The kind of 'Star Wars' movie we know and love is back again in 'The Force Awakens'
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Walt Disney Studios
Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt, based on characters created by George Lucas
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Carrie Fisher, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong'o and Mark Hamill
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 15 minutes
December 18, 2015
(out of four)
Forget that The Force Awakens is a good movie. It's not just that. It's that The Force Awakens is the right movie. The exact movie that needed to be made in order for the Star Wars franchise to get on solid footing (not to mention audiences' good graces) once again. It is the right movie, at the right time, by the right people, with the right tone and the right look. It is the right balance of old and new. It is the right place for Star Wars to be at this moment.
It can't be overstated how much needed to be re-established, which is why director J.J. Abrams was kind of a no-brainer for the job. The movie he delivered is pretty much what most of us expected. For all Abrams' mystery-box posturing, he's generally not one for big surprises - certainly not aesthetic ones, and generally even his narrative wrinkles are relatively moderate; twists and tweaks that fit within a pretty firmly established framework. For better or worse, he has a tendency to deliver exactly what we expect. In taking the reins of a film that just a few years ago seemed like it would never happen, Abrams does precisely that; he just happens to be really good at it.
Awakens is squarely in recovery mode for the series and the brand, but Abrams manages to make it feel like an effortlessly smooth transition. In its style and tone of voice, this feels of a piece with the original trilogy. It feels like the types of characters and the kind of adventure we remember. And that is, admittedly, what this is kind of all about - memory. The memory of what this particular American cinematic institution is, or was, or could be again. It's no secret that The Force Awakens is driven by, and buried in, nostalgia, and Abrams has crafted Episode VII with that overwhelmingly in mind. He doesn't simply pay homage to the original trilogy; rather he uses the first film as his actual template, borrowing similar character dynamics, storytelling beats, environments and images to tell a similar story with new (and a few old) characters. He even goes so far as to re-introduce Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in the context audiences love him best - the rogue smuggler on the run from his debtors. Thirty-eight years later, Han is back to being Han again, just as 38 years later Star Wars is back to being Star Wars again. There are positives and negatives to this approach, but here it works like gangbusters.
It's not unlike what Ryan Coogler did earlier this year with the similarly nostalgic Creed, reworking elements of (and, in my opinion, improving upon) the original Rocky with new (and a few old) characters.
In this case, it seems like a necessary bit of rehabilitation. Not to spend too much time pissing on the already-throughly-pissed-upon prequel trilogy, but those movies left so many with so sour a taste that The Force Awakens' retro nostalgia seems like a genuine statement in and of itself. Aside from the movie being splendidly entertaining in its own right. It wouldn't be accurate to say this is essentially the same movie the late '70s version George Lucas would have made (for one thing, Abrams' filmmaking and sense of humor are far more self-aware), but it gets close, and in this case that's OK.
I'm not sure if this helps put anything into context or not, but I'll try it: Generally speaking, I'm not especially enthusiastic about a pop culture as relentlessly driven by nostalgia as ours has become of late. On balance, I think it's a bad thing. Not only that, but when it comes to sequels and franchises and reboots and the like, I'm severely - almost evangelically - in favor of reinvention rather than repetition. Of tossing out the playbook and going in a new direction with the material.
But even I can't resist a movie so well-crafted, so well-acted, and imbued so carefully with joy, humor, warmth and wit. Actually, the fact that Abrams is looking to the past for inspiration allows The Force Awakens a different set of charms than its predecessors. It allows him the ability to treat ideas and characters in this universe as icons - as part of a collective mythology - in ways A New Hope obviously could not (and more cleverly than the perfunctory, obligatory ways Lucas tossed known characters into his prequels). This all may be "fan service," but at least it's the smart, engaging kind. A favorite example? How about the fact that the film's best entrance (and I love me a good entrance) is not Han or Leia or Luke, but the Millennium Falcon itself, which is cleverly introduced to the story in the midst of an escape attempt by the series' newest protagonist, Rey (Daisy Ridley).
Rey, a scavenger with mysterious lineage (but an obvious knack for The Force) living on the desert planet Jakku, makes for an instantly lovable heroine, and one-half of terrifically mismatched duo with co-lead Finn (John Boyega). Finn is a former Storm Trooper whose sudden bout of conscience* during a raid on Jakku drives him into an existential crisis in which he poses as a member of the Resistance that he will inevitably end up joining anyway. Before teaming up with Rey, he rather accidentally befriends ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in a dual escape from Death Star 3.0 Starkiller Base, the stronghold of the odious First Order.
* A particular gesture preceding Finn's apparent moment of clarity leads me to believe there's something more complicated going on with him, but I could be reading too much into it.
The cast of characters is the one area where Abrams and his writers can't rely as much on the nostalgia and existing stories they're leaning on so much elsewhere. This is the make-or-break point, and thankfully the new characters are by and large fantastic. Ridley offers a memorable combination of moxie, childlike wonder and self-doubt. Boyega has been primed for an eventual mainstream breakout for years, ever since his great lead role in Attack the Block introduced a few of us to his natural movie-star presence.
The great Oscar Isaac offers yet another new side to his skill set as Poe, embodying the earnest, cornball heroism of an old-fashioned Western or adventure movie. Probably the standout for me, and this isn't particularly surprising, is Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, the conflicted, fearful, angry commander of the First Order and master of the Knights of Ren (about whom I hope to learn more in subsequent installments). Inner torment has been such a common theme in the Star Wars universe, but I don't think I've seen it put so exquisitely in action as Driver does with his acting choices here. Just a brutal cocktail of anger, love, crippling fear and malevolence all emanating from one sensationally expressive face.
One of the few key surprises for me was that there's a kind of background competition going on for who gets to be this new trilogy's Big Bad. We assume it's Kylo Ren, but then comes the emergence of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), who initially comes across as rather meek before transforming into a hideously vile presence. This comes to a head in a big setpiece in which Abrams memorably doubles down on the series' recurring Nazi imagery.
There's a common argumentative fallacy that a movie being too familiar, or cliche, or predictable, is a self-evident flaw. This, of course, is untrue. Most movies are predictable to one degree or another. For any such movie, what really matters is how imaginatively you accomplish what you're doing. The Force Awakens doesn't have a whole lot in the way of "originality," I admit, but it does what it does very, very well. And probably more importantly, it lays a fantastic new groundwork for where this world can go.