“Do or do not. There is no try.”
So spoke the diminutive Jedi Master Yoda in 1980’s seminal The Empire Strikes Back. These would prove to be prophetic words (and ones which fans echoed loudly) when it was announced in 2012 that not only had Disney purchased the rights to Star Wars from creator George Lucas, but also that they were fast-tracking a new series of films. After a prequel trilogy that received lukewarm to ardently hateful reception, fans were eager for more of the celluloid magic that made the original films a worldwide phenomenon. I did not envy director J.J. Abrams the task of recapturing this magic, as it seemed more unlikely than hitting a thermal exhaust port two meters wide with a pair of proton torpedoes. However, with the powerful guidance of Lucas Arts’ head, Kathleen Kennedy, the support of Disney (already producing solid to excellent work with their Marvel brand), and original trilogy contributing writer, Lawrence Kasdan, I’m here to tell you that Abrams hit a bullseye. The Force Awakens is pure joy, a cinematic feat of spectacle and heart that recalls the series’ highs while also forging new ground.
WARNING: What follows contains mild spoilers concerning the premise of the film. However, I’ll try to be as vague as possible; important events, character arcs, etc. will remain undefined.
Set roughly thirty years after the destruction of the Second Death Star and the fall of the Empire, The Force Awakens begins with a mystery: Luke Skywalker has gone missing. There are two groups very interested in finding him: the First Order, an overtly fascistic, spiritual successor to the Empire, and the Resistance, which is an analogue of the Rebel Alliance. The beginning may seem familiar, however what occurs here is a good representation of what lies in store for the rest of the film. The Force Awakens is not simply a remix of the past films; sure, like the mythic model that Lucas slavishly recreated in his original films, there are very clear archetypes and beats that the story hits, but the success of the film is in the clever way this story is handled, the strength of the acting (more on that later), and the manner in which a new story springs from the old, paying homage while never mimicking. Luke Skywalker’s arc in A New Hope and onward was his own story; this one is decidedly different and focused on a new set of characters while not ignoring what came before it.
A good story means nothing without a likeable or at least understandable main character. Thankfully, this film has two. The first is Finn, a young man with a complicated past, one which saw him witness horrible things. After deciding to make a change in his life (hurray for character agency! Looking at you, Hunger Games.) Finn is swept up in the Resistance’s quest to find Luke and also stop a new galactic threat from the First Order. Played by British actor, John Boyega (who was featured in Joe Cornish’s awesome sci-fi film, Attack the Block), Finn is struggling with personhood; at the onset of the film, he’s largely a blank slate due to the circumstances of his upbringing. The only thing he does have is a clear sense of right and wrong. Despite a desire to protect himself, Finn repeatedly encounters trouble because, like the best heroes and a certain scruffy-looking scoundrel, he can’t help but do the right thing even if he does it grudgingly. Boyega imbues Finn with such everyman charisma and innocent charm that you can’t help but like him; he’s funny without ever hamming it up and just as capable at being serious and conveying real emotion. I’m certainly excited to see Boyega’s star continue to rise; he’s deserving of every accolade.
As is Daisy Ridley who plays Rey, arguably the film’s main character. Growing up on the desert planet of Jakku, Rey has been forced to become self-sufficient. Working as a scavenger, her life is a monotonous daily grind of searching for scrap and eking out an existence on the outskirts of civilization. After events concerning Finn bring him to Jakku, her solitary existence comes to an end. What follows shows that Rey is more than just a cardboard figure of feminine strength; she’s a fully developed character with nuance and depth. Though she maintains a hard exterior, she’s a person longing for connection and purpose; she’s also clever and curious, much in the way Luke Skywalker was in A New Hope (but infinitely better drawn). Her journey through the film is especially exciting in that it is not analogous to Finn’s. Rey knows who she is. What is compelling is that, though different, the one thing that does unite them is their dedication to doing the right thing. It’s not the easiest path, but it is the most just, and in that Rey too is a protagonist worthy of praise. Daisy Ridley’s performance elevates an already interesting character, taking her from likeable to instantly memorable. Ridley conveys so much emotion so effortlessly that it’s difficult to not be swept up in what Rey’s feeling, especially in the film’s breathless final act. Like Boyega, I’m certain that Ridley’s career has a bright future and I could not be more excited to see what she does next.
Oscar Isaac rounds out the new cast on the side of the Resistance. Filling the requisite roguish shoes of the classical rugged hero is Isaac’s Poe Dameron, the Resistance’s best pilot. Fast-talking and reliable, Poe provides some needed veteran weight to the newcomers in that he is a man already heavily entrenched in the Resistance movement and one with prior knowledge of the original trilogy’s main players. Though not heavily featured in the film, Oscar Isaac (my costar in A Most Violent Year and soon to be seen as the titular villain of X-Men: Apocalypse) makes the most of his limited screen time, giving us a fun character in the vein of Indiana Jones and Guardian of the Galaxy’s Star-Lord.
A film’s heroes are important, but so are its villains and The Force Awakens has a few notable antagonists, though its focus is clearly set upon one. Let’s start with the supporting players. Gwendoline Christie (best known as Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones) plays Captain Phasma, a tall, chrome-clad Stormtrooper of some importance in the First Order. Though not heavily featured, Phasma’s appearance is immediately iconic. Beyond that, I can say little without spoiling parts of the film. Other than Phasma, the other notable First Order player is Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux. Gleeson already impressed earlier this year with a noteworthy turn in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. Here he eschews subtlety for fascistic zeal; Hux is a devoted follower of the First Order, powered by an insatiable desire for order, following in the tainted footsteps of the fallen Empire that he clearly idolizes.
Despite the cool factor of Captain Phasma and General Hux’s zealous appeal, the star of the film’s rogues’ gallery is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. Darth Vader is a difficult act to follow and Kylo Ren knows this. Obsessed with Vader and the Sith, Kylo Ren exists as the dark side equivalent of Luke Skywalker; he is a Force-sensitive person without any real direction, only a clear inclination toward the Dark Side (whereas Luke seemed inherently pulled to the Light). The imposing figure and masked face of Kylo Ren are a homage to the man he worships, meant to invoke fear and trepidation. However, much of Kylo Ren exists as a projection of what he desires to be rather than what he is. He is far more complex than he seems at the outset; his motivations and struggle with himself make him a fascinating character and one that is also strengthened by the powerful acting of Adam Driver. In my opinion, Adam Driver’s casting as Kylo Ren is the most inspired choice of the film. Driver, of Girls fame, is immediately intriguing and watchable; his turn as Ren gives the viewer a lot to chew on even though there’s very little direct dialogue involving his troubles. If you’re not on board with Driver, there’s a scene that begins the Third Act that is so tense and emotionally charged that you can’t take your eyes away from the screen; much of this can be attributed to Driver’s subtle, varied performance that alludes to a history barely glimpsed in the actual film. Overall, a brilliant performance by another promising actor.
Returning to the role that made him famous is Harrison Ford. Everyone knows Han Solo. Everyone loves Han Solo. The charming smuggler with a heart of gold returns in The Force Awakens, a little bit older, a little bit wiser, but still decidedly Han. That he wouldn’t be the Han I knew was my main worry coming into the film (given Ford’s longstanding, public ambivalence toward Star Wars), but I’m glad to say that Harrison Ford did not disappoint, but rather exceeded my highest expectations. He seamlessly fell back into the role, showing a well-loved character at a different stage in his life. Han’s priorities have changed, but he still possesses the same sardonic wit, charisma, and heroism that made him so iconic in the first place. Ford’s acting is also better than ever before in the series and I was genuinely moved by the intensely personal stakes of Han’s plight.
If you couldn’t tell, I loved all of the acting in this film. There was not a wooden line to be found; though this can be attributed to the strength of the actors, I would be remiss to ignore that massive accomplishment of J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, whose script, though seemingly simple, possesses a great amount of emotional depth that exists beyond simple fan-service. Despite my undying love of Star Wars, when thinking about it critically, I still found myself compelled by the story. Of course it had clear ties to the original, but it succeeded in forging its own path, surprising in parts, being deadly serious and affecting when necessary, and most importantly, capturing the incandescent spirit of the originals, especially in its emotionally-loaded and powerful finale. Truly, Abrams and Kasdan worked cinematic wizardry.
Speaking of magic, the special effects wizards and artistic team behind this film have done a sterling job in updating the iconic style of the original trilogy for the modern age. The universe of Star Wars once again feels lived-in and weighed with years of history. Even though CG is present, much of what makes its way on screen was created with practical effects, grounding even the most outlandish scenes in the dirty, tangibility of the originals. Creature and character design remains unforgettable, from supporting characters to characters glimpsed in the background in a single frame, prepare yourself for a deluge of new Wookieepedia pages concerning even the smallest players in this universe. One need only look as far as BB-8, The Force Awaken’s mascot, spherical droid to see the skill and ingenuity (and acute eye for marketability) with which these characters are crafted. BB-8 in general is a triumph; the droid is as charming as R2-D2 while still being its own character, complete with its own nuances and memorable sound design. Whoever said lightning can’t strike twice has just been proven wrong and I’m sure the world is in for a lot more BB-8 in the near future.
A note on the action, specifically the lightsaber battles: they have never been direr or more dramatically charged. Even Return of the Jedi’s emotional final fight is less brutal and raw than the battles in this film. You feel every saber stroke and hang on every movement. People get injured and there is a palpable sense of tension due to the loose, realistic choreography on display. These fights look nothing like the beautifully choreographed dances of the prequels; they are simply two people trying to kill each other in an exceptionally brutal way. I couldn’t get enough and hope the future films continue this trend of gritty, desperate lightsaber duels.
As far as direction goes, J.J. Abrams does what he does best, delivering a film that’s fast, fun, and energetic. Paired with Daniel Mindel, who served as his cinematographer on Star Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness, Abrams deftly follows the action in a way that is always clear and pleasing to the eye (with minimal use of the lens flare effect that drives people mad). Aided by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s deliberate, spritely editing and incredible production/art/costume design, The Force Awakens is a truly beautiful, sci-fi epic.
The unparalleled visuals are supported by John Williams’ tremendous score. Reigning in his more obvious tendencies (think Indiana Jones or Superman), this is Williams’ best score to date. Instead of relying heavily upon old themes, Williams scored the majority of the film with completely new material. By using familiar themes sparingly, they’re all the more affecting when they do pop up, inspiring thoughts of what came before and commenting upon what is happening now. The sum total is a worthy addition to the Star Wars series by one of its most important contributors.
This all being said, it is clear that I did not just love The Force Awakens. I adored it. It moved me in more ways than one: it satisfied as a standalone film and fit into a wider canon and it inspired the same childlike joy that inhabits me every time I watch the original trilogy. It surrounded and penetrated me and bound a whole crowd of people together. Seeing this film in a theatre packed with people hoping that it would be good, feeling their joy and sharing in their anxiety, sadness, and ultimate excitement as the film ended was a truly indescribable experience. Once again I was reminded of the immeasurable power of movies, of any art that tells a story, one which sweeps us up in the fantastical and explores what it means to be human. There is a reason why Star Wars is a global phenomenon, something that exists beyond the bounds of language and culture; it’s because it focuses on universal themes that move people at a foundational level: friendship, loyalty, family, the struggle between good and evil. In this way, like the superhero craze of modern cinema, Star Wars is an extension of our modern mythology and I can’t wait to see what stories await us in the future.
Until the next year’s Star Wars: Rogue One, may the Force be with you, always.