Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) / Sci Fi-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence
Running Time: 135 min.
Cast: John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Gwendolyn Christie, Anthony Daniels
Small role: Max von Sydow, Simon Pegg, Mark Hamill, Kenny Baker, Warwick Davis
Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt
Review published December 18, 2015
J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Into Darkness) strips away the lumbering effect of the Star Wars prequels and gets back to the golly-gee-whiz action-fantasy we've all come to know and love from the original Star Wars (aka A New Hope), and while it feels mostly right, at least in terms of capturing the right look and tone of the original vision, it's a different blockbuster-driven world these days, where a sky's-the-limit-budget for effects is no longer enough to inspire awe in audiences well accustomed to massive scenes of devastating battles, interplanetary space travel, and other-worldly alien species. What was once light years ahead of its time is now just of its time, which means that the only way to truly amaze us is by going smaller, investing us in the characters and their plights, and putting them in a suspenseful and emotionally resonant story.
The main plot thread is a little unwieldy to have to relate in painstaking detail, and since you're probably not wanting any overt spoilers, I'll keep them mostly general setup. An orb-like droid named BB-8 has some technology placed within him that contains a map showing the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Hamill, Kingsman: The Secret Service), and there are several interested parties, some benevolent and some evil, that desperately want to get a hold of this for their own purposes. In protection of the droid are a scavenger from the desert planet of Jakku named Rey (Ridley, Scrawl), a failed stormtrooper turned hero nicknamed Finn (Boyega, Attack the Block), intergalactic smugglers Han Solo (Ford, The Age of Adaline) and Chewbacca (Mayhew, Revenge of the Sith) who have come to reclaim their beloved ship, the Millennium Falcon, and, to a lesser extent, a resistance pilot named Poe Dameron (Isaac, Mojave). Out to wrest the information from them is a powerful faction known as the First Order, dark-siders who've vowed to restore the galaxy back to the former glory of the Empire (complete with stormtroopers, TIE fighters, and a secret weapon of mass destruction), out to crush the upstart alliance known as the Resistance.
The Force Awakens is shrewd about its use of the characters from the original trilogy, not really showing any of them until the new characters are established, and then mostly concentrating on the ones that nearly all people love, the rascally Han Solo and his faithful sidekick Chewbacca. Princess Leia (Fisher, Fanboys) is now Resistance leader General Leia, we learn from the opening scrawl, and Luke Skywalker is more of the subject of a plot MacGuffin -- a character who exudes more power through speaking about him as a shadowy figure no one has seen in many a year -- which is especially smart given that Mark Hamill is not the sort of actor you want to be the centerpiece of your film, even if his character is the lynchpin of the original trilogy.
The nostalgia is strong with this one, as Abrams keeps the callbacks coming so that we know we're in familiar territory, even if most of the characters are all new to us. We have a reluctant but noble good guys, a bad guy with a black mask and deep voice, a super-cute droid that contains a secret message, a landspeeder soaring across the sand, a hopping cantina full of a wide variety of alien species, colorful light saber battles, X-wing vs. TIE fighter dogfights, a diminutive sage and ancient guru, master and apprentice training, hereditary passing on of The Force to the next generation, dark and fascist images employed by its villains, frequent bits of John Williams' original-trilogy score, and a planet-destroying space station that closely resembles the Death Star (with a similar flaw in engineering that could take it out -- yes, for the third time; I guess it's true that those who haven't learned from history are doomed to repeat it), only bigger and more powerful. Also returning is the screenwriting talent of Lawrence Kasdan, who co-scripted both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi -- who else but George Lucas knows these characters as well?
To be fair, there are some new wrinkles: there is more diversity among races and sexes of the human-types than we saw in the original Star Wars trilogy. We also have excellent casting of the characters we're going to follow in this new generation, with Daisy Ridley perfect as the scrappy main heroine, John Boyega charismatic and fun as the renegade stormtrooper-who-couldn't, and a juicier role for Adam Driver (This is Where I Leave You) as one of the main villains who similarly is wrestling with his own battles of light vs. darkness. Everything is spot-on, though one might quibble at some of the more obvious CG characters, but they are a good deal better than those cartoonish creatures found in the prequels. However, this is a universe of characters we want to visit and re-visit, and want to know more about, which is the true test of whether a story of fantasy is a success.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens succeeds in that it manages to bring forward the story from the original trilogy, with the core players to give it the credibility it needs, enjoyable enough to invest us into the story, and doesn't make any major missteps that would turn away fans the way that the prequels eventually did after the initial high wore off. While not mind-blowing in the way Episodes IV-VI were for their eras, Abrams does deliver a solid effort here, with enjoyable actors, good characters to root for or against, solid action pieces, gorgeous design work, and enough intrigue to want to see more. Abrams isn't trying to blaze a new trail so much as build a solid bridge between the old and the new, and while it's not going to revolutionize the industry the way George Lucas did in the late 1970s, it does preserve the main ingredients necessary, while adding a few new, interesting spices to keep things from seeming blasť right out of the gate.
The first film in the original trilogy garnered the subtitle, A New Hope, and now with the first in the next phase of trilogies, we have a new reason to be hopeful about the future. Perhaps it is too familiar to seem new, but you can't say, "familiar", without, "family", and that's what The Force Awakens is like going home to. And now that it's a resurrected franchise with spin-offs in the works; now that The Force has re-awakened, it will be with us -- always.
©2015 Vince Leo