Review: Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)

TFAAround the age of 8 or 9, I was experiencing Star Wars for the first time on a screen of 10 inches. I preferred watching movies in solitude, so I would set up our family’s box-sixed portable TV on one of the endtables in our living room, and insert one of three tapes – the edited-for-TV Special Edition of A New Hope taped off of PBS, the edited-for-TV Phantom Menace taped off Fox, or a rented copy of the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi (I’d deemed Empire to depressing for a rewatch). For the first time in my life I was part of a larger world, and a great love of film bloomed.

I’m like many with their own childhood Star Wars stories. The series holds a timeless, universal appeal that inspires the most passionate emotional attachment of any film franchise ever made. Perhaps that’s because of how Star Wars seems to blend every genre of film together in one big, beautiful mosaic. Star Wars practically IS film, and with its latest installment The Force Awakens, the vice versa can be true once again.

I’ve expressed my fears as Star Wars transferred hands from creator George Lucas, who’d pledged an end to the series on film, to the Disney corporation, who had instantly greenlit The Force Awakens and would surely whore it out tenfold. I expected, perhaps even wanted, to hate director J.J. Abrams and the Lucasfilm team for The Force Awakens being the one to drop the torch, to extinguish the light of the series for all time.

And that’s just me – Star Wars’ legacy spans nearly 40 years of films, TV, comic books, video games, merchandise, and more. The universe means so much to so many different generations with different takes on its many tales. Lucasfilm and Abrams have taken careful consideration of all this, and in an exhaustive effort to please everybody, The Force Awakens is actually a very likable, if familiar rebirth of the series.

Like its predecessors, the film is drawn in simple strokes – Luke Skywalker is missing. The Galactic Civil War rages on thirty years after Return of the Jedi, in the form of the New Order (bad guys) and the Resistance (good guys). Before being captured by the Empire on the planet Jakku, X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) gives droid BB-8 a secret map to Skywalker’s whereabouts. BB-8 then stumbles upon Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who traverses Jakku’s deserts for the remains of imperial machinery. There is also Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper horrified by war, who teams up with Rey to return the map to the Resistance. They are pursued by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a wannabe Darth Vader of the New Order wielding the power of the Dark Side. There are appearances from the older players of the saga as well, but I’ll leave those as nostalgic surprises for the viewer to discover, just as they are intended to be.

While watching The Force Awakens, I found myself internally berating its inane dialogue (“C’mon! We need a pilot!”) and hokey sentimentalism (“You came back for me?!”). But, I recalled, are these not qualities of the original Star Wars as well?

So I sat back, shut my mind up, and I let the movie work its magic. And I was whisked right back into that larger world.

If the original trilogy was George Lucas’ prize automobile, then J.J. Abrams has gone to Lucas’ old garage, studied the original blueprints, cosmetics of the machine, looked under the hood, memorized every detail of its design, and then built a pretty chewiewerehomedamn close replica. And it runs like a dream. I imagine a lot of that can be attributed to Abrams calling in all the old pit crew to put the vehicle together – we have Empire and Jedi screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan co-scribing, sound master Ben Burtt bringing back some familiar sounds from the series’ past, and John Williams rounding out with a rousing, triumphant score. Even Drew Struzan was enlisted to provide some poster art. And though Harrison Ford’s Han Solo is mugging at CGI monsters now, he’s still got that leading-man swagger that made him a star back in ‘77. And the new players are holding their own just as well amongst the veterans to boot.

Abrams is also one of those smart everyman directors who, like Lucas, puts you in the driver’s seat and gives you the full sensory experience of its speed. We nod. We like the way this engine sounds. We like the feel of it when it vrooms. And Abrams’ own tiny contributions feel like welcome twists on an old machine. The lightsaber duel, for one, is slower, more feral and akin to medieval fencing, a fresh perspective on the cartoonish acrobatics of 2005’s Revenge of the Sith. Abrams understands through and through why these movies worked so well; The Force Awakens, like Hope, Empire, and Jedi, are about idealism, comradery, friendship, loyalty, and on a deeper level, life and legacy. Awakens retains the tone, the spirit, and the fun, rah-rah attitude of the originals. Credit Lucasfilm for that too – The Force Awakens can stand among the best of the company’s Expanded Universe stories as a natural complement to the Original Trilogy before it.

Yes, there’s a “but” coming.

You might recognize the film’s key plot points, the cute little droid carrying secret plans, the captured Rebel leader being tortured for the location of said plans, the mysterious masked villain, the shadowy evil figure behind him, the old man mentor, the cantina of bizarre creatures, the giant space station that can destroy planets…are all retreads of A New Hope. Sure, the series has always called back to and paralleled itself (“like poetry” says Lucas), but a beat-for-beat recreation of Hope feels too safe, a concession to fans lying in the wait with pitchforks for anything deviating from the series’ past, and a studio with a very large investment to protect.

Which is the key problem with Awakens…it fails to innovate, to push the technological envelope in the same way its predecessors did. All stormtroopersthe planets look like rehashes of the original trilogy’s – desert planet, forest planet, and ice planet. The World War II symbolism of the originals also feels conspicuously foregrounded, not to mention dated. Abrams claims the New Order are like if the Nazis all fled to Argentina and reformed, and obviously fans would not object to bringing back such iconic enemies. I would’ve liked, however, to have seen Abrams do something a little ballsier to parallel more modern warfare…what if instead of Nazis, the bad guys were stand-ins for the Russians during the Cold War?

Abrams also struggles to find the visual comedy of the series. Awakens has some chuckle-worthy moments but nothing like the campy humor of the originals, which while occasionally cringe-worthy, provided a cutesy way of breaking up the action. Add to that some lingering continuity issues with the series as a whole, and Awakens isn’t quite as satisfying as it could’ve been.

My past posts have suggested a great distaste for Disney corporatizing the series. With The Force Awakens, I felt just as pumped up as I did watching the originals as a kid. And I think I’ve made peace with those anti-Disney sentiments now. The simple truth is, Star Wars isn’t mine anymore. It is being passed to a new generation. Episodes I-VI will always hold special places in my heart, and the series will continue to be a great influence on me as an artist and as a person. But when you love something, you let it go. Rather than selfishly denounce all future Star Wars material, I want the kids of today to see The Force Awakens and get as wide-eyed, as uplifted, and as inspired I was was watching the originals.

Though hopefully on a slightly bigger size screen.

7.5/10

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Images: themarysue, dolimg.com, images.smh.com

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From the Archives: Star Wars Blu-Ray Release

Originally published September 13th, 2011. Layout & titles by Nathan Carter.

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