It seemed only a heartbeat ago that we learned of the official announcement of a new Star Wars film coming, and that Lost and Star Trek director J.J. Abrams would be doing it. December 2015 seemed a long way off. Now, of course, the biggest thing in theaters is here: Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened two days ago and has been breaking box office records ever since. I already feel like I’m behind the curve in not having seen it until today, but now I proudly bring you my review of the film–and it’s specifically free of spoilers for those of you who haven’t seen it yet! Probably you’ve been hearing the “buzz” on social media or perhaps even read some other reviews, and thus you may be aware that most of the word-of-mouth is quite positive. I’m very pleased to report that The Force Awakens really is as good as people are saying it is, and it stacks up to the original films quite well.
When I do movie reviews for this site I usually spend the second paragraph giving a brief plot summary so viewers know what to expect. Obviously I can’t do that here, and I really do appreciate others who have been appropriately tight-lipped about what The Force Awakens is really about, so as to save the experience for us–spoiler trolls on Twitter notwithstanding. Suffice it to say it’s Star Wars, so it’s got the Force, space battles, lightsaber duels, pseudo-mysticism and so forth. Since I’m not counting anything in the official trailers as “spoilers,” I can say (as I’m sure you know) that various beloved characters from the old films come back, such as Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the dependable Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). There is also a host of new characters played by fresh new actors, such as John Boyega, best known from the 2011 cult SF film Attack the Block, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver. While The Force Awakens is clearly rooted in the past traditions, Abrams makes a concerted effort to move forward into a new generation.
Does it succeed? On the whole, it does. The Force Awakens is an energetic story that moves at a fast pace and draws the viewer in quickly. J.J. Abrams seems to have studied the opening minutes of the original Star Wars and analyzed why audiences responded to it almost instantly: a combination of visual/special effects wonder, as well as fast-paced action and a character drama that piques our interests. Indeed I think the first ten minutes of the new film are the most crucial, and without knowing it the audience will judge the picture based on their response in that short time. The audience I saw the film with seemed to like it from the beginning. What you see on the screen is spectacular but there are also the beginnings of compelling characters, which is exactly how the first Star Wars worked (think Princess Leia getting captured in the film’s opening minutes). Even with a galaxy-spanning reach, Abrams knows this film will go nowhere if we don’t want to join the characters on their journey.
Incidentally, this is where The Force Awakens improves upon the three prequels–Phantom Menace from 1999, Attack of the Clones from 2002 and Revenge of the Sith from 2005. What was missing from the prequels? Any sort of character the audience cared about. By the 1990s George Lucas seemed to have lost his touch with creating compelling and interesting characters, and simply assumed that the audience would care about someone on the screen so long as they were identified as a “good guy.” In 2015 J.J. Abrams has been careful not to make that mistake. The lead characters, played by John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, both “pay their way” by being established early on as interesting people whose stories we’d like to know more about. Even the villain characters, principally the one played by Adam Driver, has a fascinating back-story and piques the audience’s emotional interest. In the 1990s and 2000s Lucas was seduced by his own success and went crazy spinning supposedly “epic” stories with geysers of garish CGI, while forgetting plot and characterization, which was never his strong suit. Abrams has a very good track record with screen characterizations–I refer specifically to Lost–and was probably the right choice for the film.
The Force Awakens also capitalizes on another under-studied strength of the original: humor. There are a surprising amount of laughs in the new film, and few of them are the tired throwaway pratfalls that passed as humor in the 1990s-2000s prequels. The humor of the original Star Wars was rich and human. Think of Chewie’s self-congratulating pose after Luke is warned that he might pull people’s arms out of their sockets if he loses a board game, or the little dice hanging from the dashboard of the Millennium Falcon. The new film’s sense of humor comes from that same friendly place, which above all acknowledges the audience’s intelligence. (Contrast this with the “jokes” in the terrible Phantom Menace, such as an alien creature farting or the numb-tongue Three Stooges number done by the jabbering CGI monster Jar-Jar Binks). This again was very smart. Though obviously a large part of The Force Awakens‘s audience will be children, the film isn’t aimed at children the way the prequels–or even the tiresomely merchandisey Return of the Jedi–were.
All this said, The Force Awakens is not perfect. It’s a bit uneven at times and especially the young actors occasionally struggle to find their voice or hit their perfect range. Some characters, like Oscar Isaac’s, are under-utilized. A few scenes are a bit too close copies of the original for comfort. But given the strength of the picture as a whole it’s easy to get past these shortcomings. Like the original, The Force Awakens gambles on being a great movie experience, in a net sense, overall and at this it largely succeeds. The appearances of the original characters are like visits from old cherished friends, and remind us of why we fell in love with them back in 1977.
Just to refresh you memory, here’s the original 1976 trailer for Star Wars. How much things have changed!
The experience of watching The Force Awakens is not transcendental in the same way as the first film, or especially The Empire Strikes Back in 1980–the first of the films to be released to high preexisting audience expectation (as you may recall, the 1977 original was an organic blockbuster, now unheard-of today). But it’s still a good experience. What made me smile about this moviegoing experience was seeing the large number of multi-generational Star Wars fans in the audience: men and women my age or a bit younger, who grew up with the original films and are now bringing their own children, some of them old enough to be teenagers, to share the Star Wars magic. The Force Awakens delivered that magic. Walking out of the theater it’s easy to forget what an incredibly tall order that was. Until you remember how disappointed you were after The Phantom Menace.