Really, what can you say about Star Wars? It’s one of those intellectual properties that define a generation (in this case, my parents’). It’s one of those film series that transcends the medium of cinema to become a cultural and global phenomenon, a revolution even. Almost anywhere you go in the world, you’ll likely meet someone who can recognize a character’s name, a ship, or a musical cue from the films. Chances are, that someone will also know that the series essentially consists of an excellent original trilogy (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi) that ran from 1977 to 1983, followed by an underwhelming prequel trilogy (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith) from 1999 to 2005. Since the prequel trilogy, Star Wars fans haven’t had much to celebrate about, until Disney acquired the property and announced the development of a sequel trilogy in 2012. Three years of hype-building later, the first installment of that trilogy, The Force Awakens, has arrived. Although its story beats resemble ones from A New Hope too much for its own good, this generally fast-paced film introduces and builds from its excellent new characters, who prove to be charming and compelling.
Note: as most people know by now, Disney and Lucasfilm – responsible for the creation of the franchise – have gone great lengths to keep a tight lid on its plot. As much as I tried to keep this review spoiler-free, I will address some story details that some may consider to be spoilers, which I’ve marked as such. That said, I highly encourage you to watch the film before reading on in order to preserve the element of surprise.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished. Two parties scour the galaxy for him: the villainous First Order, who seek to destroy him, and the Resistance, led by his twin sister Leia (Carrie Fisher), who wants to ensure his safety. Leia sends her best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to the planet of Jakku to acquire a map of Luke’s location. Though he secures the map, he comes under attack from the First Order and one of its leaders, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Before being captured, he places the map in his droid BB-8 and tells the droid to flee. BB-8 rolls its way through Jakku and stumbles upon a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), who decides to look after it. Meanwhile, conscience-stricken Stormtrooper FN-2187 (John Boyega) helps Poe escape, though they crash-land back on Jakku after being shot down by the First Order. FN-2187, now dubbed Finn by Poe, finds himself alone. He treks across the desert planet until he stumbles upon Rey and BB-8, and the three are thrust into an adventure that none of them saw coming.
Star Wars holds a very special place in my heart. It was one of the three movies (yes, I’m classifying the original trilogy as one film) that defined my childhood, and I clearly remember collecting the LEGO sets and begging my mother to buy the toy version of Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford) blaster for me (she never did). After the prequel trilogy (which I don’t think is necessarily terrible, save for Attack of the Clones), I became dormant as a fan until late into my teens – specifically, when I went to college. There, I found people who were as passionate about it as I was, which awakened the fan in me once more. Some of my favorite memories that I share with friends involve us chatting Star Wars, and even now, I’m still making those memories. I was initially skeptical about the development of the sequel trilogy because I deemed it unnecessary, but as the months went on, I couldn’t help but be progressively excited, such that I attended Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim earlier this year with a close friend. After meeting so many people who are affected by Star Wars like I am and also seeing what was to come for the franchise, I was pumped.
The Force Awakens shares very similar story beats with A New Hope, and it’s rather distracting. Knowing those beats actually makes the story fairly predictable, which leads to a sense that we’re not seeing something new and instead seeing something that’s already familiar to us. Not convinced? Well, you don’t have to look very far. The First Order, the successor of the fallen Galactic Empire, is trying to acquire a droid, which contains vital information that could mean victory or defeat for either side. Jakku may not be Tatooine, but it sure feels like it. Don’t even get me started about Starkiller Base and its function here, because it’s basically Death Star 3.0. As far as its plot goes, the film sticks to what is familiar and safe, never taking off into new territory. It’s frustrating to me because what the Star Wars films do very well is take their audience on new stories to new worlds, and this film doesn’t quite do that. Instead, almost everything feels like a stand-in for characters, places, and beats that we’ve already seen in the original trilogy.
In terms of fleshing out the world of Star Wars, specifically what has happened in the galaxy in the 30 years since the events of Return of the Jedi, the film doesn’t quite completely do that, so certain matters are left unclear. The development of the First Order, as well as the Knights of Ren, isn’t adequately explained unless you’ve read interviews with director/co-writer J.J. Abrams and the cast, so both groups seem as though they were dropped in and left for us to accept. The difference between the Republic – with its location being on who-knows-where – and the Resistance is also murky. Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t want to tackle politics since that’s what creator George Lucas did with the prequel trilogy, but as a result, the Republic feels disconnected, exemplified by a certain sequence that occurs in the second act that rings surprisingly hollow.
Great characters are a hallmark of Abrams’ work, and he – along with co-writer Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) – hit it out of the park, particularly with the three new leads. Each of them are compelling and have such fascinating arcs, and I’m convinced that they are the best-written Star Wars characters we’ve seen onscreen. Rey is not only the best female character in the franchise to date, but also the best female character in a blockbuster that I’ve seen in a while. She’s independent, smart, and is more than capable of looking out for herself. Not once does the story require her to be saved, and she’s very much in control of where she goes and what she decides to go. Both Finn and Kylo Ren face moral dilemmas as they struggle to forge their paths, and to see them coming to terms with who they are and what they believe in is absolutely spellbinding, with the latter being the most riveting villain in the series thus far.
Other new characters fare pretty well. Poe is destined to be a favorite for many fans, as his knack for flying in combat is anchored by his good heart. His partnership with BB-8 – who simply could have been a mere plot device – turns the expressive droid into a emotional character with weight. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) shares an interesting rivalry with Kylo Ren, and he has a nice moment where his undying loyalty to the First Order and desire for power are on full display. The only new character who’s disappointingly underutilized is Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) of the First Order. The idea of a female Stormtrooper – in chrome armor – certainly sounds appealing, but she only appears briefly for a few scenes and virtually has no bearing in this story.
Since the new characters are rightly at the forefront of this adventure, the returning faces are generally on the sidelines. Of them, though, Han plays a fairly active role, as there are personal stakes for him in these proceedings. To see how much he has developed since Return of the Jedi is a very emotional affair, and when those stakes are revealed, his scenes become very heartfelt and resonant. There to support Han as always is the reliable Chewbecca (Peter Mayhew), who once again reminds us fans why we love the gigantic fuzzball. Other former primary characters – namely Leia, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and R2-D2 are very much in the backseat. There are other familiar faces as well, and it’s so great to see them again.
With compelling characters available, the cast have juicy material to work with, and they take full advantage of it with terrific results. Ridley imbues Rey with so much hope that she instantly becomes a likable character, and she rounds out her performance with resilient resolve. Boyega too is a standout, as he balances out his character’s dark upbringing with his handling of humor, showing that there is indeed a charismatic human being beneath the Stormtrooper mask. The relationship that these two share is simply irresistible, and it will be a joy to see how it develops in further installments. Driver may come across as stiff to some, but that’s the result of playing an intense ball of pure emotions, which he pulls off perfectly. Isaac brings plenty of charm and warmth to his role, making Poe quite memorable even though he doesn’t have as significant of a role compared to the three leads. Ford nails his emotional beats, all the while delivering upon the gruffness and humor that we expect from our favorite scoundrel.
The Force Awakens is very much driven by action and humor as much as it is by the characters. The film is paced quite breezily, as there is always something happening to hook our attention. With the exception of one sequence that takes place shortly after Han and Chewbacca enter the fray, such scenes – and by that, I mean anything that doesn’t resemble a beat from A New Hope – play out very quickly and in exciting ways. What’s surprising about the film is how funny it is, with its humorous moments hitting their mark and building upon the chemistry that the characters share. The fights and escape sequences are compelling since they are driven by the characters instead of a need for action, and nothing epitomizes this more than the inevitable lightsaber duel. Casting aside the flashy choreography found in the prequel trilogy’s duels, this one is driven purely by the characters’ emotions and motivations, and it ranks up there with one of the best in the series.
The saga has always been an opportunity for filmmakers to come in and leave their mark, and The Force Awakens is no different. Abrams’ filmography shows that he loves to make very kinetic pictures, and he brings that same approach here. Editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey keep the film energetic by constantly moving it along and do a fantastic job at balancing the time given to each of the three leads. Also, kudos to them for preserving the wipes when transitioning from scene to scene. A particular standout sequence, which follows Finn battling Stormtroopers on the ground and Poe engaging TIE Fighters in his X-Wing, makes for an exhilarating watch. That’s the mark of cinematographer Daniel Mindel, who moves away from the series’ traditionally stationary camera to instead put it into motion, zipping us through hallways and past characters as we follow the focus of the action. Production designer Rick Carter benefits greatly from Abrams’ commitment for practical effects, as he creates breathing, tangible environments populated by excellently designed and unique beings.
Star Wars is as much of an audible world as it is a visual one, and this film hums and pops. The sounds of blasters, lightsabers, and explosions give action sequences their heartbeats, while the sounds of droids (hello there, BB-8) and grunts from creatures augment the sense of daily life in this galaxy, regardless of whatever planet we’re on. Also returning to this universe is the maestro John Williams himself, whose scores are what make Star Wars movies, well, Star Wars movies. He brings back some of the motifs that us fans know very well by now, such as “Leia’s Theme” and “Binary Sunset,” which are incorporated quite seamlessly. Now, as far as original tracks go, I’ll say that “March of the Resistance” is the closest one to capture the panache that Williams’ most famous Star Wars tracks have. Beyond that, his work here doesn’t quite soar in that there isn’t a scene that will be recognized just on the account of the musical theme accompanying it, á la “Duel of the Fates” in The Phantom Menace or “Imperial March” in The Empire Strikes Back. Nevertheless, it’s still a great score from him that lends weight to what’s happening onscreen.
The franchise is back, and its future looks very bright. The Force Awakens may not be the grand, new tale that some were hoping for, but there’s still much to love, chief among them the new characters who will carry this sequel trilogy. What it also does is create and build a genuine excitement for what’s about to come next – a sensation that once became dormant but now has awoken. Now, it is time to wait again; there are only 364 days until Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and only 525 days until Episode VIII!
I figure a ranking of the Star Wars films is in order, so here it is:
- Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
- Episode IV: A New Hope
- (TIE) Episode VI: Return of the Jedi & Episode VII: The Force Awakens
- Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
- Episode I: The Phantom Menace
- Episode II: Attack of the Clones
* Official photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures