Directed by: JJ Abrams
The Plot: It’s been thirty years since the collapse of the Imperial Empire. In that time a new dominion has fermented and taken shape called the First Order. Led by the cryptic Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his agent of the dark side, Kylo Ren, (Adam Driver) their first duty is to locate and terminate the galaxy’s last living Jedi Knight.
The Film: I found myself sitting next to KIRO radio’s Tom Tangney at this afternoon’s Force Awakens screening, and during our discussion before the film started he made the statement that Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon – and how does one review cultural phenomena? The truth is you can’t. Or at least, as far as the old days were concerned, you couldn’t.
A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi all outlived their critics. In a bad turn for the franchise, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith were films that could be immediately criticized, with middling reviews comfortably heaped upon them at the time of their release. Because, lets face it, no matter where you stand on the first three episodes of this series there was much to pick apart. So much so that ten years after the fact I doubt a single episode of the prequel films will ever rise above its original evaluation. An evaluation that read troubled and cloying.
As for this new film by JJ Abrams? I can in all honesty say that The Force Awakens is bigger than film criticism. It will outlive its critics.
And thank God for that.
This is the fluid, organic Star Wars of our shared youth. Where stones of plot were left unturned (for the time being) dark mysteries loomed, evil felt like legitimate evil, and new friends were discovered while older, familiar faces reintroduced themselves – and not all of those faces human.
The Force Awakens is our Star Wars heritage refurbished for the faithful proletariat of 2015. Its sense of humor is natural and unforced. Its effects work 80% practical. Its creature design outstanding. (there’s this elephantine hog-monster drinking out of a water trough on Jakku that is pretty much the neatest Star Wars extra ever) The Force, finally rid of the actuary tables of midi-chlorian accounting, is now back to how we preferred it – mystical, elegant, and strong enough to pull the ears off a gundark. The tidal wave of nostalgia in this new film is nearly unavoidable. Abrams plays these notes from the past, not as a way to goad his audience into Pavlovian response, (Jurassic World and Spectre, you two stay in your corner) but because Star Wars – even the lousy stuff – has always had echoes and onomatopoeia reverberating through its chapters.
There is indeed a moment in The Force Awakens where Han Solo says: “I have a bad feeling about this.” There is another where a garbage chute becomes the ultimate method of Stormtrooper disposal. There is a sage in the middle act of the film named Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o conjures Henson’s Creature Shop-era magic with this new character) that will immediately remind you of a short, green Jedi Master from Dagobah 35 years ago – before he got all political and bossy in prequelville.
Of the many new faces in The Force Awakens – from John Boyega’s reluctant Stormtrooper, to Oscar Isaac’s grinning, and winning, X-Wing savant, to the motorized Weeble Wobble, BB-8 – the one the fans are going to embrace immediately is Daisy Ridley’s Rey. (no last name, Mystic River’s Jimmy Markum would have tagged this girl “Just Rey”) Rey has Star Wars in her DNA. The girl has Star Wars in her bone structure. Like Luke Skywalker before her, Rey tumbles into her destiny as if compelled to. Soon she’s pulled into drama big enough to consume not just her world, Jakku, but the entire galaxy with it. There’s a sweetness to Rey. A tomboy poet quality. She exudes the genial bearing of the escapist that drives so many of us to the movie house on our weekends. We may know precious little about Rey’s past, but we are immediately invested in her future.
In one of my favorite sequences in the film, Rey and Finn abscond with the Millennium Falcon, (the reveal of this ship is the first of many audience boosting moments in the film) and are being chased by a squadron of TIE fighters through the ship graveyards of Jakku. The beauty of this moment being that when Rey climbs into the pilot seat and Finn climbs into one of the Falcon’s twin gun ports, they’re at the mercy of retro Star Wars 77′ vector-graphics technology. What looked cutting edge in 1977 isn’t exactly utilitarian when put into play in 2015. This is one of the few JJ moments in the film, (recall Captain Kirk cranking a Beastie Boys track in Star Trek) but it’s a most welcome addition. It delineates the generational gap wholly.
For the most part Abrams keeps himself completely out of The Force Awakens path. It’s this director’s most unobtrusive production to date, and one of his best films.
Since there always must be balance in the super-universe of Star Wars, if there’s a hero that we fall in love with, then there will be the appropriate villain we might just find a way to love a little bit more. Rey’s old soul vitality is only rivaled by the complexity and severity of Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. Both characters are easily the best thing to happen to Star Wars since… well, Star Wars. Unfortunately, there’s so much that you need to discover about these two on your own, I can only hint to you how much you’re going to go gaga over them, and leave you to it.
But, in Yoda speak: Gaga you will go.
There is a scene late in the film featuring Kylo Ren – a scene which I must step around most delicately – that overrides easy fandom and expectation. A scene that demonstrates the full destructive capability of this film and this new villain. The Force Awakens has some serious teeth, and Star Wars fans may not yet be prepared for how sharp they are. Adam Driver’s performance in this section of the movie is unrestrained, scary, and curiously touching. His struggle is one we’re not used to in an agent of the Dark Side. He’s strong and capable, and when the need arises, unflinching and merciless. Kylo Ren also happens to be very, very human. His obsession with Darth Vader is more about his quest to consummate his ideal self and affirm his identity in a universe as vast and competitive as this one. What Kylo Ren doesn’t quite yet understand at this early stage in his career is that only Vader could handle being Vader. The original Dark Lord of the Sith didn’t achieve his reputation and rank by demonstrations of magic and lightsaber finesse. He suffocated entire worlds and wiped-out whole bloodlines to attain entree in the Imperial Empire.
Star Wars has had its share of villains, but Kylo is something we haven’t seen as yet. His behavior is both awe-inspiring (freezing blaster bolts in flight) and oddly fetching. (the way he crouches down on the balls of his feet to speak to detainees of the First Order) Since the Knights of Ren are the progeny of the Sith, and the Sith ran almost singularly off of their own fully charged emotions, Kylo Ren is mostly at the mercy of his mood – and not in the Anakin-Skywalker-lower-dental-plate-jutting-outward-hissy-fit sense. The confusion Ren experiences is real. The pain and anger cogent.
The scene I’m carefully skirting around above is on par with the more storied moments in Star Wars. Luke blowing up the Death Star in A New Hope. Darth Vader’s “I… am your father” speech on Bespin in The Empire Strikes Back. Though its ramifications are hefty, it’s ultimately Adam Driver’s performance that shapes this moment in the film into one of the marquee moments of this now, near mythical franchise. You’ll see.
The Verdict: There are films we go see to escape for an afternoon, and there are films we see simply to feel small. And still there are films we allow ourselves to get misplaced within – even if only for a few short hours. The Force Awakens is a movie to lose yourself in. Herein is a world to tower over the viewer. To place them in exotic insignificance. The latest Star Wars is an enormous motion picture. One that doesn’t just span across seventy feet of theater screening – but one that extends around the audience, enveloping hopes and fears and resuscitating the collective daydreams of youth. As for me, my wish is that George Lucas will leave his seat of power at Skywalker Ranch and sneak into future matinees of The Force Awakens to watch this new movie with the paying public. That he’ll ultimately allow himself to be content with the finality that these children he unofficially sired in 1977 have now fully matured and have not just taken over the family business, but are making it vital again. My biggest hope for George Lucas is that he’ll ditch his self-anointed ‘Creator’ title and acquiesce, and grab a bucket of popcorn and take a seat next to the rest of us, and for the first time in a long time, become a Star Wars fan again.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in theaters across the world on 12/18/2015