The Force Awakens is the fresh start you’ve been so desperately dreaming of, even when it isn’t perfect.
There’s been an awakening. Have you felt it?
–Supreme Leader Snoke
Unless you’ve been living under a rock you know that Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened this weekend. The Force Awakens is the first new Star Wars film in a decade, and this installment marks the first chapter without series creator George Lucas at the helm after Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012. Armies of rabid fans have packed theaters all weekend, and the film is currently raking in profits equal to the GDP of a small country. The film is going to be a astronomical box office success by any measure, but let’s not forget that least successful of the hated prequels still made a staggering $649 million dollars at the box office. The prequels made enough cash to fill the sarlacc, but they’re viewed as an abomination by hardcore fans. Jar Jar Binks is a national joke, and Hayden Christensen hasn’t made a meaningful film since 2008.
As such, The Force Awakens is shouldering a huge burden. It needs to not only be a financially successful film, but to cleanse the palates of a legion of fans who felt betrayed by the prequels. Can JJ Abrams and Disney save the franchise? Is the film’s greatest asset the sheer lack of George Lucas? Will it live up to the hype of seeing Han Solo, Leia Organa, and Luke Skywalker again? The legacy of The Force Awakens will be so much more than it’s opening gross.
So how is it?
The short answer is that this is the film Star Wars fans have been waiting decades to see. The Force Awakens feels imbued with an energy that hasn’t been felt in over thirty years. If the prequels felt like a stale chore, Episode VII feels like a breath of fresh air. JJ Abrams has made a mountain of smart decisions that all pay huge dividends, and you can call it the Force or whatever you will, but the magic is back.
Perhaps Abrams wasn’t the right person to direct this film (more on that later), but he’s absolutely the correct choice to guide the series forward. His insistence on using props, sets, and puppetry over CGI wherever possible makes an immediate impact. The prequels were a computer generated mess where nothing ever quite felt real. Huge swaths of those films didn’t even feel like they were set in the same world because, in reality, they weren’t. The Force Awakens feels immediately tactile. Jakku, Takodana, and Starkiller Base feel like actual places you could visit (because Abu Dhabi, Ireland, and Iceland are all physical locations). It’s stunning how much this simple decision makes The Force Awakens actually feel like a part of the Star Wars universe.
Aside from the returns of Ford, Fischer, and Hamill, Abrams also brought in Lawrence Kasdan, co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to help write the script. Frank Oz, Warwick Davis, Anthony Daniels, and Kenny Baker are all involved in the film. There’s simply enough good will to raise enormous hopes for the production. The best thing about The Force Awakens is that it feels like it was made by someone who loves Star Wars as much as you do.
There will certainly be people who complain that The Force Awakens hews too closely to the plot of A New Hope, and there’s undoubtedly some very purposeful similarities. A young nobody on a desert planet suddenly finds herself caught up in the galaxy’s greatest battle while facing off with a black-helmeted adversary. She discovers her ability to wield a powerful energy called The Force, handles a light saber, and pals around the galaxy with a wise-cracking pilot and a droid before having a final showdown on a planet-destroying battle station. In broad strokes, this is obviously a re-hash of A New Hope, but that’s also what Abrams and Kasdan were aiming for. The pair are completely aware of the hero’s journey monomyth, and they understand its influence on the saga they’re joining. George Lucas even agreed to let Luke Skywalker’s face adorn the cover of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces for crying out loud. If The Force Awakens is to truly represent the beginning for a new generation of stories in this franchise, then what better place to start then back at the beginning.
Abrams is using the old formula to tell new stories, and those include stories that the late 1970s may not have been progressive enough to accept. Even today, it’s practically unheard of to front a 200-million-dollar movie with an unknown actress and African American male (not named Will Smith) as the leads. Hopefully the success of The Force Awakens will lead to just such a thing because both Daisy Ridley (Rey) and John Boyega (Finn) are fantastic. All the better if they look like young kids meeting their heroes because that’s exactly what’s needed for the film. All four of the new leads do an excellent job, and you’ll wish that Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron and Finn got more screen time to exploit their obvious chemistry. Even BB-8, way more R2D2 than Jar Jar, hits all the right notes.
If generalized plot remains the same, Abrams is trying hard to raise the emotional stakes to a new level. We know the links to the past in a way that we never could with Obi Wan Kenobi in A New Hope or Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace. With this installment the elders matter more than they ever have in the history of Star Wars. It’s not just some old Jedi who’s missing. It’s Luke Freaking Skywalker. When Rey stumbles upon an old light saber, you know all of the history that goes with it. Can you imagine the impact if somebody actually died?
The film isn’t perfect. It’s wise to remember that this is JJ Abrams’ fifth feature, and while several of them have been satisfactory he hasn’t really made a great one. The Force Awakens moves at such a breakneck pace that some of the heavier moments never get the chance to make impact. Both Lupita Nyong’o and her character Maz Kanata feel weirdly out of place, and it’s telling that this is the one major character that Abrams decided to produce purely with CGI.
The one thing holding The Force Awakens back from true greatness is the same past that it’s honoring. If anything, the film spends too much time winking at the audience with inside jokes. Abrams and crew seem so intent on assuring the audience that they’re in good hands with devoted fans at the helm that the film is never free to pave its own roads.
Still, those are just quibbles. More than anything else The Force Awakens feels like a new beginning. In the film’s closing moments it finally feels ready to begin a story all its own after spending the last two hours laying intriguing groundwork. Does it live up to the hype? That’s a very difficult question to answer. But what, exactly, could ever live up the expectations that come with a new Star Wars film? Never forget that The Empire Strikes Back was originally viewed as an underwhelming follow-up to A New Hope. The Force Awakens stands head and shoulders above the prequels, and that’s really what matters. With someone as talented as Rian Johnson signed up to direct Episode VIII, and with Abrams’ obviously loving hand guiding the ship, the future for Star Wars looks bright. That’s the true legacy here.
Grade: B+. The Force is strong with this one.