Star Wars: The Force Awakens passed the universal cinematic measuring stick I refer to as the “pee test”. It’s a simple test. If you realize halfway through a movie that you have to use the facilities, do you get up and go, or is the movie so captivating that you have no choice but to just tough it out until the final credits roll? Even the weakest bladder will be put to the test with this one, as you’re hooked from the moment a title card reads “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” and John Williams’ surprisingly fresh update on perhaps the most famous score ever kicks in.
Note: This review is spoiler free. With that being said, I do go into basic character and plot details. All of these were told to us by Disney in advance so I’m not giving anything away, but if you’ve managed to go into it completely blind at this point, you should probably stop reading.
J.J. Abrams, the fanboy who gave a nice if a little too friendly Spielberg impression with Super 8 and successfully rebooted Star Trek, was charged by the powers that be (Disney) with helming the $400 million return to a galaxy whose stories have become scripture in the pop culture landscape. Star Wars is not canon. It’s bigger than canon. It’s a planet-sized canon, actually. A planet-sized canon capable of wiping out entire species’ with the push of a button (yes, there is one of these weapons in TFA).
If there’s one thing Abrams has established about himself as a filmmaker, it’s that he has an outstanding eye when it comes to casting. The main reason I came into TFA believing it would be stronger than the prequel trilogy was the group of performers involved, specifically the young folks taking on new characters that hope to become every bit as iconic as the old folks who grace this film as well. They do just that.
Set thirty years after The Return of the Jedi, this film isn’t exactly an exercise in tight plotting. A new empirical force called the First Order has risen and a group referred to as the Resistance is fighting to keep the galaxy free. Luke Skywalker has gone missing. We’re told this is important, the key to the whole story, though I’m not really sure why. A droid carrying the missing piece to the map leading to Luke barely manages to escape the First Order and then comes across a mechanically gifted loner on a dessert planet who happens to be a skilled pilot and have some supernatural abilities. From there, a group of characters are thrust into an epic adventure. Sound familiar?
The intrinsic flaw with TFA is that it’s more or less a complete retread of the original Star Wars. At times, this can be fun. The film is loaded with visual and dialogue-driven references to what’s happened before it. They’re not very subtle, as the six year-old sitting behind me seemed to pick up on every one. This will certainly appeal to all those who know how many parsecs it took the Millennium Falcon to make the Kessel Run. But to those who see Star Wars as a movie and nothing more, it will seem unoriginal, even campy.
When the film focuses on the wholly original is when it reaches the sort of highs the original trilogy did. The new principle cast is fantastic all-around, and I look forward to seeing them in movies for years to come. Oscar Isaac plays Poe Dameron, the best pilot in the Resistance and a hero from the start. He’s brash but well intentioned. He starts off as the character it took Han Solo an entire movie to grow into. He’s the owner of the droid carrying the map to Skywalker (BB-8, the soccer ball looking contraption sitting on Christmas lists everywhere). It’s a shame the script doesn’t give the very talented Isaac more to do. He’s absent for the entire middle chunk of the movie.
Elsewhere, we have Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper whose storm-trooping days end before they really start due to his conscience. Boyega is the comedic backbone and serves as the lens through which we experience the film. He feels like a fan of Star Wars plucked out of his mother’s basement and thrown right into the action. His reactions to the happenings in the film are priceless. Adam Driver plays Kylo Ren, the films primary villain and a wannabe Darth Vader. His origins reveal themselves in the most Star Warsy way but Driver manages to keep the character from bordering on the ridiculous. There’s a reason Abrams made the conscience decision to have him play key moments with his mask off.
Domhnall Gleeson plays General Hux, the First Order general who has a humorous working relationship with Ren. He gives a Hitler-esque speech to his army that tops anything the generals in the original trilogy could do. Gleeson has had quite the year. There are also a couple of wise CGI characters played by Lupita Nyong’o and motion-capture maven Andy Serkis. They don’t really work, but they’re not large enough elements to hold back the film.
And then there’s Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey, the scavenger on the dessert planet Jakku who comes across BB-8 by accident and instantly becomes an integral part of Star Wars mythos. Words cannot convey the quality of Ridley’s performance. She completely embodies the role both physically and emotionally. She’s the clear standout in a film full of very good actors. Rey doesn’t need help. When she comes across Finn, he keeps trying to hold her hand and lead her in a move that plays like a direct response to the gender politics of Jurassic World (whose director, Colin Trevorrow, will be helming Episode IX).
There are already a hundred thinkpieces about a movie as big as TFA being led by a black man and a woman. More importantly, however, is that Boyega and Ridley are so good that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in these roles. Their (for now) platonic bond is fun to watch. I really hope further installments don’t turn them into star-crossed lovers. They are each interesting on their own, and there are plenty of stories to tell with these two. I also hope Hollywood doesn’t turn Ridley, now a full-blown movie star, into “girlfriend material”. She does here what Jennifer Lawrence did in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games. Ridley also carries this unique oomph about her that reminds me of Emily Blunt in a way. Lawrence and Blunt have been fortunate enough to have roles thrown at them that don’t force them into archetypes. I hope the same happens for Ridley, as she already looks like one of the brightest stars we have.
I can’t believe I’ve written 1,000 words without mentioning Harrison Ford. Han Solo is back, and he’s the only member of the original story whose appearance is more than a glorified cameo. He’s a huge part of this movie and we should be thankful for that. Ford dives into the role in what may end up being his last great performance. He’s a little older and wiser but he’s still Han, and we love him for that. I’ve never witnessed a larger round of applause during a movie than when Han enters TFA with Chewy. There is a lot of forced drama with Han but Ford is just so goddamned fun that you’ll overlook it. At the age of 73, Ford still manages to bring more to this sort of role than anyone else in the game. It’s easy to see why the system continues to attempt to find the new Ford with the likes of Chris Pratt, Chris Pine, and Ryan Reynolds.
The effects work and actual action in the film is fine, though a bit misleading. All the talk has been about how Abrams preferred practical effects to CGI, and while there’s certainly a lot of great building in play here, the most exciting sequences come via the digital artists. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s jus that as an effects movie, this is closer to The Avengers than it is to Mad Max: Fury Road. The space battle sequences are spectacular and I imagine George Lucas is wishing right now that he waited an additional decade to do the prequels. The climactic lightsaber fight is short, but it’s arguably the best in Star Wars history. It’s perfect because the parties involved aren’t masters of the force yet, so it’s done very sloppily. There’s no grace. It looks like two kids playing with toy lightsabers in the woods behind their house. This is a compliment.
On top of being very referential and self-aware, TFA is just plain funny. Tonally, it’s similar to Abrams’ Star Trek films. This is important because it distracts from the shoddy plot and overall unoriginality of the film.
TFA suffers from what it can’t really help; that it’s the first part of a planned trilogy. It’s more important for this film to lay the groundwork, to tease, and to introduce excitement than it is for it to tell a truly great story. When Lucas made the original Star Wars nobody imagined it would become what it did. A sequel was just a possibility, so he had to tell a cohesive story. Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan don’t have to. TFA truly feels like a “part one”. It does its job to keep you eagerly anticipating the Rian Johnson directed Episode VIII, though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit disappointed by the payoff, or lack thereof, with this one.
Diehard Star Wars fans will be salivating for all of TFA’s 135-minute runtime. Those not so close to the series may be frustrated at times, but the trio of Ridley/Boyega/Isaac and sheer wow factor of some of the bigger sequences will still keep them glued to their seats.
Only time will tell where TFA ultimately ranks amongst the Star Wars films. It’s certainly better than the prequels, though I don’t think it ever reaches the emotional highs of the original trilogy. But, again, it did its job. Star Wars is back.
Episode VIII comes out May 26, 2017. Let the countdown begin.
Oh, and thanks for introducing us to Daisy Ridley.