Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
When I was 4 years old, I waited in what seemed like an endless line with my mom one May afternoon. When we finally reached the destination — a now-shuttered movie theater in Lansing, Illinois called River Oaks — I went to my seat completely unaware that my whole life was about to change. When the lights went down, the familiar opening title crawl of Return of the Jedi scrolled before my young eyes. John Williams’s score blared. That sense of discovery and ignorance of what I was about to see was a luxury in 1983 movie houses — whether you were young or old. In 2015, when every pop culture second is analyzed and regurgitated online, nearly every cinematic experience is spoiled before you have a chance to buy a ticket.
J.J. Abrams and crew thoughtfully managed to rekindle that magic in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. They kept us mostly in the dark up until last night’s premiere, releasing just enough footage to assure us the Star Wars franchise was back in good hands after a trio of uneven prequels. I saw it on opening night and let me tell you: the film delivers. It’s what you hoped it would be. It’s got the tightest script and character development of any Star Wars film. The Force Awakens is an overwhelming success.
Let me explain, but take heed: While I’ve tried my best to keep specific details mum, there are plot spoilers ahead.
The Star Wars universe has prided itself on being in a constant battle of good versus evil, the Light Side of the Force versus the Dark Side. So to think that all the far-far-away galaxy’s troubles had ended at the end of Return of the Jedi would be naïve. The First Order has taken over where the Empire left off, with only the Resistance obstructing their chances to gain complete control. The bad guys are led by Dark Side warrior Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who’s enveloped in evil and young-adult recklessness. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) works with Ren, but he has plans of his own. Standing in the shadows is creepy Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), pulling strings like the long-dead Emperor Palpatine, and seen only as a ghostly and ghastly hologram in this episode.
The other side of the coin in The Force Awakens is found in a handful of new characters anchored by the old. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is the best pilot the Resistance has, so he and his droid, BB-8, are sent on a secret mission. It goes awry, setting the film in motion. Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who wants to do good, defects from the ranks and eventually joins up with Dameron. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is an independent scavenger who finds BB-8, leading her to Finn and the rest of the galaxy.
Then the old guard appears. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) get to show off their smuggler sides in a way never before seen. Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is now a general, quite a powerful statement in a film franchise mostly dominated by fellows. The droids you are looking for — C-3PO and R2-D2 — are there, too. There’s also a very special someone else that … well I’m going to stop there. You’ll have to see the movie to know what I’m talking about.
Rey and Finn fit perfectly into the Star Wars milieu. They’re given ample time to blossom as characters, caught up in a conflict between where they want to be, who they are and how to best utilize their strengths. You root for them together and separately, and they should be a strong backbone for future films. They both rise above the prototypical lack of thought on how women and characters of color should be portrayed in the sci-fi universe. Rey is a giant step for women in the series, with her power and fortitude taking center stage. Finn rises above being a plot device (ahem Lando Calrissian in Empire Strikes Back) to get significant screen time and character development as a racially diverse character in the Star Wars universe.
BB-8 is awesome. Certainly it is a glorious, fun creation, but it is never a nuisance. With that said, though, the best non-human new creature is the diminutive Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o). Old, wise and sporting some odd eye wear, she is an sublime CGI creation. A bit Yoda-esque, she acts as one of the many bridges between The Force Awakens and the older films. Many of the planets look like the ones we’re used to, but now they have different names. This paired with other familiar scenarios that I will not spoil for you ultimately show that history has an odd way of repeating itself — though not without flaws.
Never tied down by too many battle scenes or self-referential moments, Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt‘s script is wonderful. I hope it will be a blueprint for those to come. Abrams’s directing hand gives the film more fluidity than any before in Star Wars, and, yes, there are a handful of his characteristic lens flares used to subtle, yet exciting effect. The acting hits every note, with Ridley, Boyega and Driver anchoring the youth, and the dignified, aged Ford using virtually all his wrinkles to great effect.
When the end credits rolled and the always-trustworthy John Williams put down his conducting baton, it felt as if 4-year-old me was still alive and well, overjoyed and ready for whatever’s coming next in the Star Wars canon. He — along with modern, more mature me — says, hands down, get out there and see this movie. You can’t get a much better recommendation than that.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is playing now in major theaters all over town.
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