Release: Friday, December 18, 2015
Written by: J.J. Abrams; Lawrence Kasdan; Michael Arndt
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
It’s admittedly difficult to resist feeling giddy when the familiar yellow text starts scrolling into the distance against a background strewn with stars. As John Williams’ iconic score trumpets the arrival of a new era in perhaps the only franchise that seems to matter, excitement slowly gives way to anticipation; anticipation to expectation; expectation to . . . well, this is where the path surely divides.
J.J. Abrams has found success on multiple fronts with his helming of George Lucas’ most lucrative creation. Never mind the fact he managed a dubious transition between both Star-themed universes. His film manifests as a surprisingly efficient blend of fan service and sound judgment. As canon-expanding as it is reverential but without indulging so much it becomes impenetrable to the outsider looking in. The Force Awakens also benefits from the work of a casting director who knows how to put the right pieces in place. On a project of this scale no aspect is unworthy of mention.
POE AND THE MAPQUEST MAGUFFIN
The Force Awakens grafts nicely together with the story arcs presented in the original trilogy. Set approximately three decades into the future the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker, has gone missing following a failed attempt to rebuild Jedi forces that ended in death and destruction thanks to dark warrior Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver, for some reason).
The shadows of its predecessors are never far behind, though much to the franchise’s credit, there’s a lot of comfort in familiarity.
Rising out of the ashes of Darth Vader and his Death Star comes Ren and The First Order, suitably villainous nomenclature for the second coming of the Galactic Empire. Resistance Forces, into which Oscar Isaac’s skilled pilot Poe Dameron fits like a Skywalker into cinemythology, carry on the burden of the fallen Republic. There are hauntingly beautiful shots of alien sunrises, strange-looking-people montages, and compulsory (but still pulse-quickening) light saber duels. There’s even a repurposed AT-AT.
Early on Poe comes into possession of a digital map detailing the whereabouts of the apparently self-exiled Jedi. In an effort to keep the secret from falling into the wrong hands, he hides the file in his droid BB-8. Call him the R2-D2 of 2015. After a few close encounters and a chance run-in with defecting Stormtrooper FN-2187 (John Boyega) that ends in Poe’s crashing back into the very planet he was trying to escape, the bot proves to be an indispensable asset. BB-8 becomes the target of both the Resistance and the First Order, and the task of protecting it at all costs falls to Finn (née Stormtrooper FN-2187) and the orphan Rey (Daisy Ridley), who represents another of the year’s resilient, beguiling, tough leading ladies.
The trio eventually encounter an aging Han Solo and his co-pilot Chewie, whose loudly applauded first appearances surely won’t prove to be unique to my screening. They meet after crashing a ship following an escape from heavy Stormtrooper fire on the planet Jakku; a ship that turns out to be none other than the Millennium Falcon. Once Solo learns of the precious information the others are sitting on, he volunteers assistance all while Finn is still trying to escape to an entirely different star system, fearing the repercussions of his actions. And he wants to take Rey with him, but she has her heart set on returning home.
YOU AND YOUR SHINY NEW TOY
There’s nothing wholly original about the Abrams/Kasdan-revised script (originally written by Michael Arndt) but above average turns from newcomers Ridley and Boyega make the film easily accessible and a great deal more fun. They’re also unburdened with any sense of forced-awkward intimacy that, if things were different, could’ve earned Lucas a possible Golden Raspberry nomination.
Little time for that though, when you’re trying to take the production (and yourself) a little more seriously. Pride is most definitely at stake here. There’s an unshakable sense Abrams feels compelled to stay to a safe and conventional narrative arc, one that is largely predictable from beginning to end; that he knows and is quite possibly intimidated by how much is at stake with this production. But Episode VII doesn’t play out mechanically or with a sense of cautious restraint. There is restraint being exercised — imagining forty-five minutes having been cut from the opening action sequences and a few other significant confrontations isn’t very hard to do — but if anything the slightly more somber and straight-faced approach suits the drama.
I’ve never been able to categorize any of the installments as drama and yet, for the first time, there is a kind of gravity to proceedings that not only demands but earns attention. That’s not to say the film completely lacks humor, though. And I’ll spare details about what looms in the shadows but I will say this: unfortunately this film hasn’t been immune to Weak Villain syndrome. You’ll need to look elsewhere if you’re to get to the heart and soul of a body soon to be excoriated by dissenters.
Rather the reason, any reason to care about what happens rests upon the shoulders of the embattled Finn and Rey, the newcomers to a saga that clearly has territory left to be explored. Ridley might be the most impressive of the lot, optimizing her natural beauty with a strong, confident persona that betrays her apparently tragic past and fairly impoverished life on Jakku. She also might be the most compelling character. Boyega maintains an easy charm throughout, affording a humanity to the iconic, conformist Stormtroopers that will never be looked at the same way again.
And Lupita Nyong’o receives a sweet supporting role as Maz Kanata, an inquisitive but kind-hearted alien who proves helpful in protecting BB-8 from the First Order. Completely rendered in CGI I didn’t even realize it was Nyong’o until credits rolled, yet she offers a character that will be as difficult to forget as some of the main players.
At times it’s painfully obvious how much Star Wars relies on recognizability rather than its content. It will be interesting to see how many repeat viewings a select few character introductions will hold up to before they start feeling a little too protracted. A little too flashy. And the admittedly imposing Kylo Ren bears more than a passing resemblance to the series’ arguably most familiar character. That ain’t coincidence, all familial backstory accounted for and acknowledged. But let’s be honest, the flashiness can’t be avoided; it’s a new chapter in a major story spanning decades, and everything feels new and shiny again. Perhaps more importantly for me than for others: the new toy isn’t all shine and gloss. It has real functionality, too.
Recommendation: Once again a fairly redundant section of the page here; The Force Awakens doesn’t exactly need my endorsement but for what it’s worth, as a decided non-fan of the series, I really had a good time with this movie. More entertaining and diverting than something I can take really seriously, I was expecting to not like the film. So . . . that is . . . that is kind of neat.
Running Time: 135 mins.
Quoted: “That’s not how the Force works!”
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