There was a time when songs used to come packaged together as things called “albums” that you had to listen to in order. This created an indelible link between the songs placed near each other on a record, tape or CD. To this day, if I hear Aerosmith’s Magic Touch — off of the still incredible Permanent Vacation — I expect to hear the familiar strains of Rag Doll coming in close on its heels.
Watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens is like listening to one of those beloved albums. It’s at turns comforting, thrilling and full of feeling. But it’s also very, very reminiscent of both A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. So familiar that you will find yourself listening for the strains of certain plot points to come wafting in, and they always do. As a reset of the franchise and a rebirth, some familiarities are both expected and not unwelcome, but the tributes are so thick on the ground that they could trip up long-time lovers of the series. Not so thick, however, that they will much bother newer viewers, or those raised on the prequels.
The Force Awakens somehow manages to be fresh in a way that feels nostalgic, but the freshness never quite turns the corner into innovation outside of a few pivotal scenes. And yet, it works.
Characters, At Last
Where The Force Awakens does shine incredibly well is the strength of its new characters, which are the best Star Wars has had in decades. Aside from the handful of principals that people had to keep track of in the prequels, it was sadly lacking in new characters that we were able to latch onto and really care about. This new Star Wars delivers four that absolutely destroy every time they’re visible on screen. And the actors that play them can all act their asses off.
Rey, a powerful female force in Star Wars that requires no white knighting, is in full possession of her own agency. She is the culmination of what Leia could have been in the original trilogy if they weren’t so busy seeing what the men were up to. Rey, abandoned on a desert planet that is not Tatooine even though it basically is, waits for the return of her family and scrapes by an unbelievably tough existence, without ever complaining a bit. She’s a loner, a pillar of her own strength, and never loses sight of her goals. Not only that, but throughout the film she teaches herself the skills she needs to survive and executes on them (mostly) without assistance. Not out of stubbornness or anger, but out of sheer competence.
It doesn’t matter that I have a daughter, I love to see this kind of purpose-driven parts for women either way — but it does warm the cockles of my heart to think that she will be able to grow up with a Star Wars that features a character like Rey at its core. Her journey is the most fully realized in this film, and it’s made very clear to us that she will be the pivot point for episodes to come.
Daisy Ridley portrays Rey with a willful, physically adroit capability — open emotionally, but not naive. This is a girl who has been stuck on a backwater, but she’s no neophyte. Ridley manages the balance between street tough and caring friend in Rey so cleverly. She’s absolutely magnetic on screen and got the biggest crowd reactions of any character in our preview screening. Ridley is a discovery, captivating at every turn, whether she’s emoting or in the thick of combat.
John Boyega as Finn, originally a Stormtrooper with a number for a name, is equally delightful. Funny, cocky, unsure and chivalrous even when he doesn’t need to be. A black main character with a lightsaber and a leading-man charisma is a second welcome nod to a more diverse Star Wars universe — and it pays off in spades because Boyoga is even more entertaining here than he was in Attack The Block. Sporting a slightly broad American-ish accent, Boyega holds his own in scenes with Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Ridley.
Boyega also delivers much of the humor in The Force Awakens, which is there but not in your face. The funny moments can be credited to his ability to be both likable and sarcastically glib at the same time, much like a young Harrison Ford.
Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron also excites in a clearly defined, dynamic role. He’s an ace pilot, a resistance fighter entrusted with securing and guarding a map to the last Jedi. This is the kind of role that would have been the centerpiece of any space opera up to and including Star Wars: A New Hope. That he’s really the third (or fourth) lead here speaks to the absolutely stacked main cast. It also displays a pretty cool shift in the way that screenwriters and directors are defining what ‘hero’ means. Does it mean a reluctant stormtrooper? A traumatized orphan waiting for a family that will never return? Or is it an uncomplicated man with just the skills that the rebels need? A movie as big as Star Wars has the potential to establish paradigms, and if elevating a woman and a black leading man in complex mental and metaphysical distress to the main characters is what comes of it, I am fine with that.
Which brings us to the most important character in any Star Wars movie: the villain.
Adam Driver is so good here. Even with most of the movie obscuring his face and voice behind a mask, Driver’s physicality as dark Jedi Kylo Ren tells volumes. Whether Kylo Ren is throwing a tantrum, slicing apart a console with his saber on receiving a bad report — or moving with a loping animal aggressiveness during lightsaber duels, Driver sells it. He’s powerful, but also unsure and still learning. One moment his control over his power is precise enough to freeze a blaster bolt, and another moment he’s thrown by an unexpected move from an opponent. This is Vader but in his junior year of psychopathic force-wielder high school.
Kylo Ren is slightly unhinged, battling between the light and the dark. Driver does a better job of displaying the power and allure of the dark side in just his chunks of the 135-minute running time of Star Wars: The Force Awakens than the wooden Hayden Christensen managed in two full length prequels.
Luke, Han and Leia are all here, of course. The scenes between Han and Leia in particular have a wistful, melancholy tone to them that speaks to the fact that they’ve got an additional 30 years of history under their belts. But both Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are still wonderful actors, and sell the heck out of it. Luke, well. Let’s just say that Mark Hamill’s appearance in the movie is very “J.J. Abrams”.
The plot of The Force Awakens is silly at best, and truly, brutally derivative at worst. The fact that it’s derivative of the first three great movies is a saving grace, perhaps, though as I explained above can become a distraction. Some of the story elements are really distracting. C-3PO, for instance, has a red arm. Why? No clue. Never explained.
Thankfully, the writing, dialog and acting are all superb — more than cancelling out any minor annoyances you may have. It’s a rare movie that lets you acknowledge that the series of events you’re seeing are not necessarily cobbled together well — while still allowing you to truly enjoy the interactions of the characters and their individual stories.
Those stories are what drives The Force Awakens, not the overall ‘plot’, which involves yet another battle station that can destroy planets. The banter and truly organic phrasing of the dialog manages to outshine the fact that every planet in J.J. Abrams’ galaxy feels about one minute thirty seconds worth of hyperspace from any other.
Visually, The Force Awakens also feels familiar. But that familiarity feels much more welcome here than it does in the story beats. A shot of a Star Destroyer piercing the outline of a distant planet, lightsabers that are treated as proper light sources, visually compelling blocking for the chase scenes and dogfights. One particular 360-degree shot of a swooping X-Wing dogfighting, smashing its way through enemies, as seen from the viewpoint of a character standing on the ground, is truly majestic.
The visual effects in the film, a heavy mixture of practical and digital — much more practical than any of the prequels, for what it’s worth — are impressive aside from a few iffy creatures and sort-of-weightless bits of machinery. What’s really great about them, though, is that they’re executed and framed with restraint and nonchalance. There is no lingering about on bits of pyrotechnics just for the visual’s sake. Not only does the pacing prohibit too much of that, but Abrams’ capable hand guides the camera towards what matters, the characters and their fates, and away from the whizz banging.
One very welcome return here is a feeling of verisimilitude — that this world could really exist. Things finally feel lived in again. There is dust, there is sweat, there is rust, there is a real feeling of effort as people try to make their weapons, ships and other technology just work. Nothing feels throwaway and effortless as it did throughout the prequels. These characters are trying really, really hard to not die, and these subconscious signals alone make you feel more engaged with the story.
The pacing of The Force Awakens is frenetic, and pulses with cuts pushing you ever forward. The moments to let the characters sit and breathe are few and far in between. This leads to a bit of a staccato feel, and will make you wonder what bits of the story you’re not seeing. And there are a fair few questions left over at the end.
One thing you won’t be lacking, however, is fan service. This practice, of gratuitously referencing well-worn elements of a show or series in order to ‘reward’ ‘true fans’ is in full effect in The Force Awakens. References abound to devices, plot elements and props (in one scene, for example, Finn finds and quickly discards the seeker droid Luke used to train with his lightsaber) from the original series.
These aren’t bad in their own way, but when coupled with re-used story beats they add up to a feeling of stagnation that doesn’t go away until the end of the movie, when we’re set up with some really fresh battles and a coda that makes you ache for Episode VIII to be here already.
The Force Awakens is the setup to a pitch that we only get to see at the very end, with a small group of our characters finally breaking new ground.
If you’ve scrolled to the bottom just to see what the verdict is, then it’s this: Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the best film in the series since Return of The Jedi, and maybe even since Empire Strikes Back. Its weak story is more than offset by its compelling and well-acted characters and the return of some of its best heroes.