‘The Force Awakens’ Leans Heavily on Nostalgia, But the Next Generation Makes It Work

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When the news broke that George Lucas had sold Lucasfilm and Star Wars to Disney, there was a renewed sense of hope surrounding that galaxy far, far away after Lucas had seemingly drained all the goodwill built up from his original trilogy with the lackluster prequels and alterations to the beloved classic films, withholding the unaltered versions from release. There was some skepticism (from people like me) when it was announced that J.J. Abrams would be helming the new installment, The Force Awakens. Abrams has been very good at reviving dormant properties like he did with Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek, but Abrams himself tarnished the goodwill he built with the incomprehensible and downright contemptable Star Trek Into Darkness. But as the teasers and trailers rolled out for The Force Awakens that bitter aftertaste of Into Darkness washed away and it seemed as if Abrams would be bringing something Star Wars fans had long forgotten – a new hope. The question remained whether or not The Force Awakens would be able to meet the expectations that rose upon each new glimpse. Now that I’ve seen it I can say that The Force Awakens is a better film than any of the prequels but not the rousing success that many anticipate. It suffers from its own set of problems but is still mostly a fun time of fantastical space adventure.

*DISCLAIMER*

Look, I’m not out to spoil the film with my review, but some details that are part of the story may be considered spoilers. If you’re overly sensitive as to what might constitute a spoiler, just stop reading now and know The Force Awakens is an imperfect film but fun. This movie is one that spends a bit too much time trying to remind the audience of the series’ past glory in its attempt to recreate the story of the 1977 original.

*2ND DISCLAIMER – THIS STORY RUNDOWN IS MERELY THE FIRST ACT*

In the years following the collapse of the Empire, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has disappeared. Though the original trilogy ended on a happy note, a new force of intergalactic fascism has risen – The First Order. Fighting the First Order is the Resistance, led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher). The film opens with the Resistance’s best pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) on the desert planet of Jakku retrieving a map that supposedly leads to the missing Skywalker. Before Poe can finish his mission, the First Order led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the masked villain with his own raggedy lightsaber, and an army of Stormtroopers attack. One Stormtrooper in particular, Finn (John Boyega), has trouble handling the brutality that his comrades in arms carry out and begins to doubt the righteousness of the First Order. Knowing he’ll be captured, Poe places the map with his droid BB-8, and the cute little robot must venture on his own with the most sought after information in the galaxy.

Elsewhere on Jakku, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a scavenger, picking apart pieces from crashed Imperial ships to sell for food. When she discovers BB-8, she’s soon drawn into an intergalactic conflict that is unlike anything she’s ever experienced on the desert planet. Meanwhile, as Poe is being interrogated by Kylo Ren, Finn has a moment of conscience and helps the Resistance pilot flee the first order. When their ship crashes on Jakku, the two are separated before Finn meets Rey just before the First Order closes in to attack and retrieve the map from BB-8. As they escape the First Order, they enter into a junky old spaceship, the Millennium Falcon, which they use to flee the system of Jakku before they meet an old smuggler, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and his Wookie partner, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Having spent years away, Solo is ready to help the two young adventurers get the crucial plans to General Leia.

Among its virtues, The Force Awakens has a propulsive narrative, never those long lapses of dead time that dominated the prequels. There’s a real chemistry between John Boyega and Daisy Ridley. These two new faces of Star Wars have radiant screen presences, and their characters are fleshed out enough that we actually care about them. As the other fresh face of the franchise, Adam Driver is dynamic as Kylo Ren. Where the prequels lacked in captivating villains, Kylo Ren is a well-rounded character with a number of nuances that make him the most interesting menace since Darth Vader. Driver brings a pain to Ren, and the character lashes out with abundant rage when things don’t go his way. Early on in the film, Oscar Isaac is charming as ever but Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt relegate the character to the sidelines for a large chunk of the film. That same thing happens to Boyega’s Finn towards the end of the film, but not as much as Isaac. But the future of Star Wars is bright with the younger generation of charismatic actors who inhabit the skin of the most interesting set of characters since the original trilogy.

As for the older generation of Star Wars characters, Harrison Ford has the most screen time as Han Solo, and brings that classic pirate swagger to his immortal rogue. The few scenes between Ford and Carrie Fisher bring a nice grounded emotional core to the film, and are some of the few scenes involving the classic characters that don’t focus entirely on nostalgia for their effect. C3PO (Anthony Daniels) is kept to a mercifully short appearance and is nowhere near as annoying as he typically is and his counterbot R2-D2 only has a few scenes in the film as well. Chewbacca is surprisingly humorous in his time in the film.

Abrams brings a sharp sense of humor to The Force Awakens, though a fair number of jokes fall flat as the film progresses. The emphasis on fun over intergalactic trade negotiations is a welcome step in the right direction following the politically infused tedium of the most recent Star Wars films. Having been shot on 35mm film with an emphasis on practical effects, Abrams’ film looks phenomenal for the most part. It can’t be overstated how much the visuals are improved by having tangible objects captured on celluloid. However, the CGI-soaked space battles don’t stand out like the practical sets and the creatures that populate The Force Awakens. Throughout, Abrams brings a classical use of visual language that makes The Force Awakens very easy to look at and follow, employing nice long shots in the midst of the daring action sequences.

What doesn’t really work in The Force Awakens is the fact that the film is deliberately a retread of Star Wars (or A New Hope, but I call it Star Wars). Not only is the film driven forward by a droid carrying information that the nefarious villains are after, but the First Order has a base that is like a super Death Star called the Starkiller Base. Along with the numerous call backs to the previous film, this becomes an issue where the film is placing too much emphasis on the past and the moments beloved by many. There are enough parts to the film that could stand on their own with firmer footing had Abrams and company had more faith in these new characters and not constantly looked to the original films as a crutch to lean on at any given moment.

The other problems with the film is the fact that there are so many loose ends left dangling for the sequels – and a major one at the end that I felt landed with a big fat thud. And for those expecting the chrome-laden Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) to be a badass villain, you will be quickly dissuaded of that notion when the character only appears in two or three scenes with about four lines of dialogue. For the moments that aren’t left dangling for the sequels, many things being set up later in the film come across as strikingly obvious, never landing with the intended impact.

There will be many who level hyperbolic praise or damnation upon The Force Awakens. It will certainly appeal to numerous fans and offer them something that prequels failed to do, but the fact is The Force Awakens is a really entertaining film with its fair share of problems, some of which will be more pronounced to certain audience members. The Force Awakens has more hits than misses and it very well could be the best film that J.J. Abrams has directed to this point in his career. What really stands out, though, are the young characters and their standout performances. As much as The Force Awakens leans on the past for too much of its goodwill, it’s the future of Star Wars that works best in the film and gives us reasons to look forward to the next installments. At last, we really have a new hope.

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