Review: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Ph: Film Frame © 2014 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved..

When a galaxy has been saved, a father and son reunited, and thematic closure has been realized, where else can the most popular cinematic story of all time take us? Star Wars is many things, a confluence of archetypes and a myriad of mythological influences, but at its very core, it’s a soap opera. Therefore, the continued success of the saga is dependent upon not continuing one generation’s story, but rather to introduce another. It has been 32 years since the saga was initially wrapped up with the climactic Return of the Jedi, so what has become of our heroes and what are they now up against? Even if it could have used a bit more narrative revision, The Force Awakens is an energetic and spirited return to a galaxy far, far away, a confirmation that storytelling never really ends, for it is always inherited by the next generation.

It has been thirty years since the destruction of the second Death Star and the deaths of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. There should ostensibly be peace, but instead, a new conflict has arisen in the absence of the galaxy’s most powerful being. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has disappeared, and nobody knows of his whereabouts, not even his own sister, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). Leia now runs a new group of freedom fighters known as the Resistance, an offshoot of a New Republic which holds a fragile foothold in the galaxy. However, a new terrifying organization known as The First Order has emerged from the remnants of the Empire. The imposing group is on the cusp of becoming the dominant force in the galaxy, due in large part to their construction of a new super weapon far more powerful than anything the galaxy has ever seen. Their headquarters is Starkiller Base, and their leader is the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), a dark side Force user whose apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) does his bidding.

Kylo is a fascinating figure with a deeply troubling past, but he is recklessly persistent is finding Luke Skywalker and destroying the last of the Jedi once and for all. When Leia learns of new intelligence that Luke’s whereabouts might be discovered on the desert planet of Jakku, she sends the best pilot of the Resistance, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), to investigate before the First Order finds them. Dameron is successful in retrieving the information, but he’s taken prisoner by Kylo Ren and the First Order forces. Fortunately, his trusty droid BB-8 escapes with the info and goes racing off into the Jakku night. The following morning, he runs into a young woman named Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger whose solitary existence is not one of choice, but necessity.

Meanwhile, Poe is interrogated by Kylo Ren, but manages to escape the clutches of the First Order when one of their own decides to change sides. A stormtrooper (John Boyega) with no real name of his own decides to help Poe escape, and the two manage to snag a TIE Fighter, but not before being shot down to the surface of Jakku. The stormtrooper takes on the name Finn, but when he awakens from the crash, Poe is nowhere to be found. As Finn wanders the deserts of Jakku, he discovers an outpost where he happens to meet Rey in unfriendly circumstances. With the First Order is already hot on his and BB-8’s trail, he teams up with Rey to escape from Jakku, and their galactic adventure kicks into high gear.

Believe it or not, that’s just the first twenty minutes of The Force Awakens. The film carries on the tradition of Star Wars films commencing in media res, giving the audience just enough exposition to have their bearings, but also omitting large amounts of backstory. Three decades is the biggest time gap between any of the Star Wars episodes, and the film does just enough in implying a few key events that may have transpired since Return of the Jedi. As a whole, the narrative thrust of The Force Awakens is propulsive and at times, highly impactful, even if a couple of story decisions might have needed some more development. One reveal in particular occurs quite early on, and may have had even greater impact were it withheld until a more critically emotional juncture. Writers J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kadsan inject several story beats that hearken back to the original trilogy, and some repetitions resonate better than others. Ultimately, they naturally fit the Lucas template of recurring motifs and situations throughout the saga.

The very best thing about the The Force Awakens are all of the new and vibrant characters it introduces into the Star Wars universe. Rey is very clearly the central heroine of the film, and Daisy Ridley gives her a headstrong attitude and willpower that plays well into her character arc throughout the film. John Boyega imbues Finn with an anxious energy that fosters the character’s growth, and also results in some of the film’s best comedic moments. If anybody has swagger, it’s undoubtedly Oscar Isaac, and while Poe Dameron could have used a bit more screen time, every scene he’s in is elevated by his charisma. Kylo Ren is easily the most turmoiled and unpredictable character in the film, while he largely plays it under a helmet, Adam Driver gives him an immediately imposing presence that masks a conflicted core. Most of the other villains are fine, but don’t make as lasting of an impression, and even the glossy looking Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) ends up being underused. Lupita Nyong’o plays Maz Kanata, a thousand year old space pirate who the heroes turn to for guidance. Maz is a curious little creature, with large goggles to assist her ailing eyesight, and while Nyong’o performs her in a performance capture setting, her wit and wisdom prove crucial to the story. Perhaps best of all is the rambunctious droid BB-8, who is so full of gadgetry and whiz-bang motion that he gives R2-D2 a major run for his money as the most lovable droid in the galaxy.

Speaking of familiar faces, there are plenty to see in The Force Awakens, but the film rightly restrains itself from simply being a nostalgia fest. Sure, there are callbacks to the original trilogy, but they are tastefully included, and never indulgent. The biggest roles amongst the returning characters are Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and it’s remarkable how easily both actors slip back into their roles. The banter between the two and also between Ford and the new stars is one of the many delights in the film. It’s particularly heartening to see Ford back in the saddle, especially as Solo had never been one of Ford’s particularly favorite roles. Chewbacca is also a real hoot in The Force Awakens, perhaps his best involvement in any of the films. Carrie Fisher’s presence as Leia is also considerably welcome, even if she finds herself more in a stationary military role rather than hopping across the galaxy. As to the elusive Luke Skywalker, it would suffice to say that his ultimate unveiling is a major one, and yet all too brief. These legacy characters are intended to pass on the storytelling torch to the next generation, and in that sense they fit nicely within the fabric of the story.

Director J.J. Abrams is the first director of a Star Wars film not shepherded by George Lucas himself since Richard Marquand took on Return of the Jedi in 1983. Whatever one thinks of Lucas, it’s a tall task to follow up on his legacy, and fortunately, Abrams does a cracking good job at capturing the spirit and excitement that characterizes the beloved saga. Abrams has always been highly adept at his work with ensembles, and as evidenced in the performances above, it remains his best directorial skill. His past visual choices have been a little haphazard, but with The Force Awakens, he and director of photography Daniel Mindel adhere to the Star Wars aesthetic of clean, visually astute compositions. There’s a wealth of camera movement, but it feels motivated, as well as supplying tension when needed. Editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey also keep the pacing at a consistent clip, not lingering too long on most scenes in order to keep the momentum of the film going.

The production design of The Force Awakens is as impressive as in any of the films, and there’s a nice balance between familiar iconography of the slightly modified X-wings and TIE-Fighters, to the amazingly unique and varied creature designs, which really come to the fore in Maz Kanata’s castle. The sound design from Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood is brilliantly on point, coming from two veterans of the preceding films. Their decisions behind BB-8’s voice are what catapult the character into the stratosphere of great saga characters. The combination of practical effects and CGI had been a major talking point in the promotion of the film, and the blending here is often seamless. And naturally, it would simply not feel like Star Wars without another brilliant score from John Williams, who in his eighties continues to concoct new themes while also hearkening back to old ones.

So where do we go from The Force Awakens? Just when we were certain that George Lucas’ saga had reached its conclusion ten years ago, this new film blasts open a whole new era full of possibilities. That is the strongest compliment that The Force Awakens can be given. Just as in this film one generation passes on the mantle to the next, the transference from Lucas to Abrams is largely seamless and successful. While it contains recognizable elements, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens ultimately stands on its own two feet as both a continuation and, more importantly, a new beginning.

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~ by romancinema on December 18, 2015.

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