A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
To thousands, nay, millions of people living not only in Fresno but all over the world, those words helped define their lives. In 1977 George Lucas broadened his imagination by giving audience his masterpiece Star Wars (now known as Star Wars: Episode IV–A New Hope), and is so doing not only did he leave a mark on popular culture for all time, but he helped change the way motion pictures are made. There is very little I can say about the impact that Star Wars has had on popular culture that others haven’t said to death, but to put it simply, without Star Wars, the pop culture landscape would be a very, very different place.
The unprecedented success of the original film led to two sequels: The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and Return of the Jedi in 1983. These three films formed what is now know as the original Star Wars Trilogy, and together they are some of he most beloved and cherished films ever made. You will be hard pressed to find a person who has never seen these films before, and if you do it will be quite a shock. I can say from experience that I have personally devoted a great deal of my childhood, nay my life to this franchise.
Like most people, I was beyond excited when Lucas got back in the director’s chair in 1999 with Star Wars: Episode I–The Phantom Menace, the first film in a new prequel trilogy that would flesh out eh backstory of the original trilogy and chronicle the fall of Anakin Skywalker from a heroic Jedi knight into the legendary villain Darth Vader. Things were so pomicing, but unfortunately once the film finally came out it was lashed with criticism for wooden acting, confusing and overly political plots, overload of CGI effects, and other such criticisms that we have all heard for nearly two decades…and yes, there was Jar Jar. Sadly things improved little in 2002 with Episode II–Attack of the Clones, which got criticized for the same things, plus an underdeveloped romance and, even more harshly, for the overly stilted and wooden dialogue. The prequel trilogy ended in 2005 with Episode III–Revenge of the Sith, which was easily the best of the trilogy despite many of the same faults, but was beloved for it’s darker content and more emotional moments.
Alright, let me say right here that, as a lifelong, die hard Star Wars fan I absolutely agree that the original trilogy are far superior than the prequels. But having said that, I still enjoy them. I am of a unique age to enjoy this franchise; I was a little kid when I saw the original version of the first three films and when the special editions came out in 1997 I was only ten years old. At that age I was still impressionable and was so excited to see Star Wars on the big screen that I could get over some of the changes (I mind them far more these days though). The Phantom Menace had a similar effect on me when I was twelve; I was not aware of how bad the response was until a year or two later and, yes, it was a wake up call to say the least. So much so that I caught onto the flaws of the other two prequels far more easily, but yes, they were still Star Wars, and for me, Revenge of the Sith marked the end of an era.
My point in all of this is that Star Wars has been with me my whole life, both the good and the bad. So when it was announced that George Lucas sold the right to the franchise to the Walt Disney company and that more films would be coming out that took place after the original trilogy, I, like the rest of the world, was utterly shocked. But I was also very excited! Disney hyped this project for three years, pushing all the merchandise they could, greenlighting a brand new animated series, and overall going out of their to let fans know that the ‘dark times’ of the prequel era were over and that were were finally going to go back to the flare of eh original trilogy once again.
The wait has been very long and very arduous, but now, finally, the wait is over. The Force has indeed awakened!
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (or Star Wars: Episode VII–The Force Awakens if you prefer), is the first in Disney’s new sequel trilogy set in the decades after the events of Return of the Jedi, and as Disney’s first entry into their recently acquired franchise, it is also the first film for which George Lucas did not have any direct control or input. Normally the lack of involvement from the creator might seem like a problem for a franchise, but sadly, it would seem that the sullied reputation Lucas received from the prequels and the constant changes make to every re-release of the original films has made him as many harsh critics as supporters within his own fandom. Disney had a lot riding on The Force Awakens‘s success with a massive release plan for future films in the foreseeable future. The one to accept the monumental task of reinventing the franchise for a new generation was J. J. Abrams, a man who is no stranger to the pop culture landscape with his numerous television projects like Lost, or his previous film projects including, ironically, the 2009 Star Trek reboot an its sequel Star Trek Into Darkness. But is Abrams up to this truly monumental task? Lets find out.
Before I give the plot synopsis, I want to warn those who have not yet seen the film that while I will be keeping the biggest twists of the film a secret, I will be giving away the base plot of what is going on with the same kind of detail that I do with any film I review. So if do not want to know anything at all before seeing the film, please skip the next three paragraphs to go straight to the review.
It has been thirty years since the destruction of the second Death Star and the deaths of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. In that time Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill), the last Jedi, has disappeared from the galaxy. Luke is being hunted by both the First Order, an evil regime that has succeeded the Galactic Empire under leadership of the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (played by Andy Serkis), and the Resistance, a military force backed by the New Republic and led by Luke’s twin sister, General Leia Organa (played by Carrie Fisher). To find her brother before the First Order does, Leia sends Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (played by Oscar Isaac), who meets a village elder named Lon San Tekka (played by Max von Sydow) on the planet Jakku to obtain a map of Luke’s location. But things go awry when Stormtroopers under the command of a powerful and mysterious Dark Side warrior named Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver) infiltrate and destroy the village before capturing Poe. However Poe’s droid, BB-8, escapes with the map hidden in his memory and ultimately comes across a scavenger named Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) at a junkyard settlement.
After Ren tortures Poe to learn about BB-8, Stormtrooper FN-2187 (played by John Boyega) defects and helps Poe, who dubs him “Finn”, escape. The pair steal a TIE fighter which crashes on Jakku, where Finn appears to be the only survivor. He encounters Rey and BB-8, but it is not long before the First Order tracks them and launches an airstrike, forcing the three to steal a run-down ship, the legendary Millennium Falcon, and flee the planet in an intense aerial flight. But when the Falcon breaks down, leaving them stranded. They are soon found by Han Solo (played by Harrison Ford) and his Wookie copilot Chewbacca (played by Peter Mayhew) aboard a larger freighter. They are attacked by pirates and escape, but the pirates tell the First Order of Han’s involvement in aiding the fugitives.
Together the now expanded crew of the Falcon travel to the planet Takodana and meet an aged alien pirate named Maz Kanata (played by Lupita Nyong’o), who can help BB-8 reach the Resistance, but Finn decides he would rather flee on his own. Meanwhile, Rey is drawn to a vault inside Kanata’s castle and finds a chest containing a valuable relic, just as the First Order, under orders from General Hux (played by Domhnall Gleeson), arrives to attack the planet to reclaim the droid. Alliances are forges and tested, a new superweapon of indescribable power is primed to lay scourge to the Republic, and one of these young heroes may soon take their first stop into a larger world.
In all of the marketing released for this film, Disney went out of their way to let you know that this was going to be the film that would get back to what you loved about those original three films. Disney knew that was widespread thinking among the fans, they knew how frustrated we were with the prequels and the Clone Wars animated series, so forget all of that! They did everything they could to let us know that we were back to classic Star Wars again…And you know what, for the most part I’d say they’re right!
Despite not having the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare this time (for obvious reasons), seeing the Lucasfilm logo and the opening line “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”, it felt like no time had passed. Those ten years after watching Revenge of the Sith were wiped from my mind and there I was, back watching a brand new Star Wars movie! the opening crawl had the simplicity and the epic grandeur that we all expect from these crawls instead of assaulting us with a lot of political mumbo-jumbo. There are no mention of midichlorians or Trade Federations to be found. It was, in so many ways, Star Wars.
J. J. Abrams has always made in clear that he is a huge Star Wars fan and has been since he was a child, and that passion definite comes across in the film. In fact, many has cited that passion and understanding of how this franchise works in how he chose to reboot Star Trek. He wanted to do all he could to address the problems fans had with the prequel trilogy and do them right with the new film.
One of the ways he sough to do that was to resist overloading the screen with CGI and instead to go back to the original series method of using makeup, puppets and actual, physical sets. When we see the stormtropers in this film they are actual actors wearing suits, unlike the clone troopers who were all CG characters (a decision I find unnecessary to this day). Most (not all_ of the aliens are either puppet or actors in masks and makeup. Yes, obviously their is a fair amount of green screen work in here but it is balanced out with scenes that are clearly the actor films on location. When Finn passes under the nose of a X-Wing, he is ducking under a real prop. BB-8, the new droid in the film, is an actual, functioning robot built for this film, and he works terrific!
This feeling of nostalgia goes even further with the structure of the film itself…but maybe too far. BB-8 becomes the McGuffin of the story for the map he is carrying, much like how in the first film everyone was after R2-D2 because he was carrying the Death Star plans. Like R2 and C-3PO, BB-8 is stranded on a desert planet where they find one of our new lead characters. The Millennium Falcon is involved in their escape, the character journey to forest and snow planet similar to Endor and Hoth, etc. The Resistance and the First Order and of course the Rebellion and the Empire in new forms. There is even a Death Star-like superweapon revealed in the second half. Kylo Ren is obviously the fill in for Darth Vader despite not actually being a Sith, and Supreme Leader Snoke, only seen here as a giant hologram, is meant to be our new Empror Palpatine, even his relationship with Kylo Ren is very similar to Palpatine’s relationship with Vader. Some would call this uninspired or ripping off the classic trilogy, and honestly, I could not blame anyone for making that argument. for me though, I am on the fence on it; I see the similarities and the utter obviousness of them, but since this is the first film in a new era of the same franchise, I can accept it as a respectful homage. Besides, there are enough slight twists to still make it it’s own thing. Maybe its true, even in a far away galaxy, that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Abrams has always been great at getting a lot of natural, charismatic performances out of their actors (look at eh acting in his two Star Trek films for example), and coming off the reputation of the prequels, this was something that The Force Awakens desperately needed. Rey, Finn, Poe, all of these characters are speaking naturally but still in the flow of the Star Wars universe and their dialogue does not sound forced. Having said that, there are a couple of moments where Abrams allows his sense of wit to enter the script to add a distinct flavor to the universe, the humorous first meeting between Finn and Poe is a good example of this. Its a different flow than we’ve ever seen in any of these films so far, but it seems to work and entertains the audience, like the way Finn gets just a little bit ghetto in how he tells off Captain Phasma late into the film.
Lets go ahead and talk about some of the new characters. Both of the previous Star Wars trilogies have followed the Campbellian archetype of the Hero’s Journey (Luke in the original trilogy, Anakin in the prequels), and for The Force Awakens, Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasden seems to realize that fans will expect this and so they leave you guessing throughout the film just who’s hero’s journey we a re following, Finn or Rey’s. Rey is introduced as a strong, lonely survivor on a desolate planet making a living selling junk she scavenges from a wrecked Star Destroyer. She was apparently abandoned on Jakku by her family when she was a little girl and is waiting there for them to return, even though in her heart she knows they’re not going to. When she comes into contact with BB-8 is serves as a call to adventure for her and sets her on a path she was not expecting and is not even sure she wants. With Finn, we have an unexpected story of redemption for a stormtrooper, who up until now we only knew as faceless foot soldiers loyal to an evil regime (or clones in the early days of the Empire). But with Finn, we are now allowed to see a man underneath the helmet who, for whatever reason, has awoken to the how evil the organization he was raised to serve really is and now he just wants to find a way out. He seizes that chance b helping Poe Dameron escape and by meeting Rey and BB-8, he also finds himself thrown into the adventure against the very force he once served. Finn is also providing the drama of hiding his past from his new friends which, while perhaps cliché, is a relatively fresh idea for the Star Wars structure.
In fact, maybe that word right there answers why Finn an Rey are such effective protagonists here, they bring something fresh. It both Star Wars trilogies it was predominantly of white actors in the lead roles and a young, while male going on the hero’s journey, with African American actors playing memorable secondary roles (Lando Calrissian, Mace Windu, etc). It was also an in-joke in this series how few truly prominent female characters are at the hear to these stories, really only one per trilogy (Princess Leia in the original films, Padmé Amidala in the prequels), and any other female character were just minor roles like Aunt Beru, Mon Mothma or Shmi Skywalker. By putting a woman and a black man at the forefront of the story, J. J. Abrams fulfills his desire to make the franchise accessible to the much more gender equal and multicultural world we live in today. I can’t say where each of their arcs goes by the end of the story, but they certainly open a lot of exciting new possibilities for the future.
Another new character worthy of discussion is Poe Dameron. He’s not as big a character as Finn or Rey, but I love this guy! From the minute we meet him they film spares no expense to make him the most likable guy imaginable, like that cool best friend you’d love to hang out with and will always have your back no matter what. His seemingly instant friendship with Finn and his bond with BB-8 endears him to us and we respect him throughout the rest of the film. He also earns his reputation as the best pilot in the Resistance.
Many fan theories have circulated about the new villain Kylo Ren, and seeing him in the film I can assure you that he will not disappoint. This could have easily been written a just a one note villain, but the performance and the attitude he projects makes him memorable and a worthy successor to the legacy of the Dark Side. Sadly, there is only so much I can say about this character because going into what little gets revealed about him would be some of the biggest spoilers for the entire film. All I’ll say is that Kylo Ren is probably one of the strongest, most interesting villains we’ve sen in a while and his story will leave you asking a lot of questions after you leave the theater.
But I have to say that I kind of agree with IGN in that the real star of The Force Awakens is BB-8. This little droid’s simple spherical design (inspired by one of the very earliest design concepts for R2-D2 during the original film) and his lively personality instantly charmed fans when they first saw him in the initial teaser trailer and since then he has been all over the marketing for this film and, effectively, promised to be on par with Artoo and Threepio. Well its up to the viewer to decide whether they like him that much, but this little droid fulfills everything that has been promised. He’s charming, loyal, useful, and instantly memorable. Children and adult fans alike with absolutely be wanting a BB-8 toy this holiday season.
The rest of the new characters are a little bit hit or miss, not because they’re bad but because they don’t always get a lot of focus. This isn’t an issue so much for someone like Maz Kanata, an alien character who proved to be far more knowledgeable and sage like than I could have seen coming. But it is a bigger issue for someone like General Hux (even though he does get a very passionate and angered speech to the troopers) and Captain Phase who, despite her memorable design, contributes far less to the story than I was anticipating. And then there is Snoke, who I am willing to forgive for now because he is clearly just being introduced to pay off in much bigger way in the forthcoming films.
But what about the returning characters we all know and love from the classic trilogy? Well I am happy to say that all do a terrific job stepping back into their classic role and bringing an age and experience to them to support the newer, younger cast. There characters have progressed in a logical, natural way form where we last saw them in Return of the Jedi. Han Solo often steals the show as the older, battle seasoned smuggler who has seen quite a lot in his time as well as some really tragic things that we firs learn about in this story. General Leia Organa is cast in a similar boat, going from a Rebel princess to the true leader of the Resistance, a logical fusion of her diplomatic side and her battle hardened skills as a fighter, even if it is a shame that the revelation of her Jedi heritage didn’t seem to have paid off. Chewbacca is…well, he’s still Chewie, through and through. He’s loyal, strong, and at times very funny, just the way we know and love him. We only get so much of C-3PO and R2-D2 in this film but they also still seem the way we remember them, with a couple of bittersweet twist thrown in.
The status of Luke Skywalker has been kept a very tightly-lipped secret by Disney and Abrams and for good reason. As I hopefully made clear from the summary a lot of the plot is written around what happened to him. Regrettably, to say more about what the film does with him would give away way too much, so I am going to have to stop here.
One more thing I will credit Abrams for is the beautiful photography of this film. The framing is clear, the colors pop, and everything contrasts between that classic, dirty and grimy look of places like Jakku and the Millennium Falcon and the sleek, sterile atmosphere of the First Order. I love the new design of the stromtroopers, its a great update for the modern era. The ships are also a subtle update form their classic look as well, and Kylo Ren’s design is fantastic. The use of color is also inspired, from the brightly lit wastelands of Jakku to the blue filtered night on the snow planet.
If there is one area where I have to criticize The Force Awakens, and it pains me to have to do it, it is that I was surprisingly underwhelmed by the score. John Williams’s music for these films have long been some of the most memorable and acclaimed film music in history, but so far I would say that The Force Awakens may be his weakest score of the series. Its not bad, it does everything a movie score is supposed to do. But every Star Wars film has ha at least one instantly memorable theme that we all think about whenever we think of that film: “The Main Theme” and “Binary Sunset” for A New Hope, “The Imperial March” for The Empire Strikes Back, “Battle for Endor” and “Luke and Leia” for Return of the Jedi, “Duel of the Fates” for The Phantom Menace, “Across the Stars” for Attack of the Clones, and “Battle of the Heroes” for Revenge of the Sith. So I was shocked to realize that I came out of The Force Awakens not having heard anything new that was really meant to stick out in my mind. The closest we get is “Rey’s Theme,” but even that isn’t the best of Williams’s work. To be fair though, I do not think that this film was deliberately meant to show off big, memorable music like the previous films were, so maybe it isn’t Williams’s fault.
Like every film, The Force Awakens thrives upon it’s performances, which in this case is made up of a large ensemble cast. Harrison Ford received top billing for reprising his iconic role as Han Solo, playing the role far more seasoned and world weary, but still with that familiar charm and roguish swagger that we all love from the character. It reminds me very much of what Ford did back in 2008 with he returned as Indiana Jones for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in that regard, but Ford makes it work, and his appearance gives the movie a sense of life that can’t help but appreciate. Mark Hamill receives second billing for his return as Luke Skywalker, but that credit is kind of ironic for reasons I cannot reveal. Still, his reappearance will hopefully create some nostalgic feeling from the audience. Carrie Fisher, like Ford, brings her added age and wisdom to her legendary role of General Leia Organa, playing the role as a seasoned warrior who may not be getting in on the action anymore, but still has some of that spark deep within her even at her age. Adam Driver gives a impressively deep and intense performance as Kylo Ren, turning what could have been a one-or-two dimensional villain into a complex, emotionally troubled young man with a fascinating history, seemingly cultish outlook of Darth Vader, and a seeming inferiority complex as well. Again, to say much more about him would risk giving away too much. Daisy Ridley does much to carry this film as Rey, playing her as a strong survivor with no real sense of purpose of of the vast scope of her own galaxy, but also someone we can all tell is meant for far greater things. It will not surprise me if fans all over the world come to embrace her as a new figurehead for the series going forward. Similarly, John Boyega also does a lot to carry this story as Finn, bringing a likable personality and capturing our interest as a mere soldier for the enemy seeking his chance for redemption. He too is another actor whose performance I hope fans will learn to embrace and love for the future. Oscar Isaac delivers what may be one of the most likable performance of the film as Poe Dameron, playing the part like a down-to-Earth good guy with a sense of style and swagger that is infections, and the kind of guy that you want to spend time with and have as your best friend…which makes Isaac’s casting as the titular villain in next year’s X-Men: Apocalypse very ironic to me. Lupita Nyong’o delivers a memorable motion capture performance as Maz Kakata, playing this character as a wise, ancient alien sage figure but with the added edge of a world wise pirate background, very different and less formal than what a character like Yoda would offer. In speaking of motion capture, the master of the craft himself, Andy Serkis, provides his talents as Supreme Leader Snoke, who despite not having a whole lot to work with now he imbues with an evil aura and creepiness that makes us curious to see what will be done with him in future films. Domhnall Gleeson isn’t given a huge amount to do as General Hux, but he brings a lot of passion and anger to the role, particularly in that scene where he denounces the Republic to motivate his stormtroopers. Anthony Daniels is back doing his usual routine as C-3PO and makes do fine, proving once again why by this point no one else can possibly play this role. Likewise, Peter Mayhew is back at home as Chewbacca, providing Chewie’s signature charm and comic relief. Also, Max von Sydow appeared early on to bring his sense of gravitas to the prominent minor role of Lor San Tekka. Other performances include Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma, Tim Rose as Admiral Ackbar, Mike Quinn as Nien Nunb, Kenny Baker as “consultant” for R2-D2; Dave Chapman and Brian Herring as puppeteers for BB-8, with Bill Hader and Ben Schwartz as “Vocal Consultants,” Ken Leung appears as Statura, Simon Pegg as Unkar Plutt, Greg Grunberg as Snap Wexley, Kiran Shah as Teedo, Jessica Henwick as Jess Testor, Yayan Ruhian, Tasu Leech, Iko Uwais as Razoo Qin-Fee, Cecep Arif Rahman as Crokind Shand, Warwick Davis appears as Wollivan, Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Thanisson, and Billie Lourd as Connix.
Overall, Star Wars: The Force Awakens may not be a flawless film, but looking back as an adult I realize that none of these films are truly flawless but it doesn’t matter. Despite perhaps relying too much on nostalgia and maybe having a weaker score, the spirit of Star Wars is more alive in this film than in any we have seen since 1983. The acting and directing and writing are all solid and the story is engaging and entertaining to keep us invested, excited, and eager to know what happens next, just as Star Wars should. Much like with The Hobbit Trilogy or The Avengers it is difficult, if not impossible, for me to review this without at least a little bit of bias, and for all I know I may be giving the film more credit than it deserves. But even so, I loved the film and I am proud to say that, whatever the future holds, the Force is strong with this one! I give it a low but very enthusiastic five stars!
In the words of Maz Kanata, “The Force, it’s calling to you…Just let it in.”