Star Wars: The Force Awakens

MPAA Rating: PG-13 | Rating: ★★★
Release year: 2015
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi Director: Abrams

For those who love the Star Wars franchise as I do, The Force Awakens will hit all the right beats and satisfy the plethora of fans. It’s the Star Wars film we all wanted The Phantom Menace to be back in 1999, a film which is not nearly as bad as it’s been deemed, but also not nearly as good as it could (or should) have been. The Force Awakens is narratively and thematically an exact parallel to the original 1977 film–I’m tempted to call it An Old Hope. (The closest cultural parallel I can think of is Ryan Adams’ recent remake of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album. Both albums stand alone as catchy well-crafted pop music, and Adams does take a divergent approach with his tone and production. It’s the same, but not identical. Such it is with A New Hope and The Force Awakens.)  I’m also tempted to write my review entirely from the bits and pieces of better reviews and analyses I’ve read over the past few days, something which filmmaker J.J. Abrams does quite effectively in the newest episode in the Star Wars saga. Still, I hope to have something original to contribute to the conversation, but I will warn you here: this review briefly goes into spoiler territory. It serves more as an analysis of what worked/didn’t work in The Force Awakens, as well as an exploration into the ideas it presents.

While old friends are back in this film beyond cameo roles–Han and Chewie are key characters and get plenty of screen time–The Force Awakens‘ strongest elements lie in its emerging generation. Daisy Ridley is absolutely astonishing as Rey, and gives one of the best acting performances of any character in any Star Wars film yet. She is reminiscent of the better parts of Luke Skywalker with her youthful enthusiasm and untapped potential in the ways of the Force. Yet she is wholly her own character with an intriguing backstory and a principled independence. She can fight, she can fly, and she exhibits both strength and compassion, without ever becoming sexualized or solely an action star. As such, she’s a genuine feminine role model within the Star Wars mythos, and one of the more notable female protagonists in a year filled with great ones (e.g. Mad Max: Fury Road, The Assassin, Inside Out, and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation). Rey’s story is a coming-of-age tale akin to Luke’s in A New Hope, just with a bit more loose ends which will need exploring in the further sequels.

Speaking of great characters building on the original series, newcomer BB-8 has the potential to become my favorite Star Wars droid. A gyroscopic soccer ball with heart, he has some key strengths which improve upon R2-D2, allowing him to keep up with the action and play a stronger role than just a robotic Macguffin. Other solid newcomers are Finn (John Boyega), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who each give solid performances in a sci-fi series not known for its acting. We also get to see a new side of the evil Empire/First Order due to Finn’s origins–we’ve never really seen the perspective of a Storm Trooper or seen the mechanics inside a TIE fighter. The first act of The Force Awakens is excellent cinema, with great pacing/editing and thrilling action sequences, all climaxing with the Millennium Falcon’s first flight with Rey as its pilot. Cheers erupted when key characters or objects showed up. My theater was genuinely having a lot of fun, and I did too: I laughed, I teared up briefly, and I was totally entertained.

So what didn’t work? Why only 3 out of 5 stars, a rating suggesting “this was fine” instead of “this was exceptional?” While the acting is some of the best in the series, and some of the sequences and visuals are genuinely well-crafted, the plot mechanics follow A New Hope so closely it felt more like a reboot than a new episode. I cannot emphasize this enough–if you’ve seen A New Hope, then you’ve already seen The Force Awakens, with a few scattered ideas taken from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. As such, there are very few actual surprises or original moments, and some key scenes which should have been emotionally devastating were surprisingly unaffecting for me.  I was more moved by Rey’s confrontations with Kylo Ren than some significant moments involving Han, Leia, and Luke. Similarly, I was more aware of the violence in this film, which includes the slaughter of a village by Storm Troopers and multiple planets being destroyed akin to the destruction of Alderaan. While the series has never dealt with death and violence very well beyond its key characters, The Force Awakens does raise the question of whether or not such violence is morally right through the narrative arc of Finn, a Storm Trooper who abandons his post as he sees the darkness of his role. While it raises the idea, it never explores it much further, yet still revels in the thrilling actions sequences involving plenty of dead Storm Troopers, Resistance fighters, and innocent villagers alike. Also, some key characters are introduced and even given significant screen time, then (likely) killed off (or at least hurt or captured) without any sense of where they went or concern for their well-being. This lack of empathy for secondary characters and lack of emotional gravitas for primary characters makes me wonder about the filmmakers’ understanding of the previous films in the original trilogy, as this film immediately follows them in the mythology. As an example (spoiler alert!), Han and Leia are estranged in The Force Awakens, then reunited through circumstances. This means that should a viewer watch these films in succession, after their budding romance is fully established in Return of the Jedi, we are reintroduced to Han and Leia as having fallen apart. We never see their romance blossom into marriage (if they actually did get married at all), never see them as parents or co-leaders in the Republic, never have them grow and mature beyond flirtation. It is a tragic picture of fidelity in one of the great sci-fi romance stories. It feels like Han and Leia are the millennial generation’s parents, whose long-standing marriages fell apart after the kids grew up and left home as young adults.

Because I have to say this at some point: the CGI villain Supreme Leader Snokes is truly awful. More like Supreme Leader Smeagol, this is literally the same actor for both roles. Why they made him CGI is beyond me, and thus far he’s one of the least intimidating villains in the Star Wars universe. Also (more spoiler territory), I am genuinely confused about the rise of the First Order–the new version of the Galactic Empire–and the subsequent efforts of the Resistance–the new version of the Rebel Alliance. Didn’t the good guys win in Return of the Jedi? How does the First Order have so much power and support, despite existing in a universe where the Republic rules? Why not make Kylo Ren and his minions the grassroots threat against the established Republic, a sort of terrorist threat or political resistance? If the Republic is genuinely in charge these days, why did they even allow a huge fleet of First Order ships to run amok, or turn a blind eye to the creation of a new Death Star-like weapon under their jurisdiction? Perhaps further viewings will bring clarity, or maybe I’m not as up to speed on the Star Wars mythology as I’d thought. These bad guys just confuse me. (end spoilers)

As a Star Wars fan, I’m eager to see more of Rey and Finn and BB-8. I’m hopeful more time will be devoted to Poe’s character. And I’m impressed at J.J. Abrams’ ability to give the fans exactly what they want without feeling pandering, despite making a sort of “Star Wars Greatest Hits” reboot. Yet the Force never truly *awakens* in The Force Awakens. It’s more like it stirred in its sleep, mumbled something enigmatic about Rey and Kylo’s destiny, then will continue to slumber until Episode VIII. Let’s hope it wakes up and offers something truly original, surprising, and inspiring in the films to come.

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