United States. Directed by J.J. Abrams, 2015. Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie. 135 minutes. 9/10
On October 30, 2012, the Walt Disney Company announced its acquisition of Lucasfilm Ltd. With that purchase came a drive to develop the Star Wars intellectual property into a shared “cinematic universe” à la Marvel Studios’ MCU. Three years later, The Force Awakens–the first Star Wars movie of the Disney era, the first of a new planned trilogy, the first not developed by George Lucas–is finally available for mass consumption. The waiting is finally over. Is this the beginning of a new golden age, or are we doomed to repeat the prequel era?
Well, it’s like this. Having been almost eleven years of age when Fox released the film that wasn’t yet called A New Hope, J.J. Abrams (director and co-writer of The Force Awakens, as if you didn’t know) belongs to the first generation that had the mythic scope and narrative structure of Star Wars imprinted on the part of his brain that tells him how to properly tell a story with moving pictures. Because he’s a fan, he knows what a Star Wars fan wants out of a film billing itself as “episode seven,” the official successor to Return of the Jedi.
And what a fan wants from such a film is to get the same vibe, the same sense of wonder and excitement, that they had the first time they saw Star Wars (or The Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi). Whether Abrams succeeds is up to the individual filmgoer; Star Wars fans tend to have intensely personal relationships with the series. But he damn well gives it his all. Other reviews make much of how Force Awakens replicates the plot beats of the original trilogy, particularly New Hope. This isn’t a weakness; to the contrary, it’s a necessity. For better or worse, mythic adventure is a formula. Rules must be followed.
At any rate, it’s not as if simply “rhyming” the beats makes Force Awakens a remake of New Hope. Yes, Episode VII begins with the required elements: the “A long time ago…” caption, the STAR WARS logo receding into space, the opening crawl, the downward pan. From that point forward, Abrams doesn’t bother trying to George Lucas’s (Irvin Kershner’s/Richard Marquand’s) visual style. Even when he employs dissolves and wipes, Force Awakens looks like a J.J. Abrams film: more modern and kinetic and, yes, plenty of lens flares. BB-8, a spherical practical-effects marvel who has as much personality as any human character, sums up all the strengths of Abrams’ visual aesthetic in one concise, adorable package.
This extends to the script, which Abrams developed with Lawrence Kasdan (perhaps Lucas’s best screenwriter-collaborator, with apologies to Leigh Brackett) from an early draft by Michael Arndt. The lead characters have more depth than their counterparts in the original trilogy, a crucial element in the success of the main villain, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. Let’s be honest: as menacing as Darth Vader is, that’s more on the design and the performances of Dave Prowse and James Earl Jones than on the writing. Thankfully, Driver accepts the challenge and rises to it, bestowing a terrifying intensity and humanity to match.
There are no dud performances in what must be one of the strongest ensembles of the year: future films seem secure in the hands of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac; Andy Serkis reminds us how he became the go-to guy for performances like this; Domhnall Gleeson and Gwendoline Christie make surprisingly good Nazis. Yet the film’s MVPs are veterans Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew, both of whom are too old for this shit but pull it off anyway. Ford, in particular, looks more interested in his surroundings than he has in a long time.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens represents a new era for the series. It’s far too easy to be cynical about Disney’s plans for the property, planning to release a Star Wars movie every year (currently alternating Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow’s Episodes VIII and IX with standalones like 2016’s Rogue One) as long as fans care to see them. Only time will tell whether The Force Awakens is the herald of great things to come or a dead-end, but right now, we’ve every right to be optimistic.