Star Wars: The Force Awakens is proof that great things can be accomplished even when standing on the shoulders of giants.
There is a palpable sense of awe and reverence that weaves its way through the entire two hours and 16 minutes of this seventh episode in the Star Wars saga. It’s something that is felt in every use of practical effects, every appearance of characters and starships and even musical cues that captured the imaginations of legions of fans. It’s something that’s expressed even by new characters introduced. Rey (Daisy Ridley), one of the new, young protagonists at the forefront of The Force Awakens, is in awe of the crusty, grizzled smuggler-turned Rebellion general-turned smuggler Han Solo when they first meet. Director and co-writer J.J. Abrams is clearly a lifelong fan of the this galaxy far, far away and his respect and love for those original films shines through in every frame of The Force Awakens.
Was he too reverent and perhaps even obsessed with what came before? Perhaps. For as many new characters and locations that get revealed here, the overall structure of the film and its major beats, and even a few of its action sequences, feel like direct lifts from all three of the original trilogy films. Even as it blazes a trail for a story that goes its own way, it’s a film that is firmly planted in the familiar. If what you want is something wholly new, The Force Awakens is not the film for you. But if what you want is something that reminds you of why you loved these characters and this universe in the first place, while also bringing in new elements which feel organic and true to the spirit of the original, then The Force Awakens is a film that delivers in spades.
At the center is a trio of characters who rank among the best the series has ever seen. John Boyega as Finn, a Stormtrooper trained since birth to fight for the First Order (the remnants of the Galactic Empire now making a play for power), who just wants to do the right thing and rushes headfirst into danger regardless of the consequences. Boyega delivers the kind of comedic yet earnest performance all Attack The Block fans knew he had in him, one that ought to skyrocket him to a great career if there’s any justice in this world. He pairs especially well with Rey, an orphaned scavenger who has spent her life on the desolate desert planet of Jakku, patiently waiting for the day when her family returns to claim her. The two have exceptional chemistry and together form the heart of the film. Rey is especially significant in that she’s the type of female hero we so rarely get in cinema: Exceptionally capable, emotionally complex and never a token damsel in distress. In fact, every instance in which others attempt to save her she is either already saving herself or more capable at doing so than those making the attempt. If all The Force Awakens accomplished was providing us with these two characters, it would have been a success so good are they written and performed.
Thankfully, there’s more than that. In particular we’re presented with the most emotionally complex and fascinating villain in the entire series with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). On a meta level, Kylo Ren represents the entire film. A new character with motivations and complexities of his own, but driven by and obsessed with the past. His fanatical devotion to the imagery and memory of Darth Vader are what drives him, and like Vader there’s a conflict flowing within. But whereas Vader was a good man struggling with darkness, Kylo Ren wants nothing more than to banish the pull of the Light Side of the Force. He longs to be consumed by darkness, pleading and praying that he might somehow snuff out the rays of goodness that call to him. He’s a volatile man, prone to tantrums and fits of unbridled rage. It’s the sort of thing that could come across as silly were it handled by a lesser actor. But even with his face often wholly obscured and his voice modulated, Driver manages to fully communicate the complexities of the character and deliver a level of nuance we’ve heretofore not seen from a villain in Star Wars. I can’t wait to see where the next two films take him.
Perhaps the film’s biggest surprise, though, is Harrison Ford’s return as Han Solo. Ford has more or less been on autopilot for decades. He’s certainly had fun, watchable movies here and there, but the charming, roguish spark has been missing for far too long. So to see him so fully engaged, not just with the film but with the character that made him famous, it’s special in a way difficult to describe. Harrison Ford IS Han Solo here, and delivers precisely the performance we’ve been waiting 30 years for.
It’s easiest to talk about the characters, because it’s the characters that shine brightest here. As a story, there’s not much to say. The Empire still exists, albeit in smaller force and under a new name, but it’s the Empire all the same — Stormtroopers, Star Destroyers, TIE Fighters and all. They’re fighting against a rebellious faction known as the Resistance, who pilot X-Wings and strike from a hidden base on a forest planet, and everyone is after secret information hidden inside a diminutive droid. There’s a countdown clock as a massive, planet-destroying superweapon (bigger than any before it, granted) prepares to destroy the good guys’ base while said good guys attempt to blow it up. There are desert planets, ice planets … it’s all familiar stuff.
Thankfully, familiarity isn’t quite the albatross one might expect. As Creed proved earlier this year, so long as you introduce new characters worth caring about and have enough new elements of your own, following the familiar beats and choruses of a past film won’t prevent your new film from reaching great heights all its own. A lot was made about how Abrams and crew would return to the “old ways” of Star Wars, i.e. shooting on film, lots of physical sets and in-camera effects, etc. But what truly makes this like its original trilogy predecessors is that, more than practical effects, we have characters we can truly invest in and care about. Rey and Finn and Kylo Ren are all characters as memorable and likable as those we met when Star Wars first arrived.
So yes, it’s somewhat lazy to have the heroes go up against “another Death Star” (as someone so directly points out within the film). Yes, there are characters who are sorely underdeveloped. (Captain Phasma, for all the hype surrounding her pre-release is somehow even less useful than Boba Fett.) Yes, delightful and enthusiastic characters like Poe Dameron get pushed into the background. (Thankfully, Oscar Isaac kills it with every appearance he makes. Here’s hoping Rian Johnson makes good use of him in Episode VIII.) It’d be great if we actually had some clarity for once regarding the galaxy’s somewhat murky political situation. And, sadly, Carrie Fisher gets precious little to do in her return as Leia. But whatever faults surface upon reflection after exiting the theater, they ultimately are secondary and diminish the film marginally at best.
This is a film I never thought I’d see, and the sensation of watching a Star Wars film which I had no idea where it was all going was almost too much to handle. (Say what you will about the prequels, but we at least knew the ultimate endgame of Anakin’s journey in those films, so surprises were few and far between.) In the end, though, this is a film that doesn’t just “feel” like Star Wars, which is what I went in hoping for at best. It IS Star Wars. And I can’t wait to see what comes next.