Words: Rob DeStefano
My entrance into this monumental reboot wasn’t with nostalgia. I am admittedly without connection to the 1977 born space opera, but I empathize with the love of properties and characters and the unfortunate creative roller coasters that can come between them. So while excited to see the return of a galaxy thought to be far far away, I was most curious to see J.J. Abrams as resurrector. He faced a monster task – rewrite decades of infractions, from Episodes I through III to Lucas’ need to slap CGI sloths across the original trilogy. Hollywood as of late has opted to bring indie and unformed directors to helm large reboots (Colin Trevorrow for Jurassic World and Gareth Edwards for Godzilla to name just two), but for a franchise ingrained in American cinema and with such an injured trajectory, they called in the big guns. Abrams is two for two, fully reigniting the Star Trek and Mission Impossible films. Does he succeed with Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Of course he does.
Not unlike A New Hope, we open on a “good guy secret” being stuffed into a spry droid. This mechanical volleyball, BB-8, evades capture, but his master, the unruffled and adroit pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), is apprehended by a Darth Vader wannabe, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Ren, along with angry General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), serve the First Order, a military state hellbent on locating Luke Skywalker, the presumed last Jedi. These dark forces are opposed by the Resistance, led by general Leia, with the support of the New Republic; it’s the same old story, but one that is easily welcomed back. The plot then splinters into three paths. BB-8 traverses the sandy planet Jakku until he bumps into Rey (Daisy Ridley), a feisty scrapper, abandoned by her family, and yearning for a life outside what she knows. Dameron escapes Ren’s spaceship with the help of a morally confused (i.e. disobedient) Stormtrooper nicknamed Finn (John Boyega), and the two jet off in search of BB-8. And naturally, the baddies, who report to an enormous and menacing hologram of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), vow to destroy planets, people, and positive energy. The less said, the better, though familiar faces are peppered throughout.
Thanks to the films of Marvel Studios, the bar for world-building and source service has been raised. Additionally, audiences (and critics) have expressed a resurgence in leaving the stratosphere, with recent notable outings including Gravity, Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Martian. The Force Awakens seems to have come at the exact right moment. Abrams, along with his crew, answer this calling with a seamless delivery for both fans and newcomers. The movie is a pure blast, packed with homages and characters aplenty, yet feels effortless in its ability to keep all pieces continuously moving and engaging. There is a propulsion at its core, a kind of infections enthusiasm transmitted by each performer. Harrison Ford felt tired in 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. An extra seven years later, he feels right at home as a space pirate.
The fresh stars here are nothing like those of Vader’s origins. All cast members prove themselves to be worthy of carrying the franchise. Though I was not as smitten with Rey as I had expected to be, Ridley plays her with the same wide-eyed excitement and naivety that Hamill brought to Luke in Episode IV. I imagine this might not be coincidence, but regardless, I hope to see some more growth to her in the next installment. Domhnall Gleeson is unquestionably memorable as the insane General Hux. He is by far and away having the most fun on screen, continuously making foul faces and shouting reprimands. Lupita Nyong’o is unrecognizable and equally fantastic as the motion captured Maz (think Edna Mode of The Incredibles). And Adam Driver brings an interesting balance between Kylo Ren the savage murderer and Kylo Ren the perhaps unwise, young adult.
The special effects are top notch, but it is a breath of fresh air to see animatronics and old school practicality employed. In the hands of someone else, BB-8 would have been an editorial afterthought. Abrams keeps out of his camera’s way, avoiding flashy craftsmanship and distracting pyrotechnics. The filmmaking and screenwriting decisions feel as if a beat hasn’t been skipped since we met a bunch of Ewoks. If judging on Roger Ebert’s terms – judging The Force Awakens based on its intentions – than it would be near perfect. It checks off all the boxes for a satisfying film that brings the vocabulary of Star Wars back into every household. But with this in mind, Abrams’ outing is not wholly original; The Force Awakens is not the same type of revamped fuel that Casino Royale was for the Bond series. Abrams more than successfully launched us. There is much potential here to expand upon in this new age of Star Wars, and everyone is eager to see where we go next.
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