The Franchise Awakens

Don’t worry, everybody: it’s good. How good? Well….

Disney had quite the mountain to climb when they announced an entirely new trilogy of Star Wars movies was going into production. Not only would they follow the original trilogy over 30 years after its conclusion, not only would they bring back the original stars (Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill), not only would George Lucas not be involved in the entire process (a good or bad thing depending on who you ask) but it would primarily follow a new set of characters and a new plot line. For any other franchise, that’d be a somewhat tough task. But for one of the (if not THE) most iconic film franchise in history, that’s like climbing Mt. Everest blindfolded wearing a light windbreaker. Nevertheless, the House of Mouse decided to play dirty with one thought; who better to revive this beloved sci-fi space opera than the guy who revived that OTHER beloved sci-fi space opera? J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Mission: Impossible III, Super 8) answered the call and conquered Everest…but not without some struggle.

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. The Empire was defeated, but from their ashes rose a new sinister galactic force called The First Order, featuring Sith warrior Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). When they reveal their greatest weapon with the intent to destroy The Republic, a group of outsiders team up to save the galaxy. That group includes scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac)….oh yeah, and these two old smugglers named Han Solo (Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

 

The first thing to say about The Force Awakens is that it’s most definitely a J.J. Abrams movie, as evidence by the visuals and the pacing. As seen in his Star Trek films and Mission: Impossible III, Abrams keeps the movie light on its feet and moving at a brisk pace. That’s a hit and miss strategy since the pacing keeps the movie moving without ever getting boring but also takes the emotional punch out of the more serious scenes (especially in the first half). In fact, the movie’s two main elements are split between the two halves of the 135-minute runtime. The first half has great visuals and builds atmosphere well but the character establishment is lacking, whereas the second half has the audience fully invested in the characters’ actions but the visual wham of it has somewhat worn off. Not that the visuals in the movie aren’t already very impressive, as Abrams glossy sheen on scenes with the Millennium Falcon or The First Order’s reveal of their great weapon. The most of the plot of the movie and the script (assembled by Abrams, Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan) are both cohesive plot elements and references to the original trilogy. There are some throwaway scenes that matter little to the pot but just keep the movie going, so The Force Awakens keeps audiences in the seats just long enough to keep them from questioning whether or not they’ve seen this before.

 

star-wars-the-force-awakens-daisy-ridley-john-boyega

John Boyega and Daisy Ridley Photo Credit: JoBlo

 

The Force Awakens hits a real home run with its casting, specifically its new lead characters. John Boyega (Attack the Block) and Daisy Ridley (Scrawl) have fantastic chemistry between each other and with the Star Wars universe in general. They and Oscar Isaac bring the energy and humanity missing from the prequels because they’re allowed to look like they’re excited to be here. They want to fly the Falcon, they want to shoot Stormtroopers, they want to be involved in the legacy of The Force. It’s clear from the two leads of their passion for the movie as to how invested they are in the universe around them. Boyega’s Finn is searching for a new purpose throughout the movie after exiling himself (rather abruptly, though) from The First Order. Maybe it’s because of the pacing that his transformation feels a bit too quick, but his charisma carries him through. Adam Driver (Girls) makes for a surprisingly compelling villain as Kylo Ren, even if he is essentially a Darth Vader fanboy gone to the extreme. He gets a bit hard to buy once he takes that helmet off, but the way he uses his backstory (no spoilers) to make his transformation fully-formed sells the whole thing (and yes, his lightsaber is awesome). The heart and soul of the movie is Ridley as the scrappy dreamer Rey. In no way, shape or form is she a damsel in distress. Instead, she’s the one who moves the whole story forward as the dreamer looking to escape her wasteland planet (basically a discount Tatooine) and discover herself. She’s leading Finn through the perils of The First Order, she’s the one piloting the Falcon, she’s the one challenging Kylo. She’s no Furiosa, but Ridley makes Rey feel fully-formed and, for the first time in the Star Wars universe, inhabits a character that the audience wants to see more of in later movies.

 

Despite the excellent job the two main leads do with their work, there’s also a feeling of missed opportunity with some of the supporting players. The likes of Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o and especially Gwendoline Christie are criminally underused in their small roles. They’re clearly happy to join the Star Wars universe and some ham it up to show their appreciation (Gleeson especially as the hilariously sniveling General Hux), but their characters deserved a bit more to do. For those wondering why I haven’t mentioned the original cast, it’s because they’re barely in the movie. The Force Awakens is probably the most Han-centric Star Wars movie to date, but Harrison Ford brings nothing really new to the character. Not that it’s a bad thing, since Ford is one of those guys who out-acts people in his sleep. He and Carrie Fisher still have that chemistry that audiences loved from the original trilogy and even in the elder state, there’s a warm love still felt between the two. And all I’ll say about Hamill is that he’s in the movie.

 

I want to cap this off by emphasizing that, again, The Force Awakens is a good movie. Abrams and his production team establish a universe that is both undoubtedly Star Wars yet unique from previous installments. The production design is fantastic, the effects (both practical and special) are great, and the movie has some of the best cast and characters seen in Star Wars since Return of the Jedi. But here’s the rub; The Force Awakens is less a directly connected sequel, but the purest definition of a “soft reboot.” This movie clearly wants nothing to do with the prequels (maybe in every shape and form) and everything to do with the original trilogy. From a business standpoint, bringing Star Wars movies back into production was more about the maddening hype and excitement of the event more than the event itself. But perhaps out of pure luck or maybe actual passion for this franchise, Disney got a director and team that actually wanted to create something new with Star Wars. Abrams and company’s work feels like that of a team that dressed up in cosplay, wrote essays on the subtext of the movies, made fan-films and alternate endings to the movies. Everyone involved in The Force Awakens (aside from maybe Ford, but that’s forgivable) cared about what they were doing. The Force Awakens is actually similar to the miracle of The Lego Movie: a purely corporate business decision meant to make money and generate marketing revenue that was given actual effort and passion put into it. Granted, The Lego Movie is far better than The Force Awakens, but this movie accomplished its mission. The world wants more Star Wars, Hollywood wants more Star Wars, I want more Star Wars.

 

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4

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