Star Wars: The Force Awakens (United States, 2015)

December 16, 2015
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Poster

It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to label Star Wars as one of the biggest cultural influences of the last half-century. The 1977 release of A New Hope had a seismic impact on the film industry and the ripples expanded far and wide. For 36 years, George Lucas was the sole helmsman of Star Wars and, although there were times of smooth sailing, he also had to guide the ship through rough seas, especially following the release of The Phantom Menace. But, for good or ill, all eras must end and, with The Force Awakens, we have entered the post-Lucas phase of Star Wars. Like the wedding outfit of a bride, this latest installment, the first direct sequel since 1983’s Return of the Jedi, offers something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue - actually more than one thing “borrowed.”

The frenzy surrounding this film has rarely been seen in recent cinema. Only in the run-up to the opening of The Phantom Menace did all facets of mass media go into overdrive like this. There have been some major “genre fan friendly” motion picture events since 1999 - Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and a few others - but none has captured the worldwide consciousness the way Episode VII has. Credit Lucas for keeping fans wanting more. Credit all the ancillary products for keeping the brand alive. Credit Disney for putting their best marketing people and publicists on the job. Demand for this movie was always there; they have amplified it by an order of magnitude making it an event. It’s not really possible, at least in December 2015, to view The Force Awakens as “just another movie.” But, for purposes of analyzing it, I can try.

If there’s a reason to be disappointed with The Force Awakens, it’s because of the lack of originality. Granted, A New Hope wasn’t a pinnacle of achievement in that realm either, but it felt fresh. The Force Awakens offers a “greatest hits” approach to Star Wars - take all the “expected” elements and check them off. It’s not quite a remake of the 1977 original but the influences and homages are so strong that at times it seems like one. I guess the salient question is whether Star Wars fans want something unique or whether they want to see variations on a theme. The degree to which The Force Awakens is derivative is at times surprising. Apparently, writer/director J.J. Abrams is so frightened of “messing up” Star Wars that he does the safest (and laziest) thing imaginable: tosses new characters and old ones into the mix and has them do pretty much the same things we saw in A New Hope and Return of the Jedi.

Ironically, the few innovative things Abrams and co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan attempt are among those that work best, leaving open the tantalizing prospect of what The Force Awakens might have been had the filmmakers not been beholden to incorporating as many Star Wars tropes as the 135-minute running length would accommodate. For the most part, however, this is a fusion of moments, ideas, and plot points from A New Hope, Return of the Jedi, and Revenge of the Sith.

The movie opens more than three decades after the death of the Emperor. Although the Empire has fallen and a new Republic has been born, the remnants of the old, corrupt regime have regrouped. Now led by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (a motion-captured Andy Serkis, bearing a curious resemblance to Gollum), the First Order has built its own version of the Death Star - something called the “Star Killer.” It can’t move and it’s not entirely man-made but it packs a wallop. And it’s just about ready to go on-line. Snoke’s second in command, Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is doing his best to throw around his dark side of the Force powers but isn’t nearly as imposing as his idol (whose melted mask he owns).

Meanwhile, the droid BB8 has been entrusted with the plans to the Death Star - err, I mean, the “map to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)”, the legendary Jedi who has disappeared - and the First Order wants it before it can be delivered to General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and the Resistance. Enter Rey (Daisy Ridley), an orphan eking out a living on a desert planet. When she comes into possession of BB8, her life changes radically. She finds herself hunted by Ren’s men and, after joining forces with ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), she shows off her piloting skills by stealing a junkyard space ship (the Millennium Falcon) and escaping to the stars. No sooner have Rey and Finn fought their way past TIE fighters than they are hauled aboard a freighter captained by the previous owners of the Falcon - smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his faithful second-in-command, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).  When Han and Chewie learn the importance of BB8’s mission, they have no choice but to return to the Resistance and face the past.

There’s no doubt Abrams wants to emphasize the connection between A New Hope and The Force Awakens (possibly to avoid one of the criticisms leveled at The Phantom Menace - that it looked and “felt” vastly different from the original trilogy). He uses a lot of Lucas’ techniques - wipes and irises and a pan down through a star field following the opening crawl. Set design (especially of the Millennium Falcon and the Star Killer) and costumes call back to Episodes IV-VI. Despite that, however, The Force Awakens misses in two key areas.

The sense of camaraderie that permeated A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi is absent here. Han spends a lot of time with Chewie, Rey, and Finn but they never “bond.” And, as much as there’s some genuine friendship and warmth between Rey and Finn, it’s perfunctory. Secondly, The Force Awakens lacks a great villain. Ren is a poor man’s Vader, prone to temper tantrums and self-doubt (in actuality, he’s a lot like Anakin in Revenge of the Sith). He does many terrible things but never cements himself as the kind of larger-than-life figure that Vader was. One can make a case that the tortured bad guy is a more nuanced choice, but in an epic space opera built around the mythology of a Dark Force versus a Light Force, it doesn’t work. Star Wars, after all, has never been about nuance.

The space battles are well executed and, although some function primarily as eye candy (and there’s a lot of that), there’s legitimate tension during the scene when the Falcon is taking on TIE fighters. Supreme Leader Snoke looks like he could develop into a real badass, although it would be intriguing to learn his backstory (I’m sure we’ll get it at some point) and understand his relationship to the Emperor. The film’s new droid, BB8, is suitably cute (and obviously designed to sell toys), but I still prefer R2D2 and C3PO, both of which make appearances.  There are no colossal missteps like Gungans, Jar-Jar Binks, or Ewoks. By avoiding those pitfalls, The Force Awakens elevates itself above The Phantom Menace and Return of the Jedi.

The new characters are likable and effectively developed. Rey is obviously this trilogy’s version of Luke (with more than a little Katniss thrown in for good measure) and, although we don’t know her secrets, she shows a lot of promise. Daisy Ridley is a great addition to the Star Wars cast. Ditto for John Boyega, who gives us a Stormtrooper with a conscience. He’s sort-of Episode VII’s Princess Leia, although that’s an imperfect parallel. The “new Han” would be Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), although we don’t see enough of him to determine whether he has a wry sense of humor to match his derring-do. Domnhall Gleeson’s General Hux, The Force Awakens’ Tarkin, is in many ways more unsettling than Ren.

But what about our “old friends”? As each appears, it’s impossible to fight back the associated surge of nostalgia, and maybe one of the reasons The Force Awakens will be regarded more positively than the prequels is because they are here. Harrison Ford plays Han exactly as we might expect. He’s the same risk-taking, wisecracking scoundrel we last saw in 1983 but with more gray hair and a cloud hanging over his past. Carrie Fisher’s Leia is the same no-nonsense leader from the original trilogy, but molded by decades of war and at least one tragedy. As for Mark Hamill… the most I can say is that Luke is in the movie. His “reveal” is, as expected, a moment of high drama. R2, 3PO, and Chewbacca all get their moments, and there’s even a cameo for Admiral Ackbar. The dead stay dead - no Obi-Wan, no Yoda, no Anakin/Vader (excepting his mask), no Jabba, no Emperor.

John Williams’ score won’t go down as the best in his long, Oscar-winning career. His new themes are neither strong nor memorable. But he knows how to use what he composed three decades ago. Some of The Force Awakens’ most emotionally resonant moments result from the music. There’s a scene, in which a full rendition of the “Force Theme” (sometimes referred to as “Luke’s Theme”), coupled with the actions of a new cast member, nearly brought me to tears. That’s the power of nostalgia and Williams knows how to milk it for all its worth. The music does its part making The Force Awakens feel like “real Star Wars.”

So what’s the final verdict? A mixed bag. It’s a good start to a new trilogy but hardly the hoped-for masterpiece. It’s a solid space opera spectacle with enough nostalgia to overpower even the most hard-hearted child of the ‘70s and ‘80s but it relies a little too much on recycling old plot elements. And I have problems with the cliffhanger ending. (Even The Empire Strikes Back, which left multiple plot threads dangling, had a better sense of closure.) The Force Awakens does nothing to damage the Star Wars brand, posits unanswered questions to fuel 18 months of speculation, and satisfies a cultural need. Now it’s time to see whether Episode VIII can build on this and bring the franchise back to a higher orbit.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (United States, 2015)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 2015-12-18
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Genre: Science Fiction/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1