Star Wars gets Disneyized and returns to theatres after a 10 year hiatus, this time reuniting the original leads with a new, hip young cast. The result is a very good, if problematic piece of entertainment.
Readers wary of spoilers needn’t worry–I’ll not give anything away here beyond the general set-up. Thirty years have passed since the events of Return of the Jedi, and the Republic has reformed under the stewardship of some familiar faces. Evil dies hard, however, and the remains of the Empire have fallen back to become the First Order, a brutal regime headed by former Imperials and the mysterious Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Ren possesses incredible powers of the Force along with a malfunctioning lightsaber, and is obsessed with eliminating the last Jedi–Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, returning to his best role), who vanished years before. His obsession leads him to the world Jakku, home of Rey (newcomer Daisy Ridley), a young scavenger girl. A pilot from the Resistance, an arm of the Republic, named Poe (Oscar Issac) has hidden clues to Luke’s whereabouts in his droid BB-8. Rey finds the droid along with a defecting stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega), and from there the plot becomes a race to get to the droid first. Along the way, series favorites Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) guide and aid the young heroes to defeat the First Order and their new superweapon, the Starkiller.
J.J. Abrams, working from a script by Oscar-winner Michael Arndt and series veteran Lawrence Kasdan, directs like an obsessive: he seems so preoccupied with paying homage to the original trilogy–in particular the original film–that he distracts himself from the film he’s actually making. Boyega plays Finn as something of a dullard, often hamming it up alongside Issac with brogasmic grunting (a woeful sin Abrams committed in Star Trek), though his scenes with Ridley balance things out well. Ridley, in her first major role, picks up the series torch with finesse and poise, successfully portraying Rey as a girl with no past…perhaps because she’s too frightened to remember it. All the new characters are something of stand-ins, as the movie doesn’t take much time to explore them. Likewise, key scenes between Han and Leia which should be played with the utmost gravitas given their relationship and family history (you’ll know what I mean) feel rushed. That said, Ford returns to his role as Han with fine gusto, and Fisher conveys a weary fragility. Leia has seen a lot in her life, and Fisher lets you know it.
Perhaps the single greatest shortcoming of the Star Wars prequel trilogy was the lack of a great, consistent villain. Here, Abrams has mixed results. Driver, as Kylo Ren, has some great material to work with, though Abrams often directs him so over the top, his performance recalls the hammiest moments of Hayden Christensen’s work in the prequels. Then again, because Abrams seems so beholden to the series, maybe that’s the point. Driver also uses some ridiculously overpowered Force abilities which feel silly and out of place, especially compared with the precedents of the series. Domnhall Gleeson chews scenery as First Order General Hux, a baddie in the vein of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin. Andy Serkis makes an impression as Supreme Commander Snoke, a dark Force master, in just a few scenes. No doubt he’s intended as the new supervilliain of the series, and as usual, Serkis does not disappoint.
Other elements of the film do, however. The movie has no rhythm, feeling rushed–events just sort of happen with little set-up. As a result, the final space battle feels highly derivative and perfunctory, lacking in any sense of geography or clear goal. Dialogue occasionally veers into the coloquial, sounding a bit too much like Earth in 2015, but then, that’s a sin the series has always had to absolve. Abrams shoots the film with cinematographer Dan Mindel in oversaturated, garish colors and flat lighting. At times, it feels more like an very expensive television movie. He also falls into the same trap he did with his Star Trek outings, reducing roles to ideas, while overdirecting his actors to play things too broadly. Characters like Finn fall flat as a result. Boyega throws himself into the role, but his character has no motivation beyond doing what the movie needs him to do at any given moment. Even worse, Abrams wastes a remarkable supporting cast, in particular Hamill and Fisher. The director seems to have no idea what to do with Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o as Maz, an alien that looks like Estelle Getty, or Gwendoline Christie as chrome-clad Captain Phasma. The great Max Von Sydow has so little to do it’s criminal. Whatever it says, the best-realized new character in the whole movie is the droid BB-8!
Those complaints aside, The Force Awakens is easily Abrams best film (which doesn’t say much), and it does feature some wonderful moments. Because Star Wars is the saga of the Skywalker family, some of the new story developments have a powerful effect. It’s a treat to see the original cast again, albeit briefly. When Hamill appears on screen, blue eyes sparkling, the moment resonates with anything the series has explored thus far, and since we’re getting a Star Wars movie a year until the end of time, this sort of rehash of the plot of the 1977 film works better than it should. For that reason as well, a number of plot holes also feel permissible–eventually somebody will answer them! At 135 minutes, the movie seems like it’s forgetting something, but in spite of the clumsy assembly, always entertains.
Aging juveniles dissatisfied by the prequels will no doubt have a good time here since The Force Awakens manages a literal emulation of the original film rather than a thematic one. Its success seems all but assured, though that has little to do with the movie itself, rather than the legacy of the originals. After all, what other movie ever spawned a religion? At this point Abrams could have had Han Solo milk Chewbacca’s anal glands for two hours, and the film still would turn a huge profit! With all that in mind, if this is to be the first in an endless cycle of Star Wars films, fans can breathe a sigh of relief. The Force Awakens is not a great film, but it is a great start to a longer and more in-depth visit to a galaxy far, far away.
|Directed by||J. J. Abrams|
|Music by||John Williams|
|Distributed by||Walt Disney Studios