It’s funny to think back three years when it was announced that Disney would be purchasing Lucasfilms and making a new Star Wars film to be released in 2015. Now, that date has come and gone, carrying an almost mythic quality to it. Not just because Star Wars is some larger than life entity, which it is, but because this date has been etched into our minds — like a tablet from the Ten Commandments — for so long that it almost seems unnatural that it is finally here. What is world like post-December 17? Is there a functioning civilization? Flying cars? Boisterous future rulers with flimsy blondish red hair?
The answers for those questions are still floating in the air, but one is definitive — there is more Star Wars.
The Force Awakens is a very good movie, VERY good. But, it isn’t great. Director J.J. Abrams is someone who knows how to reinvigorate a franchise rather, but seems to lack the skills needed to re-invent it. But that is perfect for what we wanted in this entry. We didn’t want the wheel re-invented, we wanted it oiled and shined, and running efficiently once again. This movie wasn’t supposed to be transcendent, it was transitional — and to that point, it succeeded.
The movie catches up 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi where the original trilogy crew joins with a host of new faces to bring down the First Order, a threat in the robes of the Empire that look to take over the galaxy. Among the new faces are Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley), two outsiders looking to find their place in the world when they run into each other. Finn, an escaped stormtrooper who is now on the run after helping to free the captured pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), meets Rey, a scavenger who is waiting for her family to return home, when the droid, BB-8, comes to them with a top secret message.
The movie’s plot echoes A New Hope for the first 30 minutes, almost to the point where you think it is a practical joke. Abrams has never been one to carve his own path and he directs The Force Awakens with one eye on the horizon, and the other dazed in the past. The re-emergence of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) don’t make avoiding the past any easier, but this infused nostalgia also comes from Abrams’ choices in shot composition and dialogue.
Most of the time, this works as a positive. After enduring the three prequel films in the early to mid 2000s, The Force Awakens feels like half a breath of fresh air, and half a dive into the familiar. There are moments that demand recognition, which are there for the sake of evoking the audience’s emotions, and others that feel forced and heavy-handed. This is the genius and the curse of Abrams, who can make something feel weightless and free, but also redundant and unoriginal.
But, this trait may have been just what Star Wars needed. Sure, the plot is muddled and familiar, but to an extent so was the first film. The only difference is that instead of pulling from Joseph Campbell and Akira Kurosawa, Abrams mines from within the Star Wars brand, which at times feels self-indulgent, but also utterly gratifying. This is a franchise that needed a push into the open, and The Force Awakens did just that.
While working as a trip into the past, it also introduced us into the new wave of favorite characters with the additions of Poe Dameron, Finn, and especially Rey. Ridley enters the scene with such a vivacious, inspiring aura that it is nearly impossible not to fall in love with her immediately (I feel ya Finn). You feel something special about her the minute her face hits the screen and she holds your attention until the very final moments of the film. Like Ford and the others before, this is a star-making vehicle for Boyega and Ridley, and both knocked it out of the park on their first at-bat.
The rest of the cast lays the groundwork for more visits following this film. The villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), has echoes of Darth Vader, but a vendetta all his own. Driver does a solid job of setting his character up as a force to be reckoned with, but needed a catalyst to make us fear him as we did with Vader, and the events of the film may make room for that. Other players such as General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), and Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) come and go, but with the promise that their characters will continue to grow and flourish with the multitude of other entries on the way.
This is a film about beginnings and endings, and the new crew of faces feels the impact of what they’re apart of. If I could ask of one thing for future films from them, it is to act like you’re supposed to be there rather than just being excited to come along.
The Force Awakens is an imperfect beginning, but a necessary one. The flaws are manageable and passable with the swell of nostalgia and the emergence of new beginnings making way for engrossing entertainment and a sense of wonder. On one end, the old characters are back and reminding you of why you dove into this series in the first place while on the other, you are introduced to the new troops that will akin in the future of the franchise and ignite the passion of new viewers.
Maybe time will open it up more as a standalone, but for now it is a bridge, and on the other side is years and years of delving into the nuances of these characters we just met. We will get to know Finn and Rey and Poe and BB-8 in time, but for now, we soak in the return and remind ourselves….
Star Wars is back.