by Joe Scott
There are many Star Wars fans out there who are so afraid someone will spoil a potential “I am your father” moment in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, that the basic mention of a directorial flourish or even the color of a lightsaber in this review might be dubbed high treason in the fanboy community. After more than 30 years of Star Wars fandom, I feel it’s safe to say I have a solid grasp on what would constitute an unforgivable reveal on my part. That said, my life is always better when I avoid Nerd Hate in any amount. So for the snowflakes out there who wish to remain completely pure, I’ll start with this — director JJ Abrams has made the most action-packed and emotionally gripping Star Wars film since 1983’s Return of the Jedi.
Now I am going to talk about the film in a substantial way. I’ll avoid divulging the narrative leaps and twists that the filmmakers have done a great job of hiding from us thus far. But to read beyond this point is to accept the fact that when a film works — and The Force Awakens most certainly does to certain degrees — it becomes more than just a story for people to “spoil.” It represents ideas. And I am going to talk about those ideas somewhat at length.
In other words, you’ve been warned….
The thematic heart of George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy was generational conflict. It was the story of cocky, sometimes foolish young idealists who bucked at the hard bitter world created by their parents. And when these bright-eyed young adults go the distance to create the world that they’ve envisioned, many of their ideals get checked. Hard.
Abandoned or deceived by every adult he ever knew, the desperation that the once baby-faced Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) felt aboard a hospital spacecraft at the end of The Empire Strikes Back felt as real as the emotional tension in any Earth-bound drama. And while that realistic tension was undercut by the syrupy teddy bear jamboree at the end of Return of the Jedi, Luke’s ultimate third-act victory felt earned. He clung to his ideals, never abandoned his friends and even redeemed his father Darth Vader for his many, many sins.
The first actual movie sequel to the original Star Wars trilogy, Star Wars: The Force Awakens carries the torch of Lucas’ generational conflict into a new era. Despite the heroes’ former victory over the Empire, the galaxy is still in disarray. Worst of all, those ideals that Luke and his friends Han Solo and Princess Leia once fought for appear dissolved, hardened a tragedy that none of them can explain or remedy as well as an indifferent universe unwilling to change, regardless of how noble their intentions were.
Abrams is not always beloved within the nerd community. He made his name as the co-creator of Lost, a highly-rated supernatural drama that, while frequently riveting, became the most infuriating cocktease in the history of television long after Abrams ceased working on the show. When he took the helm of the rebooted Star Trek film franchise in 2009, few can deny that he injected new life into the once-defunct media franchise. But then fans began to complain that Abrams injected too much action and spectacle into the sci-fi adventure series, which as far as space operas are concerned had carved a legacy for itself previously by being both talkative and sedentary. Perhaps that reason alone is why Abrams was most ideal to revive Star Wars, a film series dinged by a trio of lackluster prequels that Lucas wrote and directed himself.
Having transformed Star Wars into a massive, multimedia and multi-platform empire, Lucas’ prequel trilogy was most likely a reflection of what his life had become: a dull, endless series of meetings, contract disputes, conferences and even a blood test for chrissakes. Fortunately, in The Force Awakens, there’s nary a meeting in sight. The characters — both old and newer ones — are too busy running from enemies, shooting blasters, flailing lightsabers and racing across the galaxy in spaceships during the film’s 136-minute running time to sit down and talk about much of anything. Even brand new characters played by John Boyega and Oscar Isaac must cram the entirety of their friendship-forging initial encounter into the confines of an exciting chase sequence that takes place during the first act.
Aside from the ample appearances of Han Solo and Chewbacca, my favorite holdover from the original Star Wars trilogy is the way in which nearly all of the exposition takes place during action scenes. Any minute story details that are not delivered during the opening crawl are simply left to viewers young and old to hash out via playground adventures or online forum discussions.
The film is not without flaws. The villainous New Order led by Adam Driver and Domhnall Gleeson are essentially Imperial fanboy poseurs, playing at a game perfected by James Earl Jones and Peter Cushing in the original Star Wars. If the franchise is to maintain the excitement generated by this adventure in future installments, the filmmakers must certainly level up their villain game. I also lamented how underused the immensely talented UNCSA grad Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma character was by the final credits.
And while Abrams’ canvasses are effectively staged with a variety of textures and gritty detail, the design aesthetic for many of the new spaceships and alien characters left something to be desired, especially when compared to the more instantly iconic ones that appeared in the original trilogy. For instance, the helmeted Kylo Ren wants to be every bit of the villain that Darth Vader was, but his formless helmet and black-caped hipster smock lack the instant badass punch that the more angular and ornately designed Darth Vader had when he first gasped into our nightmares in 1977.
But where the film finds its greatest strengths as the beginning of a fresh chapter in a beloved saga is the introduction of its brand new heroes. Isaac effortlessly recreates the same ace-pilot bravado and charisma of a young Harrison Ford. As a former child soldier turned aspiring hero, Boyega injects new life and much needed humor into the adventure. Most importantly, film rookie Daisy Ridley is instantly likeable as Rey, the new trilogy’s mysterious lead protagonist. Her wide eyes alone present both the ideals of her rebellious forbears as well as a painful react to their obvious failure. It’s clear her origins are undeniably linked to the lives of Luke, Han and Leia, and that we are left desperately wanting to know the answers to the final questions posed by this film is attributed to the amount of character and sense of wonder that Ridley brings to the screen.
The seventh episode of Star Wars concludes the way many episodes of Abrams’ “Lost” did — with a walloping reveal and a mic-drop cut to credits. Many younger fans who grew up having the first three Star Wars movies readily available on home video will find themselves in a predicament that older fans knew all too well — especially after 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back: The brutal wait for the next installment, which isn’t due until the summer of 2017.
But having walked out of the movie theater desperately wanting to know what happens next let me know one thing: Star Wars is alive again. It matters. And despite a few gripes, the thrilling, action-packed genre-bending adventure movie I was eager to see in 1999 when the leaden Phantom Menace droned onto the screen is finally here.