Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill
Director: JJ Abrams
Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
WARNING: This review contains spoilers
Fan-service device deployed, commander
If one is attempting to be objective about the latest chapter in the decades-spanning Star Wars franchise, then it could be argued that director JJ Abram's dutifully reverential Star Wars: Episode VII- The Force Awakens exists simply to remind legions of moviegoers why they love Star Wars in the first place. In that sense, it exists as a corrective to what the majority feel was a stark betrayal in the form of the prequels, for which creator George Lucas has been ceremoniously banished from his own constructed universe for the rest of eternity. But again, being objective hardly has any place in this conversation since Star Wars, for better or worse, goes beyond objectivity. Saying it's a cultural phenomenon or a marketing brand is a massive understatement. Really, the cult of Star Wars is something closer to a religious movement; the kind of thing that for many has been instilled since childhood and morphs over time into a palpably sincere attempt at recapturing that youthful sense of wonder. It goes without saying that these films, and especially the now iconic characters which sprung from Lucas's original conceptions, are incredibly dear to people's hearts.
Therefore, claiming The Force Awakens is just a movie will feel like an insult for those raised on a steady diet of light saber duels, Millennium Falcon dogfights, and sage wisdom from a green puppet living inside a swamp, but ultimately, it is only that; another movie. That it panders, winks, nods, and refers back to the original films, even recycling specific plot points and visual metaphors from 1977's A New Hope, is to be expected given Abrams' penchant for fetishizing nostalgia; (beyond the two Star Trek reboots, take a look at his earnest Spielberg homage Super 8). But because it exists to correct the supposed sins of the prequels and give everyone that special "Star Wars feeling" again, there's both more goodwill and less risk involved here. The goodwill stems from the fact that, no matter its flaws, The Force Awakens is a zippy, often humorous, decidedly old-fashioned romp which will undoubtably satisfy the faithful. The lack of risk, however, is intrinsic to the idea that Abrams and company really only have to give us exactly what we want and nothing more. The results are somewhat like watching a skilled cover band play the top hits with a few new tracks thrown in for good measure.
In terms of plot, what we have here is basically an inversion of A New Hope, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) standing in for Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), living on desert planet Jakku (not Tatooine) until bumping into a messenger droid named BB-8 (not R2D2) who houses a map with the missing Luke's whereabouts. There's the charismatic fighter pilot played by Oscar Isaac Poe Dameron (not Han Solo) taken prisoner by the First Order (formerly the Empire), and defecting stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) who initially frees Poe and takes flight. Of course, the real Han Solo (Harrison Ford) eventually shows up, flanked by his furry comrade Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew); who, along with Rey and Fin, set out on a series of adventures in order to find Luke, bring balance to the force, and thwart Nazi-like General Hux (Domhall Gleeson) and Vader wannabe Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Leia (Carrie Fisher) is also in the mix; now a rebel General and in a nice concession to realistic aging, looking precisely the way she should.
What follows is a series of scenes, moments, and incidents which are constructed almost entirely as noble efforts at culture repurposing. From the old-school opening credits crawl, to the soaring John Williams score and comforting sounds of whirring TIE fighters, Abrams pours on the mythical undertones and reverential call-backs with gusto. There's no doubting the enthusiasm and passion for this seminal property, and truthfully, can a new Star Wars movie in 2015 really stand on its own apart from the mythos and nostalgia which formed it? Even though the story here takes place some 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, Abrams (who co-wrote the script along with Michael Arndt and Empire Strikes Back and Jedi scribe Lawrence Kasdan) chooses not to expand the universe in any meaningful way, but rather, to retract and go backwards. Thus, The Force Awakens substitutes characters, narrative beats, and even iconic images from the original three films and then layers on a few new elements. This full-stop embrace of mythological tradition is ultimately not that damaging because at the heart of Star Wars is a recognition of how stories recur cyclically with each new generation. That it borrows and lovingly acknowledges the stories which came before somehow feels germane, even as there's a decided safeness in traveling that path.
Actually, for the first 45 minutes or so, The Force Awakens fires on all cylinders as both a successful return to form as well as providing hope that there are new wonders yet to be discovered. Ridely brings an earnest Skywalker-esque sense of longing to the role of Rey, even as she subverts expectations by being both the smartest and most physically capable character on screen in any given scene. Boyega, meanwhile, has a screwy intensity as Finn, which is offset nicely by moments of gentle humor and throwaway reactions. The scenes between Ridley, Boyega, and the adorable BB-8 droid are among the film's most effective, and early sequences set on Jakku are visually spectacular in scope and scale; with long-held wide shots of sweeping vistas recalling an almost David Lean sense of grandeur. The film peaks, though, during a lively escape during which Rey and Finn board the Millennium Falcon and engage in a swooping dogfight with the First Order. From there, things get a bit wonkier as the plot starts to feel like it's sprinting toward the finish line rather than settling into a comfortable groove. Moments of tragic grandeur and emotional pathos, therefore, don't quite land since the characters feel like they are fighting against Abrams' madcap direction and the film's whiz-bang pacing.
Honestly, Abrams seems afraid to slow things down enough to allow his characters moments of self-reflection, and in being so determined not to repeat the prequels' self-seriousness, The Force Awakens almost becomes too much of a derivative homage which gets by purely on reminding us why we adore those first three pictures. When it works, the film is a pure blast of fanboy nostalgia; but when it doesn't quite click, it reveals Abrams' limitations as a purveyor of sentimental kitsch. He also has trouble framing action; providing a seemingly never-ending stream of zipping lasers, swooping ships, and massive explosions, but very little in the way of coherent choreography. Save for a decent light saber duel near the end and that aforementioned Millennium Falcon chase, there's nothing here in the way of memorable set-pieces. When placed up against something like George Miller's gonzo masterwork Mad Max: Fury Road, for example, The Force Awakens feels small and underwhelming. But perhaps the point here is setting up a series of building blocks for which the subsequent sequels can flesh things out; (Rian Johnson's Episode VIII, for example, could be the most thematically interesting and dark of the series in the vein of Empire).
Even though it's fashionable to heap disdain on Lucas' prequel series, he was after something audacious in formulating a triptych revolving around a democratic society slowing crumbling, even as he often tripped over his own feet in presenting that narrative. Here, Abrams gives us a streamlined vision of Lucas' universe filtered trough a combination of analog techniques and modern CG. It's a crowd-pleaser, to be sure, and there's certainly moments where the 12-year-old child in all of us will find it impossible to resist the powers of the force. Still, had The Force Awakens given us a First Order-style surprise attack rather than simply a recognizably warm hug, it might really have been something.