Two years ago, I wrote about the expectations I had for J.J. Abrams taking the helm of the new Star Wars movie (Film Review: ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ proves J.J. Abrams a better director than George Lucas). With a little weird sense of doubt, I think he has delivered.
Regardless of what is written here, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is going to break all the records that pundits have been predicting. There are too many generations of Star Wars fans waiting for this movie to come out already. This writer is of the first generation. As such, the experience of watching the movie yesterday afternoon was something akin to religious. This is where it becomes difficult to separate the film critic from the man who still remembers seeing the original TV commercial for Star Wars and wanting my father to take me to see this movie, not to mention the actual theatrical experience, the behind-the-scenes specials on TV and yes, even the Holiday Special.
I took it all in with nothing but awe, all the way to Return of the Jedi and its finale featuring singing ewoks. That said, I never liked any of prequels, which felt like nothing more than digital cartoons serving to explicate too much of the Star Wars universe. Lucas had lost touch, and the need for new blood was ripe. As a fan of what he did with Star Trek and Super 8, I could see why Abrams would feel like the perfect fit by the film’s producers. And his ethos does work … for the most part.
There’s no reason to spoil the plot of The Force Awakens, but as a new beginning for the franchise it balances old and new brilliantly. The story, written by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan (who also co-wrote the scripts of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) and Michael Arndt, features some smart self-referential moments with refreshing efforts to ground the characters deeper than ever into this faraway galaxy, from a long time ago, without forgetting a delightful dollop of humor. The action, backed by that familiar John Williams score, will amaze, but it’s also thankfully not as breathless as the Star Trek movies. There’s an awareness to the original tempo of the earlier Star Wars films. So though there are plenty of intense battle scenes, dogfights between spaceships and several one-on-one confrontations, there are also quieter moments thick with character development that never slow down the movie’s momentum.
Though it is great seeing old characters like Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) return to the Star Wars universe, it’s a relief to note how exciting and vibrant the new young leads are, which bodes well for the continuation of this saga. Adam Driver has an immense presence as the villain Kylo Ren. Even behind the battered mask he exudes a malevolent pathos of an upstart tangling with the shadow within that is the dark side of the Force. The highlight of the young additions, however, has to be the fun, flirtatious and sometimes tender chemistry between Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). Our new heroes captivate throughout the film and really give The Force Awakens its heart and soul. The biggest surprise in the character development arena, however, comes in the filmmakers’ humanizing of the Stormtroopers (just watch for the small moments featuring everything from humor to menace, plus it’s kind of refreshing to hear female voices coming out through those helmets).
Despite all this praise and so much more hyperbole you are bound to hear from others, I could not help but feel a bit of trepidation about some decisions in the filmmaking that only slightly drained some of the magic from the movie. As great as it might seem for the writers to find the right places for lines like “I got a bad feeling about this,” it gets a bit trite. One would hope that these films will rise above their own tropes and not turn into a lumbering ball of self-referencing with little substance like the James Bond series. Then there are two mechanical problems in the script that stood out as rather weak when they shouldn’t have been. As it’s not fair to spoil these plot points this late in the film’s non-release, all I will say is that it involves a bit of precious and heavy-handed exposition involving a long-winded private moment between Han and Leia (they deserve better), and another scene involving one of these key figures that many might see coming. It’s a moment that’s a bit too eerily reflective of another scene at the start of the first trilogy of these movies. Though the scene is supposed to be a climactic moment, it feels eerily hollow in its inevitability, like a loose end that long needed patching up.
In the end, does it deserve all this talk about awards? Though there are solar systems at stake, the urgency still doesn’t match that of Mad Max: Fury Road (Overturning Patriarchy in the Post-apocalyptic World:Mad Max: Fury Road – A Film Review) or even Spotlight. As they finally get their chance to mess around in this world, you never get the sense that Abrams and co. are trying to do anything more than make Star Wars fun again, and there are indeed plenty of occasions to make it fun, from crafty new uses of lightsabers to more tie fighters going through the ringer than I would have ever expected to see in one Star Wars movie. Thus, The Force Awakens does deserve its own hype as a Star Wars film. The cynic in me would say, please, let the hype stop at that, but there’s no denying this strange sense of reconnecting with my childhood and watching the sequel that I had always yearned to see for more than 30 years. That it does live up to that hype should be reason alone to say this is the film that indeed I had been waiting for.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens runs 135 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens pretty much everywhere on Thursday night with options to see it in 2-D, 3-D and IMAX. Disney Studios invited me to a 2-D preview screening for the purpose of this review. All images in this review are courtesy of www.starwars.com.