It’s all true: Star Wars gets its mojo back in The Force Awakens, a real-deal sequel that represents a return to the franchise’s B-movie roots and perfectly captures the look, tone, and spirit (yes!) of the Original Trilogy in a way that series creator George Lucas failed to do in his prequels.
This is fast, fun, and fan-friendly stuff: it’ll appeal to both series diehards (nods to previous films, delivered perfectly, will garner audience applause) and those who have never seen a Star Wars movie, because the light touch of director J.J. Abrams and zippy script from the director, Michael Arndt, and Lawrence Kasdan (who also penned Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi).
That’s all you need to know if you have not yet seen the film. Beware very minor spoilers in below graphs: it is worth going into The Force Awakens blind, because while the film’s surprises are precious few, they’re worth savoring.
That’s the trick: plotwise, The Force Awakens plays it so close to the 1977 original that by the end we’re feeling déjà vu. The film’s final half hour is the same exact kind of Death Star-esque run that played out in Star Wars and Return of the Jedi, and if you’re not awed by spaceships shooting lasers and planet-sized things going boom there’s not much else to hold onto.
Until then, however, this is a whiz-bang sci-fi serial adventure that beautifully taps into the on the promise of George Lucas’ original trilogy.
Disney, who bought the franchise for $4 billion from LucasFilm, and director Abrams (Star Trek) aren’t playing around. They know exactly what fans want from this movie, and deliver it with expert storytelling skill and all the visual flair available to contemporary filmmaking.
Thankfully, that doesn’t include a sea of CGI effects: The Force Awakens goes practical whenever possible, and it’s pure joy to see all the work that has gone into the creature design, makeup, stuntwork, and puppeteer performances that have gone into the film.
In fact, this movie’s most memorable character is not “played” in a traditional sense at all: the lovable, spherical droid BB-8 rolls around the screen controlled via remote, and he’s got as much (if not more) personality than most of the film’s human characters.
In the film’s first sequence, BB-8 is given a message to hide and jettisoned off when his master, Resistance fighter Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) fears capture by the Dark Side. Sound familiar?
The film’s opening scrawl – as dense as ever – fills us in on the backstory. Decades after the events of Return of the Jedi, a new evil empire – the First Order – has emerged. Luke Skywalker has gone into hiding after failing to train a new generation of Jedi in the ways of the Force, and sister (and now Resistance general) Leia is trying to track him down.
The message BB-8 is carrying is a map to Luke’s location, making him the target of both the Resistance and the First Order, led by Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who even keeps Darth’s melted metal helmet as a memento.
Improbably – much of the plot depends on coincidences like two characters bumping into each other on the same planet – the droid ends up in the hands of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a lone scavenger fighting to get by in the desert wasteland as she waits for her family to return.
Ridley is excellent as this film’s version of Luke in a A New Hope, a strong female presence who keeps reminding the male characters that she can take care of herself. During long stretches of the second half, when the storyline follows a well-worn path, it’s Rey’s journey and Ridley’s commanding lead that carries the film.
A reformed Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) also comes into the mix, after deciding that a violent life serving the Dark Side isn’t for him. Boyega is a lot of fun, and his character’s story – the personal journey of a Stormtrooper – is one of the film’s more original and interesting elements. But the movie belongs to Ridley’s Rey.
Game of Throne’s Gwendoline Christie is heard as Finn’s commanding officer, and Domnall Gleeson is perfectly-cast as the snivelling General Hux – who might be even more malevolent than Driver’s Kylo Ren – a role not dissimilar to the one played by Peter Cushing in the original film.
The Force Awakens’ first act, establishing these new characters and filling the screen with eye-popping creatures and a new alien world, is easily its best. I loved even the small asides, like showing Rey making dinner or lingering on some of the unusual characters or set design. Perfect.
Then the fan service comes in – the Millennium Falcon and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and Leia (Carrie Fisher) and R2-D2 and C-3P0. All good, and Ford’s Solo, in particular, gets a lot of screentime and is always fun to be around.
And then the film settles into a New Hope groove, and everything is fine and efficient and expertly-crafted in storytelling terms and visual finesse, but the new characters haven’t been given enough of an arc or backstory or simply downtime up on screen to resonate in the same way iconic characters from the Original Trilogy did.
There are big emotional moments here that don’t quite work as intended because we haven’t spent enough with these characters or fully grasp their backstory. One, in particular, is sure to divide fans.
But the return to the spirit of the Original Trilogy makes up for The Force Awakens’ reliance on its formulaic plotting. During the film’s first act, set the Tatooine-like desert planet of Jakku, a wonderful array of creatures created using practical effects fills the screen. These things have a tangible weight and physical presence and artisan craftsmanship about them, and I don’t think we’ve seen anything like them – in any movie – since 1983’s Jedi.
I cannot praise the decision to employ these practical effects or the skill with which they are executed enough. Including BB-8, they’re the highlight of the film.
The few wholly-CGI characters, meanwhile, represent a weak spot: in motion-capture, Andy Serkis plays Snoke, a hulking replacement for The Emperor, Lupita Nyong’o is the vaguely Yoda-like Maz Kanata, and Simon Pegg is the junkyard captain Rey sells her scrap to.
Each of these characters, I felt, could have easily been crafted with traditional effects; maybe it’s just me, but seeing these things always brings me out of a movie. The skill of creating lifelike animated characters has nearly been perfected, but the technical application of putting them onscreen alongside real people and physical objects hasn’t changed since Roger Rabbit.
That’s a minor quibble, and completely expected – the surprise here is how much practical work has been used. With Mad Max and this new Star Wars flick, Hollywood seems to be bucking the CGI trend and finally delivering some truly appealing work.
Three decades later, The Force Awakens is finally the Star Wars film we’ve been looking for. It delivers in just about every way imaginable.