Editor’s note: This review first was published Dec. 18, 2015.
‘The Force Awakens’ gloriously returns ‘Star Wars’ to its roots
Conflicted, this young film critic is.
You see, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” already slated to become the top-grossing movie of all time, really isn’t anything more than a glorified remake of “Episode IV.” That in and of itself should reflect poorly on director J.J. Abrams, the man charged with introducing a new generation to the Force — but it doesn’t.
Instead, his lavish tribute to the 1977 original is just what the doctor ordered, a perfect blend of homage and story-building that reminds us yet again why so many fell in love with the epic space opera to begin with.
“The Force Awakens,” the seventh entry into George Lucas’ genre-defining series (he was not involved with this episode), wastes no time reintroducing us to a galaxy far, far away. Decades after the heroes of the original trilogy — Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill); his cunning sister, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher); and scammer-with-a-heart-of-a-gold Hans Solo (Harrison Ford) — thwarted the dastardly machinations of the Dark Side (and one very large space station), it seems the war continues on, just with a new villainous crew trying to subjugate the populace and a new outmatched rebellion trying to save the galaxy. In essence, “The Force Awakens” returns to its core, forgoing most of the unnecessary razzle-dazzle that distracted from the widely (and justly) panned Episodes I-III.
A new triumvirate fills in for the heroes of lore this time around. Talented and charismatic in their own right, the newest entries — played by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac — serve a more diverse audience this time around, even if the characters portray familiar roles.
The reincarnation of Luke Skywalker, apparently the galaxy’s Last Jedi, comes in the form of Rey (Ridley), a young woman who seems to have memorized every legend regarding the Jedi and every manual for every mechanized vehicle ever. You could almost feel, if you will, the unbridled optimism that flows from her, though it is tempered by events of her past. The past colors the way she feels about her home of Jakku, which seems appropriate for a Jedi just waiting to be trained: History always seems to be repeating itself in this world.
As for the other two, their roles seems a little more nuanced, a little more mixed. Boyega’s Finn, a Stormtrooper with an apparent conscience and self-identity, wants to fill the role of Solo, but he’s too fearful, too scarred by his own past to be able to fully embrace the ideals of being a hero (though, in some respect, that’s not too far removed from Solo himself). He’s no tactician like Princess Leia, but he does have insider knowledge that serves beyond useful in the first film. He’s capable with weapons (and a Lightsaber), but his skills don’t quite seem to rivals Rey’s. It’ll be interesting to see what roles he plays later on. (“Episode VIII” is slotted for a May 26, 2017, release.)
Isaac’s Poe, an ace pilot, serves as the series’ introduction to the Resistance, one that serves the same purpose as the original one: to prevent the bad guys from taking control of the galaxy. Some 30 years later, it’s the First Order being all fascist instead of Emperor Palpatine. Poe easily replicates Han’s charm and Leia’s wit. Skilled and loyal, it’s easy to see him being an important piece in the battles to come, but whether he will be is an entirely different question.
The Resistance, by the way, seems to be a separate entity than the Republic, which was created after the Battle of Endor. Why? Good question. Moving on. (A side note about the First Order that bears mentioning: With few exceptions, the First Order is the blandest sect of evildoers you’ve ever met. Perhaps that’s to have the grunts serve as a foil to main cast of villains, but even the backstory of how this group came to be, why it wants to continue where the murderous Sith Lord left off, is shrouded in mystery.)
Leia and Han return, a bit grayer and more war-weary than they were all those years ago. Leia, no longer a princess, serves as a general in the Resistance. Han, though, has returned to his less than honorable ways, screwing people over and running with the cash. Luke, however, is nowhere to be found, hence setting up the overlaying story arc: Poe is send to find pieces to a map that show where the Jedi has taken off to, which bleeds into Rey and Finn’s storylines. It all meshes quite nicely. (Even Chewbacca is back in the fray!)
Also, Kylo Ren. Portrayed with an ashen intensity by Adam Driver, he’s Force-capable and more than just a bit obsessed with Darth Vader. In fact, Kylo considers it his mission in life to finish what Vader started before his redemption in his final battle. It seems to miss the point, but not all is explained in this part of the trilogy. (It makes one wonder if “maintaining balance” is going to play a role yet again, since it seems there can’t be a Jedi with a Sith running around. Some writers, though, have brought up intriguing points regarding how the Jedi view this balance — aka there can be no Sith — but that’s a theory for another day.) Decked out in the darkest of black and donning yet another metallic mask, Kylo is prone to tantrums and possesses a striking arrogance in his own destiny. Hmm… Who does that sound like?
Director Abrams reminds us in “The Force Awakens” that clean editing and at least a nominally consistent story go a long way. The film looks fantastic, but it isn’t overwhelming. You can keep track of the characters while enjoying the detailed set pieces. The battles, both on the ground and in the air, are quick and powerful, forgoing nonsensically long Lightsaber or starship fights. The film, at 2 hours and 15 minutes, doesn’t feel that long, which is a testament to its brisk pacing.
In the end, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” adds just enough in just the right way to make the whole film worth it. Most of the clutter of the last trilogy is stripped away, and the film revels in its return to the basics. No matter how you feel about basically watching “Episode IV” again (there’s even a father-son battle!), you’re going to enjoy yourself. This is escapism at its best. “Episode VIII” has some galactic shoes to fill.
Four “BB-8 is adorable!” stars out of five, and a critic’s pick.