Movie Review: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (J.J. Abrams, USA 2015)

When I was a kid, I loved Star Wars. I would correct people at even the slightest misquoting because I had memorized every scene of the films. I probably watched Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, USA 1983) 20 times, and it was my least favorite of the series. Then, Star Wars: Episode 1–The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, USA 1999) happened. I was excited to see the first addition to the series of my lifetime and went to the theater to watch (dragging my parents, my brother, and my sister with me, and I doubt anyone other than my father actually wanted to see it). And within an hour, I never wanted to see another Star Wars film. And I cannot be 100% certain, but I don’t think I’ve even re-watched any of the original trilogy since. George Lucas turned me off of the series at age 14 and it took me until age 30 to give it another chance.

J.J. Abrams has never been one to tread in the type of films I watch. Of his previous four films, the only one I ever watched was Star Trek (USA 2009). Obviously, a lot of people have commented on his presence in both of these series, but what a lot of people have missed is the role his film has played in both franchises. His Star Trek is a reboot of the franchise. It’s saying, “We want to keep making similar things but we need to introduce younger actors, so here!” It’s a film that’s all about keeping fans happy for future films and establishing a new cast–it doesn’t care about inviting new people into the Star Trek tent or telling any interesting stories. For Star Wars, Abrams had a far more difficult task. Not only did he need to keep current fans happy, but he needed to mend fences with them. I wasn’t the only one turned off by The Phantom Menace, and the other two prequels and Lucas’s tinkering with the original films in the “special editions” made matters worse. He had to try to get all of those fans: the ones who say, “Han shot first!” at every opportunity and the ones who embark on long expanses of prose to say, “It’s George Lucas’s vision and we can’t criticize it!” together. And he had to do it with a film set later in the same timeline as what came before. He couldn’t just cast Scott Caan to play Han Solo, make up a minimal story, and be done with it–he had to do something with the earlier characters and situations. It’s a far more difficult task.

And he again succeeded. Everything that I said about nostalgia in Creed (Ryan Coogler, USA 2015) applies here, but Star Wars is just such a huge part of the zeitgeist that there really is no reason to look for fans from outside. This film therefore is loaded with things that are just slight variations on something the franchise has done before: Rey is so much an exact copy of Luke from the original film that she’s even dressed the same way, BB8 is so much an update of R2D2 that the useless map he possesses turns out to be only useful with the help of a map that R2D2 holds, and the Nazi symbolism that always defined the Empire is stepped up a notch on the obviousness scale to create the First Order. It even threatens to borrow a page from The Phantom Menace and kill off its most interesting character far too quickly (though it then allows him to live).

What Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt do really well, though, is to weave all of this nostalgia into a coherent plot. It’s not really a new plot–it’s really just the original film with some tweaks–but it’s understandable and decent enough that its obviousness isn’t really too big of an issue. Plus, they outright tell us that it’s what they’re doing. Part of Han Solo’s role in the original films is to be able to comment on the ridiculousness of what’s going on so that we can accept it, and he’s back to fill that part, but he’s no longer alone: Maz Kanata comments about how she’s seen evil in many forms that are all the same and tells Rey that she already knows what’s true, Poe Dameron and Finn have a conversation where they practically start laughing at the silliness of the MacGuffin Finn needs a pilot to escape right as one falls into his lap, and R2D2 just sits quietly until needed for the plot.

That all said, the point of the film is the same as with all Star Wars films: that evil will never win. It’s a simplistic point, but there’s a reason it shows up so often. It’s powerful and opens the door for a lot of directions in storytelling. The film isn’t really about advancing its point, though. It’s here to mend fences with the fans and set a stage for the rest of the series.

Abrams and Dan Mindel meticulously recreate the overall look of the original trilogy, add some CGI, and then call it a day. They didn’t do anything visually interesting, but the exposed-circuitry look for the Empire (and the First Order is the Empire with a new name) and the dirty, impoverished look of the commoners living under them are back. Tatooine looks dirty, beaten, used, and sad, the way it did for Luke, instead of like the clean, pleasant desert of The Phantom Menace. They use more CGI than I would like, populating the planets with humans, droids, and pixels rather than photographic creatures, but it doesn’t look like a neverending weather report the way The Phantom Menace did. It’s not necessarily an interesting-looking movie, but it looks like what it wants to.

The acting was a pleasant surprise. The original films typically had terrible acting: Harrison Ford is capable at best, and he stands out because capable-at-best is such a step up from how awful just about everyone else is. But this time, we really don’t get any awful performances. Ford is pretty effective and Fisher is actually stronger. Mark Hamill has only ever really proven capable when voicing the Joker, but his performance is so limited that he doesn’t get a chance to ruin anything. The leads, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, both do fine jobs with roles that are considerably deeper than Lucas has ever allowed–they have to show mixes of emotion that Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford never had to show in the past, and they do it well. And Oscar Isaac is fantastic as the official Han Solo replacement.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a decent-enough film. It’s good, even. But, more importantly, it’s a nearly perfect olive branch to a weary fanbase. It’s not going to bring in anyone new, but who’s new to Star Wars in 2015? It tells us that Disney has listened to the fans and is taking seriously the job of stewardship over this series, and that Abrams understands what made the original series what it was. I left the theater thinking that I want to watch the original trilogy again, and that’s the best result you could ask for at this point. Rian Johnson is in charge next time, though, so the next film will probably be legitimately excellent.

Notes

  • Much has been made over the years of Alec Guinness’s complaints about the dialogue in the original film, and he was generally right that Lucas’s language really needed work. What always amazed me was that the dialogue had such problems while one of the greatest script doctors in Hollywood history was on set, admittedly before she became one of the great script doctors. Hopefully, Abrams realized how useful it was to have Carrie Fisher around.
  • 3D still added nothing, but to Abrams’s credit, he didn’t do any of the stupid, cheesy “ZOMG IT’S COMING RIGHT AT YOU!!!!” nonsense that most do with it.
  • The opening described Poe Dameron as the Resistance’s “most daring” pilot, not as its best pilot, and yet he appears to be both. As soon as we discovered that the “most daring” pilot was not Han Solo, I thought, “Oh. Han’s going to die.” Yes, my arm does hurt in this position.
  • Kylo Ren wins coolest-looking lightsaber ever. Not even close.
  • Kylo Ren is also a really interesting character and I hope we get more of him. And I like the idea that idealistic family-oriented sentiment did not ultimately win out. It could even lead to an interesting conflict in Leia’s character should the series decide to explore it.
  • Something subtly different from Lucas’s films: Finn says that “like all Stormtroopers,” he was “taken from a family [he] will never know,” and the scene continued on. It humanized the Stormtroopers in a way that they never were before, and it also didn’t bother to stop and play up that melodrama. We didn’t have a Very Special Moment for Rey to say, “Oh, you poor thing!” or anything.
  • I really wish the film would have ended with them finding the complete map. The next film starting with a half-hour of Rey’s journey to find Luke could be pretty great, and give us a better idea that Luke is really off the grid, which we are told here but never really see. Plus, just imagine the fans panicking about the fact that Luke wasn’t actually in the film! It would be so funny!
  • Han Solo was just killed, but his best friend and his wife have no contact at all about it. Instead, Leia’s niece offers her silent condolences. Even for a fantasy film (and Star Wars films are fantasy, not science fiction), that’s a weird family interaction.
  • Did anybody else just find it unbelievable that Luke apparently just left his lightsaber with someone else when he took off? He’s generally been a very sentimental sort, and I don’t see him giving up his father’s lightsaber even if he doesn’t want to be a Jedi.
  • This was the quietest, most respectful audience I’ve ever been in. There were even kids (probably 8-12 age range) and they were quiet save a few appropriate laughs.
  • Allow me to be the first to say I like BB8 more than R2D2.
  • Is it weird to anyone else that people in the Star Wars universe treat robots as though they are living creatures? They form attachments to them, care about their emotional well-being . . . and somehow the robots seem to have emotions . . . I honestly think I just opened up a rabbit hole that could be dangerous to enter. Still weird, though.
  • Good job explicitly going against the racist/sexist tones and themes of the past quickly. I’m sure Lucas called at some point and suggested an annoying character with a bizarre racist accent, as is his wont, but Abrams didn’t do it–good for him.
  • really want to see where Rian Johnson goes now. Really want to.
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