Movie Review: Star Wars - The Force Awakens
By Matthew Huntley
December 22, 2015

You wouldn't want BB-8. He's really gamey.

Well, here it is. Star Wars: The Force Awakens has finally arrived, and if it’s Star Wars you want, it’s Star Wars you got. The much-anticipated Episode VII will no doubt give fans of cinema’s most popular and unsinkable franchise what they’ve been yearning for ever since the last of the much-maligned prequels came out in 2005. Now, 10 years later, director J.J. Abrams and his filmmaking team have successfully rejuvenated the series by making this sequel with care, patience and sophistication. They not only give pre-existing fans a reason to celebrate but also make the Star Wars universe accessible to those not overly familiar with it. And if The Force Awakens is any newcomer’s first encounter with SW, it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll be hooked on it from here on out.

But, as lively, fun and entertaining as the movie is, it can’t escape the shadows of its predecessors, namely Episode IV, V and VI, and that’s a strategy that was likely deliberate. On a narrative level, the filmmakers play things safe and don’t exactly push the mythology of George Lucas’s original creation into uncharted territory, probably because they wanted this installment to re-open the door to a saga many feared had been permanently shut. They fall back on familiar SW characters, plot developments and stylized action, knowing it was these assets that made the originals so beloved.

In fact, Episode VII echoes Episode IV right down to the following details: a) a traditional good vs. evil plot that once again pits the insidious Galactic Empire, now operating under the banner “First Order,” against a band of Republic-backed Resistance fighters; b) a young, strong-willed protagonist who isn’t fully aware of her potential with the pervasive Force; c) a masked villain dressed head to toe in black who speaks with a deep, sinister voice; d) a scheme by the Empire to destroy its enemies with a massive, far-reaching weapon (this time, instead of the Death Star, the mechanism is simply known as “The Weapon”); e) a plan by the Resistance to destroy the Empire’s weapon with a strategic, “chain-reaction” attack; f) an open-ended conclusion that lets us know the battle for the galaxy is far from over.

I can understand why the filmmakers felt the need to simply retread familiar SW tropes - after all, they wanted to win back the masses and gain new followers. But just because I understand their motivations doesn’t absolve them from criticism or being deemed flaws. This was the same problem I had with Abrams’ updated Star Trek films, which I felt merely refurbished pre-existing material instead of trying to build something new from scratch. The filmmakers err on the side of caution and that’s perhaps why The Force Awakens will ultimately be remembered as “in-the-moment” entertainment instead of evolving into something truly indelible. Sometime down the road, I can see it being thought of as “a Star Wars movie” rather than a standalone experience, unlike, say, The Empire Strikes Back, which is a masterpiece in and of itself. If the story in The Force Awakens possessed the same kind of depth, it too might have become a classic.

Still, as “a Star Wars movie,” and as “in-the-moment” entertainment, The Force Awakens is rather top-notch. It possesses a ceaseless, captivating energy and I admittedly watched it with giddy, childlike enthusiasm. The characters are so clearly defined, the visual and sound effects so awesome, and the story so reliable, it serves as a superb popcorn movie, one that has the power to make us believe everything is going to be all right so long as the good guys win. It envelops us in another world and we gladly let it.

And even though a lot of it feels familiar, there are certain qualities of The Force Awakens that make it one of the more progressive Star Wars pics. For one thing, the protagonist is female, and that aspect alone was refreshing. Her name is Rey (Daisy Ridley), and she lives hand-to-mouth as a scavenger of old parts from fallen Empire ships, which she sells on the planet Jakku. One day, just as Luke Skywalker did in A New Hope, Rey accidentally stumbles upon a droid named BB-8, which has been given a memory chip from a rebel pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). The chip contains a map leading to the whereabouts of Skywalker, whom the scrolling yellow subtitles at the beginning inform us is the last living Jedi. For reasons I won’t reveal, Skywalker has fled to a far-off planet and both the Resistance and the First Order are desperate to find him, although for very different reasons. Now Rey is in the thick of it and she begins to sense she has powers beyond her knowledge.

Chasing after BB-8 for the missing map is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the aforementioned masked villain and protégé to the Empire’s current “Supreme Leader” known as Snoke (a digital Andy Serkis). Ren leads an attack on Jakku in search of BB-8 but the droid has already escaped, as does a newly reformed storm trooper with a conscience, FN-2187, whom Dameron calls “Finn” (John Boyega). Finn defects to the Resistance and eventually teams up with Rey to help fulfill Dameron’s mission. Once again aiding the rebels is a much older Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his trusted sidekick, Chewbacca. They’re eventually joined by General Leia (Carrie Fisher), formerly known as “Princess” Leia, and two other SW veterans, the dual droid team of C-3PO and R2-D2.

The screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams and Michael Arndt supplies each of the characters a moderate amount of mystery and backstory before eventually connecting them and updating us on what’s happened over the past 30 years since the events of Return of the Jedi. As I mentioned, a lot of the relationships and “twists” are not unlike those we’ve seen in previous Star Wars films, but what makes them fresh are the new actors, particularly Ridley, Driver and Boyega. They lend their characters a weight and presence beyond just their superficial qualities, which is another way The Force Awakens pushes the quality of the series higher than it’s been in a long time.

I’ve purposely refrained from giving away too many plot details, but then again, the events that happen in The Force Awakens aren’t terribly surprising if you know Star Wars. The movie mostly shines as a big-budget blockbuster, one that’s exceptionally crafted and makes for a thrilling visual and aural treat. For the record, I would have preferred less in terms of production values if it meant getting more in terms of a bolder, riskier story, but I’m hopeful that now that The Force Awakens has opened and is already breaking box-office records, the filmmakers will feel they can at least attempt to take the mythology in a newer, different direction. They’ve accomplished their goal of winning back current fans and gaining millions of new ones. With Episode VIII, they just need to add a “wow” factor as far as the narrative is concerned, which could elevate it beyond “a Star Wars movie” and into something that’s independent and unforgettable.