It’s finally here! The long-awaited continuation of the venerable Star Wars saga, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, lands in theaters tomorrow — is it worth the wait?
Well, kind of …?
[WARNING: While this review is “spoiler-free” in the sense that no major plot details that haven’t previously been revealed via the film’s marketing, trailers, or publicity are revealed here, it will discuss aspects of the film’s plot progression and story structure which, if you have foreknowledge of them, MAY affect your overall enjoyment of the film. If you truly wish to know nothing more than what you’ve seen in the commercials before going in to see the film for yourself, stop here, bookmark the review, and then come back and finish once you’ve seen the film.]
Still here? All right then.
While there’s no denying there’s a thrill in returning to that long time ago and that galaxy far, far away, to hearing that triumphant John Williams fanfare accompanying the sight of the film’s title across a static field of stars, followed by the upward crawl of expository text that has preceded every Star Wars cinematic adventure since 1977, and to once again see lightsabers clash and x-wings and tie fighters chase and dodge one another’s red and green blaster fire, it won’t be long into the film’s running time before longtime fans of the series and savvy movie goers who’ve been on the Star Wars merry-go-round more than once to get more than just a slight sense of déjà vu. Oh, yes, the finer details of the story are different, and while old fan favorite characters return, it’s clear that the film really belongs to its younger stars, meant to carry on the saga to another generation.
But look just a little past the surface details and it’s not hard to see what director J.J. Abrams, who came up with the film’s screen story along with longtime Star Wars scribe Lawrence Kasdan, has done. It’s nothing more, and certainly nothing less, than Abrams’ love letter to George Lucas’ original work nearly 40 years ago, and while that emotional attachment to what came before benefits the film in terms of nostalgic value, it also limits the film’s creativity and impact.
The story of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, set thirty years after the Battle of Endor seen in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, primarily revolves around two new characters: Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger making her living on the remote desert planet of Jakku by salvaging parts from the many crashed Imperial Star Destroyers and Rebel vessels that litter the planet’s surface; and Finn, once a Stormtrooper serving The First Order, which has risen from the ashes of the old Galactic Empire, but now on the run after he finds his conscience won’t allow him to follow the Order’s brutal methods. Their paths cross thanks to Rey coming upon and taking into her care a diminutive droid, BB-8, which claims to be carrying information desperately sought after by the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), which opposes the First Order’s march across the galaxy.
In charge of the effort to hunt down BB-8 are First Order General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and the masked lightsaber wielding warrior Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who along with their master, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), believe securing the droid’s information and acting upon it before the Resistance can will make them unstoppable. What these would-be conquerers don’t count on is Rey, Finn, and BB-8 getting a little help along the way from some very unlikely sources: the Resistance’s most talented fighter pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac); an old-but-still fast piece of junk Corellian freighter, and an older-but-still-charming smuggler named Han Solo (Harrison Ford), with his faithful Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) still at his side. Together, they’ll discover the threat they and the Resistance face is much larger and deadlier than anyone could have imagined, as Kylo Ren and his master seek to reclaim the power once held by the long-dead Darth Vader and his Emperor over the entire galaxy, and to extinguish all hope of resistance against the Dark Side of the Force.
Now first: the positive. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is without a doubt a more enjoyable cinematic experience than any of the three prequel films written and directed by George Lucas and released from 1999 to 2005, mainly due to the much stronger script produced by Abrams, Kasdan, and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine) and Abrams’ more dynamic and contemporary style and vision. It’s also a film that never lets you forget the people who crafted it are fans who know the canon, who could recite entire scenes from the original films verbatim and thus include numerous verbal and visual references to those films throughout their work, knowing fellow fans will appreciate what they’ve done. With a clear emphasis placed on location shooting and practical sets and effects whenever possible, there’s considerable effort here to make the film look, sound, and feel like it belongs in the same Star Wars universe folks remember from the days when Han, Luke, and Leia were young. If you consider yourself a classic Star Wars geek first and foremost, then you’ll find a lot to love here, at least in the visual details.
There’s also plenty to enjoy in terms of the performances delivered here, though some characters shine a bit more than perhaps they are meant to. Despite his role being a supporting one, the most dynamic and charismatic of the film’s younger cast is easily Oscar Isaac. The talented and versatile Isaac, who up to this point in his Hollywood career has had few opportunities to play the dashing hero, proves as he brings to life Poe Dameron that’s he’s more than equal to the task. He, along with his Ex Machina castmate Domhnall Gleeson, each make the most of their screen time, and their respective talents demand meatier roles in the Star Wars sequels to come. As for the newcomers meant to be the leads here, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, they deliver solid, if unspectacular work. There’s plenty of room for their characters to be developed in the films to come, but for now, they do their best with what they’re given, and it’s enough to have you rooting for them when the time is right.
And what about the old timers? Suffice to say that they slip back into their old roles quite nicely, especially Ford, who brings a new, crusty charm to the older, grayer Captain Solo. Much of the film’s humor (and there’s a surprising amount of it, more so perhaps than any previous Star Wars film) has Solo and Chewbacca at its heart, and rightly so — after all, they were the coolest characters in the original films, were they not? Sorry, Skywalker fans — Luke didn’t even approach “cool” until Jedi.
So if all that’s good, and the movie is fun, then what’s wrong with it? In this case, the film’s strength — it being so deeply rooted in love for the original film and its two sequels — is also its chief limitation, as it can very easily be argued that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a poorly-disguised remake of A New Hope. The film’s structure and plot progression are virtually identical to Lucas’ original film, right down to how the film’s pace begins to lag in the second act, only to ramp up with climactic dogfights and lightsaber duels dominating the film’s action-heavy third act. Call it an homage to the original, or call it little more than a modernized copy, but there’s simply too much that’s similar for it all to be ignored, and once you recognize those similarities, you know where the movie is going and you can predict certain outcomes, which detracts from any movie experience.
But there’s also arguably another reason why Star Wars: The Force Awakens doesn’t quite reach the greatness that’s expected of it. The simple truth is that back in 1977 Star Wars was a synthesis of a number of different thematic and cinematic elements put together and presented in a way that had never been done before. People walked out of it being completely blown away, because in the truest sense they’d never seen anything like it before, and the film went on to redefine the way sci-fi films and particularly their special effects were created. Will you walk out of Star Wars: The Force Awakens with a similar feeling, that of being completely blown away, as if you’ve never seen anything like what you just sat through before? Even if you haven’t ever seen Star Wars: A New Hope, probably not — in fact, it’s much more likely you’ll have the opposite reaction, that it’s all too familiar.
But depending on what brought you to the theater to see the film in the first place, that may not matter all that much. What will matter most (especially to the folks counting beans at Disney) is that you’ll be left wanting more, and it’s good bet you’ll walk out feeling that a great deal. Therein lies the great hope for the films to come: that Abrams, now done with all the fervent fanboy-fueled honoring of the past that goes on in this first effort, can take the franchise into truly uncharted territory, and thus deliver something transcendent by time his new trilogy is done.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, and Max Von Sydow. Directed by J.J. Abrams.
Running Time: 135 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.