Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Directed by JJ Abrams
Written by Lawrence Kasdan & JJ Abrams and Michael Arndt

Ok, so here is the thing, I have an emotional attachment to the Star Wars franchise which is built on nostalgia, et al. I do not plan to bore you with my Star Wars story, but suffice it say that this history will influence my opinion on the film (for better or for worse) and it will absolutely direct the following review into the type that compares and draws from knowledge of the previous films released under the name of Star Wars. So be warned. I will try to avoid direct spoilers, for everybody’s sake. I knew after watching the film that this review would be one of the harder ones to write for me, given the connection to the series and also the massive popularity of this new film. There is likely no way I will bring anything new to the criticism table, or provide any unique insights that couldn’t be read elsewhere, or uncovered with a decent discussion with any group of fans, but here we go anyway.

To give a plot description without revealing important story elements is tricky, since right off the bat we are treated with unexpected news which plays an important part in the development of the plot. But as time has passed since the fall of the Galactic Empire, a new organization has risen to power called the First Order. There remains a Resistance force, which dispatches its best pilot, Poe (Oscar Isaac) to Jakku to retrieve an important piece of the puzzle to take down the First Order. While there, he is captured by the First Order’s Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), but manages to instruct his droid, BB-8, to take the important information back to the Resistance. Stuck on the planet, BB-8 befriends local scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), who begins to help the droid find its way home with the help of Finn (John Boyega), a Resistance fighter who seems to know a lot about the First Order.

To attempt to explain the experience of this movie to a non-Star Wars fan, or someone who has never seen Star Wars, would likely be impossible, and this review is not really geared toward that audience unfortunately. As I said above, there is just no way to separate my lifelong attachment to the series from my perspective or experience here. It would be a disservice to do so, as we each bring something different to every movie we watch, whether it’s Star Wars or not. This one just happens to be Star Wars, so…basically as soon as John Williams score blasted into the theater and we got the classic Star Wars scrawl, I was in. I knew pretty much no matter what that I would love this experience, it would just be a matter of how much. I had confidence JJ Abrams could at least deliver a film that wouldn’t be a complete flop or smudge on the Star Wars name, and he exceeded those low expectations by quite a bit.

Rebooting a franchise as beloved as Star Wars was never going to be an easy task, but what Abrams, Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan, a past Star Wars contributor, do is to focus in on what made the original trilogy so successful and so appealing to audiences, while taking the elements that many fans groaned about in regard to the prequel trilogy and doing away with them. By striking this balance, The Force Awakens becomes a wonderful first entry into a new trilogy that promises to be exciting and fun. For my money, having recently re-watched all 6 prior films, what strained the enjoyment of the prequels was the complexity (along with poor Anakin casting and poor use of CGI/practical effects). What was so charming about the original trilogy was the simplicity, how easy it was to see the good v. evil battle, and how little there truly was going on. Looking back, the original trilogy was very slim in the way of story, which allowed the audience to enjoy the time it spent with the main characters in the awesome universe realized by George Lucas.

With The Force Awakens, Abrams again brings us a simple good v. evil tale that takes place in awesome locations, further expanding the idea of the Star Wars universe while not bogging down the story with too many characters, or too many subplots. The new additions to the cast (Ridley, Boyega, Driver and Isaac) are great in their roles, developing interesting characters with fresh perspectives and leaving plenty of room for growth throughout the remainder of the trilogy. In many ways I see The Force Awakens as the type of introductory film that remains a solid first installment in a new series, while not reaching too much higher than to set the tone for the rest of the series, allowing Rian Johnson, who is set to direct Episode VIII and write both VIII and IX, to excel within the universe and with the characters on display here. In many ways it is like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from Chris Columbus, at least I hope it is. A solid first film which builds the world but is not the best of the series, allowing following artists to hone into the world and explore greater things.

There are certainly some things that may seem familiar about this film from past entries, some to a fault. In some ways I came away from this movie feeling as though they had given the keys of the castle to a bunch of people completely enamored and in love with the universe. As such, we do get some plot elements that harken back to the original, we do get a few “winks” and “nods” that will please the fans. For some this may be a detraction from the opportunity to craft something altogether new and different, for me, this is inevitable, and a great thing! It would be impossible to separate this new trilogy from any of the previous material released in the Star Wars universe. Understanding this, and playing the movie out in some ways like a fanboy edit (but really, really talented fanboys -and girls) delivers an extremely entertaining film with likable characters we can root for, and who we are genuinely interested in finding out more about them. That is why I liked Star Wars: The Force Awakens as much as I did. That is why I cannot wait until the next one is released in 2017!

***1/2 – Great

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