REVIEW: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt (screenplay), George Lucas (characters)
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford and Adam Driver

The seventh episode of Star Wars is a clear-eyed, contagious nostalgia trip that also manages the difficult task of setting the stage for a promising batch of new characters. For better and worse, director J.J. Abrams lays the groundwork for that new era of a galaxy far, far away by relishing in the familiarity of George Lucas’ original film.

The Force Awakens is a seemingly impossible balancing act that Abrams mostly pulls off; even as the movie retraces Lucas’ footsteps, it doesn’t feel like an insincere cash grab (ahem, Jurassic World).  The old characters– among them Han Solo, Chewbacca and General (the woman formerly known as Princess) Leia– don’t feel like they’re being crossed off a cameo checklist.  Though they’re introduced with applause-ready entrances, they’re still mixed organically into the story, which is set roughly 30 years after the events of the 1983 installment The Return of the Jedi. (This movie all but ignores Lucas’ prequel trilogy).

(Minor spoiler ahead)

Out of the ashes of the Galactic Empire, which was decimated by the Rebellion in Return of the Jedi, an equally sinister and imposing force has emerged.  Now there is the First Order, and instead of the Rebellion, the Resistance.  These name changes mean nothing; this is still very much a movie about X-Wings fighting Tie Fighters, of shiny white Stormtroopers battling guerrilla warriors.

The Jedi and the Sith are also still at it, though Luke Skywalker, thought to be the last Jedi warrior, has vanished.  The main crux of The Force Awakens’ plot focuses on the Resistance’s efforts to find him before the Order, and a sinister Darth-Vader-wannabe named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), do.  The movie’s echoing of the original 1977 Star Wars is sometimes annoyingly fetishisticIts new main character, Rey (Daisy Ridley), is introduced in a very similar way as Luke Skywalker was, and the general trajectory of the story has very similar beats that would be more irritating if the movie weren’t paced so relentlessly.

Star Wars 2

Abrams’ new war is haunted by the ruins of Lucas’ old ones, and at times it seems at odds with moving the franchise forward.  Riddled throughout the movie are the rusting and abandoned relics of the Empire, its Star Destroyer warships and iconic, Hoth-destroying AT-AT walkers. Rey lives among those decaying machines on a sandy planet called Jakku, at least until she becomes entangled in the story’s latest planet-hopping journey.  She and Finn (John Boyega), a First Order deserter who becomes marooned on her planet, flee to make contact with the Resistance and deliver critical data that might help find Skywalker.

Both Boyega and Ridley give charismatic, convincing turns and, along with a fighter pilot played by Oscar Isaac, seem more than capable of making the franchise their own. Their performances are on equal footing with Harrison Ford (Solo) and Carrie Fisher (Leia), both of whom inhabit their old roles effortlessly. Their relationship picks up right where it left off, and the scenes they share are among the movie’s most emotionally satisfying.

The Force Awakens is at its best when it focuses on mood and character rather than its action sequences.  It is peppered with moments of beauty, like the silhouettes of Tie Fighters against a setting sun, but at times its combat scenes are visually muddled. However, it’s as satisfying to hear a lightsaber hum to life as it as ever been, and overall the movie succeeds at lovingly recreating the Star Wars universe.  I just hope Disney allows other directors (Rian Johnson is directing Episode VIII) to tread fresher narrative ground in the future.

Grade: C+

 

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