One of the first developments that well, developed, when I started blogging was Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm and the announcement of Star Wars Episode VII. It’s almost unbelievable that it has finally come to pass, but come to pass it has. After an interest in Star Wars that began around my 11th year, just after the prequels had made their way through theaters, last night I finally got to experience Star Wars as my parents had- lining up outside of a theater for an hour in the rain with a bunch of other nerds, waiting impatiently to see what those in the galaxy far far away had been up to recently. As the film unfolded before me and an appreciative crowd, I thought that JJ Abrams’ had definitely delivered on the fans’ wishes for a new Star Wars film, but questioned whether or not he had made a good movie.
The thing about this new Star Wars film is that it is very JJ Abrams, and when I say that I mean it shows a lifelong fan’s devotion to Star Wars that the prequels definitely didn’t. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. On one hand, unlike the prequels, The Force Awakens brings us back to the Star Wars we all know and love, and it has just barely enough updates to set it apart from the original trilogy. But on the other hand, there are so many shots, lines, and plot points lifted verbatim out of the original trilogy that it comes very close to just being a knock off. But just as with his update of the Star Trek series, JJ Abrams knows how to put together a great cast that can carry a film on energy and charisma alone. Though I really enjoyed the film, I hope that Episode VIII will be able to get away from the original trilogy a bit more and take us into more uncharted waters.
After the defeat of the empire in Return of the Jedi, some time has passed. It seems that the restored Republic has encountered resistance from an evil entity known as the First Order, lead by a mysterious Supreme Leader (Andy Serkis), commanding a Darth Vader-like figure called Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and a Peter Cushing like character played by Domhnall Gleeson. They command a Death Star like weapon that siphons off a star’s energy and uses it to destroy entire systems (see what I mean about parallels to the original trilogy?). To combat this, the resistance lead by
Princess General Leia (Carrie Fischer), is trying to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil), who has vanished in despair after his pupil turned to the dark side. Once again, the means of finding him are carried by a droid, BB8, stuck on the remote desert planet of Jakku. Lost by resistance pilot Po Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and stormtrooper turned resistance fighter Finn (John Boyega), BB8 is recovered by scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley). Rey and Finn join forces with legendary fighter Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his copilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to return BB8 to the resistance and find Luke Skywalker.
I did say I really liked this movie, and one reason for that is the new characters. They are a great group of characters brought to life by a cast that works well together, even without the old veterans like Harrison Ford. It is very interesting to see Ford get a very prominent role here, especially for a franchise which is usually dominated by the more straightforwardly “good” characters like Luke as opposed to the reluctant hero Han Solo. Harrison Ford shines in this movie, offering just the right balance of snark and good humor that we’ve come to associate with him. Seeing his return to form on the big screen is one of the main joys of this movie. The other is the introduction of new characters. I initially thought they were person by person replacing the old trilogy characters, but luckily as the movie progresses this turns out the be false. They bring a lot of the same type of energy and character traits to the franchise, but with enough differences to be fresh.
The other great part about this movie (and I’m sure comes from listening to some of the criticisms of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek) is the inclusion of women and minorities in general and more specifically the humanization of the stormtroopers. Not only did they do a better job of having women in the background doing jobs that in previous films would just be done by men, but the eventual emergence of Daisy Ridley’s character as the heroine is incredibly significant. Not only is the character very capable and relatively non-sexualized, but Ridley kills it in the role. I remember being in middle school and wishing they would be bring Star Wars with a female Jedi, and even though I’m an “adult” who doesn’t play Star Wars anymore, seeing this wish fulfilled on the screen is amazing beyond words. Furthermore, I really appreciated the humanization of the storm troopers, after seeing in the prequels that they were basically identical sub-humans. Though I’m not exactly sure of the story logic to get there (you can fill in the blanks however you want I guess), but it’s an interesting idea to see how the Empire/First Order robs the humanity of actual people rather than manufacturing them. You have a very human black man, who turns out to be a very sympathetic and relatable character, and a more inhuman woman (Gwendoline Christie) playing stormtroopers in this movie, rather than a bunch of walking helmets. It’s an interesting comment on the natural of evil in this universe that I’ve never really been prompted to think about before.
So for all of that talk about stuff that’s new, there is an unfortunate amount of stuff that’s old. On the most basic level, there are shots lifted verbatim out of the original trilogy. Lines are repeated, locations are mimicked, and as referenced in my synopsis paragraph, certain plot points are achingly familiar. Though Abrams does a great job capturing the spirit of the original trilogy and bringing it to the screen, he’s a bit too slavish in his devotion to the original films. Like his Star Trek films, it almost becomes more of a game to figure out what he will be referencing next rather than gettting lost in a new film. I really hope that going forward the new films will channel the original trilogy more rather than copying it.
I did come down rather hard on Abrams in the last paragraph, but I want to emphasize that even though I think I’m right about this, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is still a fun film and redeems a lot of the damage done by Lucas with the prequels. If you’re even a mild Star Wars fan, you’ll enjoy this movie. The cast is a pure joy to watch, and I don’t think we can go wrong with them in subsequent movies (and hopefully they will have more Oscar Isaac). Though maybe too much so at times, you still can’t deny the force is strong with this one.
“That’s not how the force works!”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
For Further Reading (and listening):