Mild spoilers ahead.
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
Written by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Featuring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow
Reviewing a Star Wars movie is a hazardous affair — this series of movies is arguably the one creative enterprise that has most firmly entrenched itself into the very fabric of global culture in movie history. Critics were frequently unkind upon their release to the Star Wars movies now held in the highest regard while also heaping praise upon the least-liked entries.
This is likely the first of many viewings of Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the legions of Star Wars fans out there, and its eventual resting place in the canon ranking will like rise or fall, particularly given how the events in The Force Awakens play out in episodes VIII and IX.
So, while recognizing that opinions will evolve, upon first blush The Force Awakens is a very mixed bag. There are many pleasures to be found in the new feature's 136-minute running time, but fans expecting director J.J. Abrams and company to conjure up the rapturous, out-of-body experience that accompanied the original 1977 feature and its two follow-ups will be disappointed.
It's difficult to review a movie without discussing the plot. I have no wish to spoil anyone's first viewing of the film, so I'll keep the specifics of the major points out of this review, but some details have to be discussed in evaluating whether the film is a creative success.
The Force Awakens climaxes a very long search for Luke Skywalker, who has vanished and whose fate is unknown. As the last Jedi, Luke's location is sought by both the The First Order — comprised of the remnants of the Galactic Empire — and the Resistance, which is the old Rebel Alliance.
Into this overall plot premise, there's the return of old heroes and the development of some surprisingly great new ones. There is no small pleasure in seeing the return of Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess (now General) Leia and the droids C-3PO and R2-D2. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher in particular seem to slide back into these roles as if they’ve never stopped playing them. The return of the Millennium Falcon and the familiar sight of dogfighting TIE Fighters and X-Wings also ares sure to bring tears to even the hardest-core fans’ eyes — especially as those ships sweep, zoom and swerve like never before via some excellent visual effects work from Industrial Light & Magic and company.
But The Force Awakens is more about the new characters, in particular Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), and this is where the film is at its best.
Ridley is far and away the best thing about this movie, delivering a performance that is leaps and bounds above almost anything seen in a Star Wars movie to date. She is likable, convincing, faces some serious and difficult emotional decisions and rises to the occasion in a convincing and crowd-pleasing fashion. That she’s also the smart, bad-ass heroine that Star Wars fans have been clamoring for makes her even more interesting. Rey is the heart of the movie and watching Ridley navigate this well-known universe is a real pleasure.
Boyega also does well, though with a character that’s seemingly intentionally vague. His Finn, a stormtrooper who goes over to the Resistance, is all over the map. He's going in so many different directions that it's hard to tell who he is. He’s the wise-cracking one in the movie, for better and worse. Finn's cracks do evoke laughs, but at times in a contemporary style that stands out in a not-so-good way in the Star Wars universe. Despite these flaws, Finn is likeable and Boyega has a solid chemistry with Ridley as Rey, with whom he spends most of the movie.
With the Emperor and Darth Vader both gone, Adam Driver's Kylo Ren steps into the role of main villain. As in the original trilogy, Kylo Ren dresses all in black, wears a helmet, wields the Dark Side of the Force and answers only to a mysterious master who likes to communicate via hologram. Ren's backstory is one of the major twists of the plot, but it's here where the same focus brought to making Rey convincing would have helped the movie immeasurably. Ren simply doesn't have enough to do for his motivation to come about organically through the story instead from via some of the clunkiest exposition in Star Wars history. He remains at the end of the movie a cypher of a villain who comes up very short in the menace department despite committing one very despicable deed.
Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron is a very likeable character, though we get to see very little of him and he has no real arc of his own to follow in this movie. Perhaps in a later movie.
BB-8 on the other hand is a triumph and easily fills the sidekick role with some great "acting" and some cool tricks up his sleeve.
A few other actors' roles are basically cameos, such as Max von Sydow's Lor San Tekka and Andy Serkis' Supreme Leader Snoke.
As with all the previous movies, the plot itself has echoes of things that have happened in previous movies. When a filmmaker does that with imagination, he or she can create a connection between movies that adds to the experience. The Force Awakens achieves that at times even as it relies on this convention a little too much. Too many echoes leave the movie feeling like it’s adding very little to the plot of this particular episode and to the overall saga. The plot also features a few very convenient coincidences. That these coincidences are used for crowd-pleasing moments will likely dull the pain of characters magically appearing and re-appearing with no convincing explanation.
One thing sure to evoke commentary is the humor in the film. This is the most overtly joke-y movie in the series, with Harrison Ford’s Han Solo delivering many one-liners sure to evoke for many the more carefree Han of A New Hope. But a little of this goes a long way and the film would be better had it not tried so hard. Too many of the jokes come via self-referential banter that would be more at home in a Joss Whedon series, and it seems as if the movie is making fun of itself. Even the best bits of humor in the previous films held back from that line; they took themselves seriously — maybe too seriously — but it's a tonal change here that’s quite jarring evokes the feeling of watching a TV show instead of an epic feature. It’s like the difference between Star Trek IV and Star Trek V, with The Force Awakens closer to The Final Frontier than The Voyage Home.
All of which gets to the biggest problem with The Force Awakens: It's not very ambitious. It lacks scope and the feeling of grandeur that is Star Wars’ hallmark. It feels small.
This is a function of story and direction, falling quite plainly at Abrams' feet. While Abrams' is more up close and personal with the characters than George Lucas was, the vastness of the world and the sense that it is so much larger than what you can actually see in the movie is very much lost. The First Order in particular feels derivative, cramped and claustrophobic. There's little menacing about it as the movie fails to deliver in visuals the immense scale of power it is said to wield. Everything is too evocative and familiar — this is a movie that does not push itself or its audience into the uncomfortable territory of discovery that is required to create a movie more rewarding than a nostalgia exercise.
This movie is clearly made to answer fans that disliked the prequel movies. It surely will find a lot of love upon release from those seeking the comforts of the original trilogy. Its eventual ranking in the Star Wars canon, however, is likely to slip significantly with time and with the reception subsequent episodes receive.