied. The film may not have the kind of warmth and tingly feelings you got when you first witnessed the original Star Wars film in the theaters, on VHS, or in one of its theatrical re-releases, but I’m also convinced neither would any other film that could possibly be made. Through a lens that packs confidence and lacks flare, J.J. Abrams continues the franchise in a respectful and commendable way.
To keep the plot’s description as vague as possible, the film takes place roughly thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, where Luke Skywalker has disappeared and the galaxy is left dominated by the First Order, the successor to the Galactic Empire, and the Resistance, both trying to find Luke’s whereabouts. We focus on a Stormtrooper nicknamed Finn (John Boyega), who escapes the First Order with a Resistance pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), along with BB-8, a small, round droid. Their ultimate goal is to destroy the First Order, which is commanded by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who uses the dark side of the force to command and conquer. Later in the film, Finn teams up with a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), in addition to both Han Solo (Harrison Ford reprising his iconic role) and Chewbacca in efforts to defeat Ren and take back the Galactic Empire.
To begin with, in an effort most likely geared to try to disassociate this project from the often tarnished prequels, Abrams takes the safe route in structuring The Force Awakens‘s narrative in a manner very similar toA New Hope. The chronological events of attacks, character development and introductions, and cause-and-effect relationships all mirror the film that started it all, and this isn’t a bad thing, frankly. To try and hatch a new experimental structure to a film that’s already going to be approached very cautiously by fans who are fearful of the Disney brand now stamped on all future Star Wars projects and products is a very risky move, and Abrams does a great job at playing safe, yet still delivering.
This isn’t to say that Abrams and his co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt cling to a railing for support and safety the entire time; in fact, making the leading male in the film black and the other lead a woman is a high-point for the film, especially given how engaging these characters are. Boyega gives one of the most naturally charismatic and engaging performances I’ve yet to see in a Star Wars film, full of energy and not one-liners or quips that distract from the story at hand. Ridley, too, finds herself being a very believable presence, especially when tasked with carrying much of the emotional weight in the last act. Then, of course, there is Harrison Ford, who has seen this franchise explode far beyond his expectations. He leaps back into the role of Han Solo with emotional and dramatic heft in a way that just makes you stop and think, “good to have you back.” Finally, let’s not sleep on Oscar Isaac, who, this year alone, has had performances range from business tycoons, laidback but sinister scientists, and now a key role in one of the most renowned franchises in history. As with nearly every project he has been in, don’t sleep on him here, either.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in addition to being the best-acted installment of the entire franchise, also happens to be one of the most exhilarating action spectacles of the year. With the effects being delightful blends of CGI and practical effects, the feel the film carries throughout mixes the old and the new with great results. The film doesn’t bear the laborious and often artificial looks of recent blockbusters like Godzilla or Jurassic World, but it doesn’t look poorly or inexpensively assembled either. This is an incomparably detailed film, especially during the first hour, when it’s essentially the best sound and lights show you could ask for.
A few things, however, brought me back down to Earth throughout all this. To begin with, the villain of Kylo Ren is pretty weak, especially given the way he’s set up in the beginning of the film. When we first see him, he’s positioned as this ominous presence that we should fear, cloaked in black and red and with a voice that would make Bane sound like he hasn’t hit puberty quite yet. Later on, we realize that Ren is a fairly insecure villain, who lacks a lot of confidence, a notion we would’ve never expected judging by what we saw in the beginning. While some may call that a twist, I call it a cop-out, especially given how little development Ren actually receives in the film.
There was also a point in the film where I quit trying to understand a lot of the logistics and rules of this world, especially as it grows increasingly more complex towards the end and character motivations become more muddled. Having said that, that’s for the more hardened Star Wars fan than myself anyway. I came for an experience and I was wholly satisfied having witnessed what I did before I walked out. This is a film that will likely inspire and captivate a good majority of its audience, and remind them why they love films in the first place. It’s a lovely blend of old and new that doesn’t rely on nostalgia to carry its story, and offers viewers a new breed of likable souls to carry this franchise to galaxies even farther and farther away, perhaps next time to uncharted territory.