First off, you can rest easy: J.J. Abrams has not screwed up two major science-fiction movie franchises. Abrams received plenty of well-deserved criticism for 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, and at the time, I noted—as did many other people—that he was probably far better suited for Star Wars. Still, there were detractors who dreaded the notion of Abrams taking on one of the most beloved film series of all time, and were prepared for the worst. Well, it turns out that we who thought Abrams was a good pick for the job were absolutely correct.
Abrams slips into the Star Wars universe with remarkable ease, presenting a continuation of the saga that feels like a natural outgrowth of what has come before. That shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, considering that he collaborated on the script with Lawrence Kasdan, co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. (Kasdan, of course, also wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Big Chill, and Body Heat, among other things—no lightweight there.)
Knowing that many people reading this do not want to know anything about the movie going in, I’ll just describe it this way:
It takes place about 30 years after Return of the Jedi. An organization called the First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire, seeking to overthrow the New Republic and take over the galaxy. They face opposition from the Resistance, a group of warriors supported by the Republic. Both sides are trying to determine the whereabouts of a now-almost-mythical figure who played a key role in the rebellion against the Empire. One side wants this person dead, the other hopes to lure the living legend back into action.
As the conflict rages, new characters are drawn in, most notably Rey (Daisy Ridley), a lonely girl living as a scavenger on the desert planet Jakku, and Finn (John Boyega), a young stormtrooper for the First Order who starts to question whether he’s fighting for the right side. There is also Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a skilled Resistance pilot on a top-secret mission to acquire information of the utmost importance, accompanied by his one-0f-a-kind, amusingly clever droid BB-8, who resembles a beach ball with R2-D2’s domed head stuck on top. Naturally their paths will cross.
On the other side of the fence, the Nazi-like General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is allied with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a mysterious masked figure dressed entirely in black who is apparently trying to model himself after the long-departed Darth Vader. They both answer to the imposing Supreme Leader Snoke (a CGI character voiced by Andy Serkis), who seems to take some of his cues from Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine of the previous two trilogies.
The film would have been engaging enough with just these new faces. But the icing on the cake is the return of beloved characters from the first three movies, most notably Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). (What about Luke Skywalker? After all, Mark Hamill’s name is on the poster! Well, it’s not for me to say.) It is truly a kick to see the new characters interacting with the “classic” ones, and longtime fans should be quite pleased with the attention that is lavished on one particular member of the old guard.
The first act is terrific, skillfully setting up the new characters and the new status quo with minimal exposition. I particularly liked the fact that Abrams and Kasdan did away with the stiff, stilted, lifeless dialogue and the overly mannered performances that had become a hallmark of the series while under the guidance of George Lucas, starting with Jedi and really coming to the fore with the three prequels. Rey, Finn, and especially Poe are written as real people, who speak to and relate to one another as actual human beings.
I do feel that the film drags a bit in the middle, meandering and drifting in between key plot points. However, some new and interesting characters are introduced during this section. In particular, there’s Maz Kanata, an amusing CGI creation voiced by Lupita Nyong’o, who I hope we’ll see again in the future.
And yet, there’s an undeniable lack of real originality on display here, with numerous callbacks to moments and even plot threads from the original three movies. I won’t get into them here, you’ll see for yourself. Also, while I have not read every Star Wars novel published over the last 25 years, I’ve read enough to recognize concepts, plot points, character arcs, and even character types in The Force Awakens that have already been explored extensively in print. To be fair, with dozens upon dozens of Star Wars novels published since 1991, supposedly depicting what happened in the years following Return of the Jedi, it was inevitable for this movie to tread upon the same ground, at least partially. Still, I couldn’t help but feel as I was watching the film that I had seen some of this stuff played out already. But it’s also true that the vast majority of people going to see this movie have not read many—or any—of those now-decanonized novels, so it will all seem brand new and original to them.
What the film lacks in true originality it makes up for in the performances. Abrams cast this movie brilliantly. This is a star-making turn for Daisy Ridley in particular. She gives one of the very best acting performances I’ve ever seen in a Star Wars movie, if not the best. She gets to do here what Natalie Portman was never allowed to do in the prequels—namely, portray a multi-dimensional, interesting, truly human character that audiences can really embrace. Ridley is energetic, captivating, and riveting—you can’t take your eyes off of her.
John Boyega is simply terrific. You sympathize with his character right away, and it doesn’t hurt that he gets some of the funniest moments. Boyega has a real flair for comedy, and his expressive face very effectively conveys the fear, anger, concern, and compassion that his character feels throughout the film.
As Poe Dameron, Oscar Isaac is filled with charm and charisma. It’s not a huge part, but it is an important one, and Isaac makes an indelible mark.
BB-8 is a delight. Before seeing the film, I was worried that this droid character was going to be another lame attempt to appeal to the kiddies, like the Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks. Not so. BB-8 is very much to The Force Awakens what R2-D2 was to the original Star Wars. (R2 shows up in the new film too, of course.)
As for Harrison Ford, who once seemed like he would never agree to appear in another Star Wars movie—all I’ll say is, he looks great and his performance here is notably better than it was in Return of the Jedi. Ford truly seems pleased to be back as Han Solo. The fact that the role is actually well-written this time helps a lot, it would seem. Make no mistake, this is not an extended cameo appearance. Ford is one of the main stars of the film, and his contributions are invaluable.
Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren does not have the stature or the imposing menace that Darth Vader had from the moment we first saw him in the original Star Wars. That may well be by design. I have a feeling that the goal is to build up his character over the next two movies, so that we can watch the progression and the challenges that he goes through as he develops into a major, truly fearsome menace.
The only character that I felt didn’t come off as well as I would have liked is See Threepio. Anthony Daniels, who has played the character in all seven films, has now given the droid a significantly higher-pitched, almost childlike voice that I found both inconsistent with past performances and a bit distracting.
Without a doubt, The Force Awakens is the offspring of the original trilogy—and only the original trilogy. I can’t think of one moment where the prequels are acknowledged in any way. And even then, the new film seems to embrace Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back far more than it does Return of the Jedi, at least in terms of tone, mood, and execution. Yes, there is humor and lightheartedness. There is a wide variety of alien beings on display. But there are no cutesy or ridiculous-looking creatures shoved in gratuitously just to sell toys to little kids. There are no sight gags with characters stepping into a pile of poop. There are no farts or burps. It doesn’t go for cheap laughs, or pander to the lowest common denominator (or the youngest members of the audience).
It is not a perfect film. I feel there are some plot problems. One of them is the fact that certain characters are shown to be highly skilled with a lightsaber, despite the fact that they have apparently never held one before. (True, Luke was a complete novice in Star Wars, yet was able to go toe-to-toe with Vader in Empire. But Luke had a huge block of time between those two films to teach himself saber-fighting, plus he received training from Yoda. There’s no such training or time for learning in the new film. So there!)
Out of the seven films, I would place The Force Awakens at #4, behind Empire, Star Wars, and, yes, Revenge of the Sith. Sorry, I liked that one a lot, and for me, it still holds up after repeated viewings.
More than anything else, The Force Awakens is a strong foundation for future films. It does a good job setting up the rest of the new trilogy, and, much like The Empire Strikes Back, it ends with a number of balls still in the air, to keep audiences tantalized—and talking—for the next couple of years.
© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2015.