by Philip Price
It's difficult to delineate the difference in nostalgia-fueled adoration and a subjective acknowledgement of quality when it comes to judging a film such as “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” There was never going to be any true way that a film such as this could separate itself from all that has come before it (and it doesn't want to), but the same is true for those of a certain age who will be seeing the film or are excited for the film in the first place. For most, unless you're under the age of 10 or so and even then the majority are at least familiar with and likely enjoy ‘Star Wars’ to some degree, the idea of ‘Episode VII’ is something of a redemption story-a new hope if you will, that what was once so magical about ‘Star Wars’ will return and enable you to forget the overly glossy sheen of the prequel trilogy that revealed George Lucas' green screen obsession and his true lack of skill in directing actors. ‘Episode VII’ would mark the hope that we might, once again, venture to a galaxy far, far away and find both what we loved about the original films while being introduced to new and exciting characters and going on new and exciting adventures with the accompaniment of John Williams’ fantastic score (seriously, "Rey's Theme" is great). It is here that director J.J. Abrams, who rejuvenated the ‘Star Trek’ franchise before, is able to demonstrate his finely tuned skill for walking that line to great effect. In all of his feature directing work Abrams has been able to elicit the spirit of a past property or genre and most of the time bring a new energy to it even if the freshness of the story isn't always as ripe as it could be. The same can be said of ‘The Force Awakens’ as it hues very close to the narrative beats of ‘A New Hope,’ but has enough of a unique take on them and deviates enough from the narrative with the new character arcs, new revelations, and flat-out solid performances from the incredible cast that this is most clearly the best ‘Star Wars’ film we've had since ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ in 1980.
The set-up is pretty simple: There is a new Empire: the First Order and there is a new rebellion: the Resistance. The Resistance still includes Leia Organa (Carrie Fischer) except now she is a General while her brother, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), has disappeared to a place where no one can find him. In the opening moments of the film we meet an aged warrior (Max von Sydow) on the desert planet of Jakku who gives the best pilot in the Resistance, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a portion of a map that tells of the whereabouts of Skywalker. Of course, the First Order and its leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) also want to know where Skywalker is so that Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) might finally be able to do away with the last Jedi in the galaxy. In a race to retrieve the map, Poe is captured by Ren, but not before dispatching the map with his trusty droid, BB-8, whom he tells to get as far away as he can. BB-8, then picked up by a collector some distance from where his owner was kidnapped, comes to be in the hands of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who works day and night just to feed herself as she waits for someone who doesn't seem to have the intention of returning. Meanwhile, a stormtrooper by the name of FN-2187 (John Boyega) is set to go rogue and after a somewhat successful escape from the Star Killer space station aka the Death Star, he crash-lands back on Jakku where he comes in contact with Rey and the BB-8 droid both the First Order and the Resistance are looking for. If this all sounds vaguely similar that's because, like I said, the script tends to hue pretty close to the overall arc of ‘Episode IV.. Where screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Abrams deviate is in the smaller aspects that actually make up this arc. None of these new characters are meant to mirror the ones we used to love, which is nice, but what's even nicer is that this is due to the fact Harrison Ford is still willing to show up and play Han Solo.
Almost more than the abundance of green screen, the worst thing about the prequel trilogy was that of the lackluster acting from anyone who didn't already know what they were doing. Within the first 10 minutes of ‘The Force Awakens’ one can already see just how much more mature of a film this is going to be and that Abrams and his crew have chosen a group of actors who have real chops and who can make, what are essentially these goofy stories, come to life in a credible way. While Ford is not remotely the star of this film, he kind of is. In many ways, ‘The Force Awakens’ needed to be about the passing of the torch as much as it was a closing chapter for some of the characters in the original trilogy. Another fine line for Abrams and Kasdan to walk, but one that is handled deftly by allowing Solo to essentially reprise not just the role of Solo, but the role Solo played in the original dynamic of the three leads. Ridley and Boyega, as the major newcomers to the universe, are simply magnificent. As a former Stormtrooper, Boyega is able to bring a new perspective to the proceedings that we've never seen before. He knows the mindset of the villain, but is not explicitly ready to help the Resistance as he lets on. More, he is only interested in getting as far away from them as he can before being captured, but an affinity for Rey keeps him hooked (sure, that's reminiscent of Solo, but Solo's already here). Abrams enjoys this idea as he shows many of the same scenarios from ‘A New Hope,’ but from a different perspective. To this effect, the elements reminiscent of ‘A New Hope’ are both in line, while varied enough that I expect the audience to see this as a wholly new adventure. Rey, on the other hand, is this abandoned soul who has become so self-sufficient she doesn't realize her own worth. Ridley offers this sense of lacking self-worth in her performance early on, but makes the necessary strides in confidence that we buy into the integrity of her transformation. Also, kudos to whoever made the decision to give Rey the reigns to this trilogy as I can't imagine how thrilling it must be for every little girl in the audience to look up and see this strong, independent woman wielding the power she does.
There are plenty of other aspects to discuss, but that of Kylo Ren seems to be the appropriate place to go next. Given what we were shown in the trailers I was fearful that this villain might simply be a substitute for the all-powerful Darth Vader, but instead there is some real depth and complexity to Ren. Driver, for the amount of time he wears a mask in this film, is really able to connect with the dark side in a way that, while paying homage to the previous big bad through the hope of living up to him, makes the evil palpable rather than just a run of the mill, hell bent on destroying the world type of antagonist. I was surprised by his backstory and happy Abrams didn't feel the need to keep it hidden from audiences any longer than he does. That said, I was disappointed in this Supreme Leader Snoke fella. We don't learn who this guy is, where he came from, or why he is worth following-heck, we don't even see him in the movie outside of giant hologram form, but that he was completely CG and more or less a hybrid of characters Serkis has played before was something of a let-down. Hopefully future films will rectify this, but as of now this was a major disappointment for a film that tried so hard in other areas to return to the grubbiness of the originals. While Snoke isn't necessarily a worthy villain as of yet, Domhnall Gleeson should certainly be singled out as General Hux if, for nothing else, a single scene in which his speech elicits the ideals (and color scheme) of the Nazi party. As Dameron, Isaac simply oozes charisma and will undoubtedly play a more key role in the upcoming films whereas the likes of Lupita Nyong'o creates a fully digital character in all the right ways. Maz Kanata is completely her own and makes a memorable section of the film even more so with her charm powered by Nyong'o's performance. Oh, and BB-8 is indeed as cool as you've heard.
What is interesting about this new trilogy though is that, for many of the younger fans, it will be the first time we go into a ‘Star Wars’ film not ultimately knowing where it is all heading. When I went into the prequel films at the ages of 12, 15, and 18 I knew that Obi-Wan would end up in a lightsaber duel with Anakin Skywalker, I knew Anakin and Amidala would eventually get married and have twins, and that he would become Darth Vader leading to the biggest of cinematic reveals in ‘Empire’ that, if you were born any time after 1980, you already knew before having the chance to see the film. And so, going into ‘The Force Awakens’ and not knowing what to expect and then having seen it and having legitimate anticipation for what comes next is something new. Something akin to the original trilogy that Lucas was never able to replicate in the prequels. This is also true of the idea that, because they came before the original trilogy, the prequels were never able to bring back what fans of the originals loved most-the trio of main characters. Here, Abrams is able to give fans what they've been craving since 1999. Because ‘Star Wars’ has always been about the idea of legacy as much as anything it makes sense to see where Han, Luke and Leia have been all these years and that despite them seeming to have everything under control when we last left them, that things don't always go the way we hope or expect. To see the fruition of these full lives come to life on the big screen is the biggest reward ‘The Force Awakens’ has to offer, but that it is also able to deliver compelling new characters and story arcs that make fans truly anxious for the next installment is even more gratifying. Sometimes even stimulating. It's certainly better than just hoping the next one doesn't suck, that's for sure.