Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Director: J. J. Abrams
Cast: John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew
By Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
It’s strange how a song, some yellow text and a movie logo just makes everything seem alright in the galaxy. It just feels like home, a warm hearth to lean against in the cold void of space.
J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars movie, Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens, is not the end-all, be-all, the alpha and omega, of cinema history the way the fanboys have been saying. But it is an utterly magnificent retooling of George Lucas’ floundering mega-saga. When Lucas turned his nuts-and-bolts space opera into a toothless CGI-painted joke, the franchise marched toward its own doom, one Hayden Christensen line after another. But Abrams has imbued the first chapter of a new trilogy with a newfound sense of wonder with a convincing cast, a snappy and electric story, and minimal CGI. It’s a coup for the franchise, a drastic course correction, a clean slate, a Mulligan in hyperspace.
The tone is set in the first seconds, in the first line of the famous scroll during John Williams’ iconic score: “Luke Skywalker has disappeared,” it says. The resistance, the side of our heroes, wants Luke to guide them forward. The First Order, the villains, wants to kill him and destroy the last links to The Force, a spiritual power that would likely die with Luke. The resistance has a map that leads to Luke’s last location, but the First Order, the last remnants of the Galactic Empire, attempts to capture it, thus starting the conflict of the current film.
Our players here are Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a resistance fighter and ace pilot; Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper with an awakened conscience; Rey (Daisey Ridley), a metal scavenger with a connection to The Force; and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a practitioner of the Dark Side who has started a one-person death cult that worships the defeated Darth Vader. These characters frequently cross paths in Lawrence Kasden, Michael Arndt and Abrams’ mostly competent, at times clunky, script that includes a crash course on Star Wars lore, complete with shout-outs to holographic chess, 12-parsec space runs and lightsaber genealogy. The film goes to great lengths to establish meta and spiritual connections to the original franchise.
Early sequences revolve mostly around BB-8, a ball-shaped droid that is carrying the secret map to Skywalker’s location. The famous R2-D2 shows up later, but BB, with his cute hiccups and bloops, cements his place in the Star Wars canon long before then. Other franchise staples show up, including Princess Leia, now General Leia (Carrie Fisher); the still-dashing space smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford); Han’s walking carpet sidekick Chewbacca; and gold-plated C-3PO, human cyborg relations. Solo’s ship, the Millennium Falcon makes a triumphant return in a scene of pure exhilaration as Rey, Finn and BB-8 outrun TIE fighters in a desert wasteland filled with the relics of war from the original trilogy.
Abrams’ world is populated by a huge variety of alien creatures, from snorting elephant-pigs and googly-eyed club owners to noodly space pirates and tin-headed bounty hunters. Many of the characters are made from physical special effects, silicone and moldable foam, and not computer animation. Even the sets are real, which was a big gripe about Lucas’ last movies: they were clinical and lifeless, projections designed, executed and presented from within a matrix of computer programs. Here, though, the world feels real and livable, and it’s populated by characters with souls.
I hate to beat up on Lucas, but Force Awakens improves on every aspect of the prequel trilogy: from the special effects and sets to the acting and dialogue. Those films lost their way very early on, but this one steps forward with sure footing and a nostalgia for the original films. Abrams’ story could use some tweaking, particularly in some areas involving yet another Death Star, the dramatic reappearance of a “sleeping” character, and the state of the galaxy, which is never really explained how or why the First Order maintains so much power in a post-Return of the Jedi universe.
But these minor annoyances are made up for with great characters, lots of them, and all of them wonderfully constructed by the actors who play them. Boyega and Ridley are charmingly well equipped for this franchise, and bring to it a sense of adventure and heroism. And Driver’s Kylo Ren is a terrifying misfit who wields incredible power. He frequently hides behind a Vader-ish mask that gives him a Bane-like chamber for his voice to bounce around in with an eerie bass-rattle. Ford, playing the Star Wars veteran in more ways than one, helps hold all this together with a keen sense of humor; in fact, there are many jokes here, some in very unlikely and warranted places.
The best part of this new chapter is how it contributes to the myth of the Star Wars universe, The Force, and characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, and Luke Skywalker. “It’s true, all of it … the force, the Jedi … all of it is true,” Han Solo tells our reluctant heroes who only know of the events from episodes four through six as bedtime stories and forgotten lore that has been passed down two and three generations. The Force Awakens not only brings Star Wars back for the characters, but for the audience as well. And never before has this franchise felt so alive.