Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Film Review)

Star Wars the force awakens

4.5 / 5

Star Wars played a big part in my childhood. Like many, I was entranced by the mythology George Lucas molded and was inspired by the characters he brought to life. However, while I religiously loved and watched the original trilogy on VHS, I had the burden of being part of a generation that grew up with the prequels.

I will admit, though, as a child I fell in love with the worlds and characters the prequels brought no differently than what came before. Then I started to realize as I grew up: They aren’t good movies. They’re flawed in many ways, the excessive exposition being one and Jar Jar Binks another. While I still found them miraculously magical, the underdeveloped plots and unconvincing emotion made George Lucas’ prequels CGI-stuffed borefests with almost no real purpose.

Shortly after Disney bought Lucasfilm, director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) was given a task infinitely harder than making the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs when he was tapped to helm the seventh chapter of Lucas’ space opera. Abrams’ journey  into the Force could have gone two ways, but his firm, stylistic direction and the cast’s interstellar performances help breathe a new hope into Star Wars, setting up a path filled with the similar heart, ambition and wonder found in the originals.

A younger me was deceived by The Phantom Menace and its prequel siblings, seduced by the dark side of the franchise. But The Force Awakens is no cheat. The children who see the movie today will have the privilege of growing up alongside it, knowing it’ll stand the test of time. No Jedi mind trick needed: this is the Star Wars movie fans have been waiting for since 1983 … maybe even 1980.

Set 30 years after Return of the Jedi, Star Wars: The Force Awakens brings us back to a galaxy far, far away where the Resistance — the unofficial offspring of the Republic’s Rebel Alliance — is at war against the First Order, which was born from the “ashes” of the Imperial Empire.

The First Order is on the hunt for Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last Jedi, and find themselves on the desert planet of Jakku where a Resistance pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and his droid, BB-8 (whose voice was helped brought to life by comedian Bill Hader), have possession of integral information wanted desperately by the First Order.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it directly identifies with the stolen Death Star plans in the beginning of A New Hope, which were hidden inside R2-D2 — the “original” character BB-8 most obviously identifies with.

The similarities don’t stop there. The main antagonist, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is essentially a diehard Vader fanboy. His First Order grunts are as white-and-black-cladded and Nazi-inspired as ever, including Domhnall Gleeson‘s General Hux. Kylo Ren answers to a Sith-like Supreme Leader Snoke, who’s realized with CGI and motion capture with the help of mo-cap master Andy Serkis.

Two unknowns, Rey and Finn (respectively played by Daisy Ridley and John Boyega), are written to fight evil with the help of a wise elder. Oh, and there’s yet another Death Star, donning the name of Starkiller Base. It’s the true Death Star v2.0, as it simultaneously acts as a planet and is equipped with an interesting weapon upgrade. Very often does it all feel very familiar.

The plot elements and themes, even historical allusions, have all been seen before in one way or another. Setpieces, imagery, characters and their family trees can’t help but bleed with inspiration from their original counterparts. All of the franchise’s returning characters are brought back with meticulously measured nostalgia, each of them bringing back the iconic characteristics we’ll always associate them with. Instead of its doses of imitation and repetition leading to complete collapse, The Force Awakens proudly uses its roots to its advantage.

More importantly, like its newly introduced heroes, the film proves it’s capable of standing on its own despite the unavoidable presence of its ancestors. Rey and Finn are portrayed with unblemished skill and ambition. Ridley and Boyega inherit the light, the former doing so slightly more often, as they each bring their unique form of diversity and talent to the table.

Ridley is given the challenge to portray an extremely important first for the  cinematic universe She handles it with detailed sophistication in her performance throughout the film’s runtime, which is most prominent in her facial expressions.  Isaac’s Poe Dameron is also worth noting for his Han Solo-esque charm and wits, even in the face of the enemy.

Heroes aside, The Force Awakens wouldn’t be as good as it is without a villain as fleshed out as Kylo Ren. Driver’s character is so enveloped and seduced by the dark side of the Force, giving the franchise a true villain it’s been long without. His origin and backstory, while slightly obscure, make for a great character arc that progresses as organically as the narrative.

His mental imprisonment to dark side does leave him vulnerable to raging fits, but Driver’s performance is never overdone or close to being as whiny or melodramatic as the prequels’ Anakin Skywalker. Idolizing Darth Vader, Kylo Ren relentlessly believes in the values Vader stood for instead of enlightenment and desperately fights off any resemblance of the light inside him. His internal struggle gives the character and movie necessary depth and motivation that make his actions as understandable as they can be  — excluding the one moment we’ll never learn to forgive or forget.

Similarly, those of us who watched the prequels will never forget them. But Abrams has given us a movie that’s more than good enough to wash the bad taste left in our mouths. He superbly mixes the old and the new, and the old Star Wars we’ve come to know and love has been released from its carbonite-frozen state.

The practical effects return. (So much practical effects, in fact, that certain CGI characters seem out of place.) The setpieces are once again tangible.  The score is captivating. The lightsaber battles are now more primeval than ever. The magic of the Force is there — no mention of midi-chlorians this time.

Then Abrams simultaneously introduces us to a new pleasingly grounded generation of Star Wars, and his cast of newcomers inspire like their predecessors do. Modern effects and technology bring new life and perspective to every action sequence. He even dips his toes in the addictive worldbuilding the Star Wars universe encourages.

Sure, the towering wave of nostalgia and new characters can be overwhelming, the worldbuilding isn’t as deep and most obviously the themes and elements are almost too familiar, but the sooner we realize this the better: The original Star Wars surrounded itself with awe and magic that can’t be repeated.

What The Force Awakens does so well is embrace such self-awareness and brings an almost-forty-year-old franchise back to life with affection that transcends any generational gap. Its enthralling tale of Good vs. Evil is one that can never get old, and, after being injected with such raw emotion and energy, Star Wars is back with mythology and power that will see no end.

Jerome Casio, Film Critic
LACinephiles.com

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2 Comments

  1. This was my first Star Wars film and I enjoyed it. I really liked John Boyega’s character. My husband, who is a fan since boyhood, was a little disappointed, as he wrote about today.

  2. fun review.. I wasn’t as fond of the film as you were I think..but it’s a good film..though far far from a great one..i.e., it’s no Mad Max!! but still good!!! 😀

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