A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
It’s almost surreal to see those words grace the screen after so many years, so many bad prequels, and crushing anticipation for The Force Awakens. It takes a moment to read “Episode VII” in the opening scroll and deliberately put aside two years’ worth of reports, speculation, and think-pieces about what this film is about.
There it is. “Luke Skywalker is missing.” And that’s when you remember that co-writer and director J.J. Abrams said his reason for accepting the gig was the question “Who is Luke Skywalker?” To the First Order, he is the Jedi terrorist who brought down the beloved Empire. To his friends and family, the mere mention of his name conjures an immeasurable pain from Something Bad that went down. And to the next generation living in far flung corners of the galaxy, his name is legend, most wondering if he even existed.
It’s one hell of a jumping-off point.
J.J. Abrams came from TV but he is also a disciple of blockbuster films. With Steven Spielberg as a mentor and an uncanny ability to ape just about any style without necessarily creating his own, Abrams has crafted what looks and feels like a Star Wars film. That’s not a backhanded compliment. Original creator George Lucas couldn’t even do that with his prequels.
And yet, despite snarky observations about Lucas leaning too heavily on the politics of said galaxy far far away, his intriguing kernel of an idea from Episode III plays out here: that we only know what we are told, and that 30 years on, the side you fight on is greatly depending upon your point of view. When General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) stands in front of a legion of stormtroopers and give the Big Speech about crushing the oppression, he’s
not twirling his evil mustache, he is proclaiming to do what is right in the face of a lying, cheating resistance. The First Order are the bad guys but are thoroughly convinced they are the good guys.
Masked baddie Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is another story. When we met Darth Vader, he was a fully accomplished badass who could control those around him through intimidation, reputation and the occasional use of dark Force powers. You look at Ren and get the idea he is not only still trying to figure this bad guy stuff out, but really should take a closer look at those rage issues.
Of course, despite taking place in a huge galaxy, it wouldn’t be a Star Wars movie without some sort of familial connection among the characters and I won’t reveal anything here, except to say there are not only some daddy issues at play, but granddaddy issues as well.
We follow Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who may or may not have grown up on the desert planet Jakku. She lives among the bombed-out ruins of an ancient war, scavenging cavernous fallen starships for artifacts to trade the local scumbag merchants for food, when she’s not living in the toppled body of an AT-AT. Like when R2-D2 landed in Luke Skywalker’s backyard 30 years prior, adorable droid BB-8 rolls into her life with a secret mission, and we’re off and running.
Finn (John Boyega) is the stormtrooper with the heart of gold who abandons his post when he cannot kill innocents in cold blood. He has intimate knowledge of the First Order and isn’t afraid to pick up a lightsaber, which makes him interesting right out of the gate.
Very much in the way Lucas introduced his characters in 1977, many enter without the benefit of fanfare but rather on their way to doing something. Sometimes we learn nothing. The movie is light on details when it comes to a great number of its characters, presumably because this is the first film in a new trilogy. A little mystery goes a very long way.
The promotional machine for this film has seen Harrison Ford in just about every conceivable appearance possible, having the time of his life, but there is a great reason for that. Han Solo is not only one of the enduring characters of cinema, he comes around in a way that’s completely believable and borderline tragic. It is a wonderful reintroduction to a scoundrel who leaps first and questions whether he should have done that later. By his side, as always is trusted sidekick Chewbacca.
Once we get the broad strokes about what happened after that happy Ewok barbeque dinner celebration at the end of Return of the Jedi, none of it is surprising so much as inevitable. Han Solo becoming a happily married heroic general never made any sense. He’s an intergalactic Rick Blaine from Casablanca: all parlor tricks and regret, with a dash of romanticism. And he still has terrific chemistry with Carrie Fisher.
It’s also worth noting that the Millennium Falcon has never looked better, even with 30 more years of rust and decay and exposed wires. There is a moment when Solo steps into the cockpit and just stands there, savoring the moment. I’m with ya, buddy.
Before long, the beats of the story become familiar. The First Order will attempt to crush the Resistance with a massive superweapon. There will be dog fights, revelations, and long simmering confrontations.
I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know – the spoiler-filled analysis will come later – but it’s worth noting the impressive amount of world-building that has obviously taken place behind the curtains. By the end of the film, we have closure of the basic plot but just about none of the questions answered. Even the final shot simultaneously satisfies and introduces a new idea at the same time.
Yes, there are nostalgic notes being played, but none more so than in any other ongoing series. When a character makes a crack about not bringing up the Death Star again, it is earned.
There is a casualness and energy to the dialogue throughout that makes Lucas’ prequels seem that much more stodgy and mannered. Characters bicker, pick up old arguments, boast, chide and playfully jab at each other. The feisty spirit of The Empire Strikes Back is very much alive. Thank you, Lawrence Kasdan (the ESB writer who returns).
Sure, there are troubling aspects but I cannot go into those now, and might not even be able to put into context until we see how the story plays out over the next two episodes, whether the shock and awe of one key plot point was actually worth it.
Obviously, there has been a lot of anticipation for this movie. The hype, advance sales, and box office guessing games have become the story. Too big to fail … or too hyped to deliver? Those are questions for people smarter than me.
But after all that subsides, there will just be a film which will either be judged a success or failure on it’s own terms. The most elemental question is whether The Force Awakens works as a film, and more specifically, as a Star Wars film. And the answer to that is a resounding yes.