by Byron BixlerStar Wars means a great deal to me – I suppose that’s as good a place to start as any. Perhaps it’s a frivolous aside to make, but when confronting the long awaited seventh installment of the most widely beloved franchise out there, I think you should know where I’m coming from. I grew up with the prequels, but it wasn’t until I encountered the original trilogy around the release of Episode III that I began to get invested. My nine-year-old self was completely enthralled by the universe George Lucas created. The planets, the characters, the technology and mythology; there was so much to explore and I couldn’t get enough of it. I recall hearing murmurings about a potential third trilogy and printing out “leaked” plot outlines that my naïve mind took to be genuine. But, as I entered high school, the fervor I had for the series quietly petered out. The encyclopedias and expanded universe novels collected dust. The action figures and toy lightsabers were relegated to the closet. But then the news of future films broke and that childlike affection and giddiness swelled in me once again, building over the months and reaching critical levels this past week.
I do not envy J.J. Abrams in the task he was faced with here. Between the high bar of expectation set by the original trilogy and the skepticism and wariness brought on by the prequels, The Force Awakens carries more baggage than any previous Star Wars film. A delicate hand is needed to balance the elements of respectful homage with those of bold pioneering and ditching one for the other wouldn’t be wise. So, how does Abrams fare? Is it bantha fodder or does it soar like the Falcon on its best day? I’d say it’s neither, but there’s definitely more good than bad.
30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the Empire has reconfigured itself into the First Order, while the rebellion has become the Resistance. The paths of a droid named BB-8, a lonely scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), an escaped stormtrooper with a conscience, all cross on the desert planet of Jakku, and an adventure begins. Blasters. Lightsabers. Planet-hopping. Dogfights. Sabotage. Escape. Light side. Dark side. Scum and villainy. The less you know, the better, and if it’s juicy details you’re after, you’d be best served going elsewhere.
The first thing that grabs you about The Force Awakens is the authenticity of the world. There’s such loving care taken with fleshing out the environments with believable creatures and detailed background elements. Gone are the oppressively recurrent blue screen facades that haunted the prequels, constantly failing to convince. Instead we are treated to a galaxy that feels refreshingly lived in. But even more important than the practical effects and sets are the practical actions and motivations of the characters.
Spearheading the ensemble is a collection of new faces, each of them compelling in their own ways. From humble origins, Rey blossoms into an exciting heroine, whose flirtations with the force are continually surprising in how they come about. On the other hand, Finn’s beginnings are unlike any we’ve seen before in the Star Wars movies and his redemptive progression from anxious runner to impassioned (but perhaps still in over his head) liberator is a lot of fun to follow, not least because of the humor the character provides. The third critical wheel for the Resistance is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the best damn pilot in the galaxy. He’s winningly charismatic and upbeat, packing the lovable cockiness of a young Han Solo. As for the dark side of the force, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) are fleetingly used, so things are primarily held up by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Driver’s villain is a terrific creation; raw in his emotions and intimidating from the very first scene.“But what about the old gang?” you ask. They’re integrated really well with the new characters. Harrison Ford is unquestionably Han Solo (this isn’t a Kingdom of the Crystal Skull situation) and gets many of the best lines. It’s a joy to see Chewie back, too, sparring with his buddy and kicking plenty of butt. Meanwhile, Leia (Carrie Fisher), now a General, has a natural role to play in the story as she coordinates the efforts of the Resistance. But her best scenes are with Han, and it’s hard not to have flashbacks to The Empire Strikes Back while taking in their tender exchanges. And as for Luke Skywalker (perhaps the greatest mystery of the film’s marketing campaign)…my lips are sealed.
The film delivers with its characters and fans can rest assured knowing that Abrams and company come through on the action as well. Aside from A New Hope, this might be the most propulsive Star Wars film yet. There are necessary pauses for sure, but you really feel the sense of forward movement here. Abrams establishes a tangible urgency and the energy even spills over into a few of the characters’ frenzied back-and-forths. But as far as the actual combat goes, it’s all about the aerial battles. The chases, dogfights and x-wing runs are beautifully staged and may result in side effects of slack-jawed awe. Alternately, the lightsaber duels are not as spectacular, but I really appreciated the not-so-robotically-over-choreographed approach. All this meshes together with immaculate pacing, making for a smooth, seamlessly engrossing experience.
So why is it, then, that I was left feeling relatively underwhelmed by The Force Awakens? Part of it has to do with some wonkiness with the dialogue (often when it isn’t being comedic). Part of it also has to do with a couple of plot points I’d rather not share. However, the main reason for my slight disappointment is the safeness of the film. The plot is very familiar to the point at which it feels like a re-hash of Episode IV with an attractive new skin. Minuscule fan service moments are tastefully done and never overbearing, but what I describe doesn’t so much smack of fan service or homage as it does resorting to an uninteresting “greatest hits” sensibility. The reason for dipping back into common territory is understandable and the simplicity of the story’s mechanics kind of makes sense as a starting point in a trilogy, but I couldn’t help but yearn for a few more risks. One big risk is indeed taken, but the timing for it wasn’t right and the decision fell frustratingly flat. Other than this one particular choice, much of the film felt very “been there, done that.” Old things maybe presented from a slightly different angle or perspective, but not with enough freshness for the film to transcend “comfortably solid” status.
I would love to see the movie a few more times and then return to it at a much later date. There’s a lot here that depends on how things fit into the context of the trilogy’s remaining two thirds and I almost feel that it would be best to reserve full judgment until Episode IX releases. But until then, we are left with a blockbuster that is well worth seeing (not like you needed me to persuade you, though). At the end of the day, this is a film for a new generation of Star Wars fans. It nods to the originals and has plenty for die-hards to both gush over and nitpick, but ultimately, it sets out to kick start a new chapter, introducing a handsome class of heroes and villains while slowly beginning to usher the legends to the margins. Unfortunately, it clings too hard to nostalgic formula to properly distinguish itself as a singularly standout piece of work. The Force Awakens is still good fun, though; admirable in its ability to evoke old school charm and inject new energy into a saga that lost so much of that vitality in its most recent trips to the big screen. I only wish that the script matched the creativity of the direction and performances.
3.5 out of 5 stars