As it says in my bio, my first solid childhood memory is being in a movie theater, squealing with delight while the X-Wings skimmed the trench in 1977’s Star Wars (not bearing its A New Hope secondary title). This was probably the first movie I loved through and through, soon amassing a collection of figurines and playing the vinyl soundtrack on my father’s huge record player until my parents had to hide it for their sanity’s sake. I’ve been through heaven and hell with these movies – “heaven” being lucky enough to have seen the Original Trilogy during its original releases (yes, I even remember Return of the Jedi looking and sounding amazing in 70mm at Springfield Mall), “hell” being more or less obliged as a fan to have sat through a midnight screening of The Phantom Menace, made bearable only by the friends who went with me.
But it’s back to being in heaven again, as we turn away from the heavy-handedness of the Prequel Trilogy and back into the more balanced vibe of the Original Trilogy with J.J. Abrams’ entry into the Star Wars canon, Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Right away, the mention of Abrams’ name puts me at ease: three of the four films Abrams directed prior to The Force Awakens have been entries into franchises which were either flagging or coming off of a disappointing previous entry. Mission: Impossible III was a glorious return to what the series should have been about – the team as a whole, not just a James Bond-type character with a group of backup singers, which is what both entries by Brian De Palma and John Woo tried to do. 2009’s Star Trek reboot was a reinvigorating, sassy take on familiar, beloved characters who would grow to be even more beloved by the time Abrams was done with them.
Abrams brings all of his renowned charm, spunk, and smarts to the revered Star Wars franchise, the fans of which had been crying out for something better since George Lucas gave us a very good-looking but soulless set of prequels. With this in mind, The Force Awakens is a balm for the fans of the Original Trilogy, harking back to the days when the films were fun and exciting, not just endless waves of exposition-heavy dialogue and crazy CGI-overloaded action. Culling from influences as diverse as Apocalypse Now and William Shakespeare, Abrams not only gives the fans something to get behind once again, but to enjoy multiple times as layer upon layer is peeled back with subsequent viewings.
Even on the first visit to Abrams’ Star Wars world, one can already tell something huge is in the makings. Whereas The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were only greenlit after the success of Star Wars (depending on who you talk to or what you read), The Force Awakens feels like a brilliant starter movie which lays the groundwork for so many destinies intertwining and mysteries unfolding. But it also feels like an entirely satisfying revisit to the characters, relationships, tensions, and humor we grew up loving.
There are quite a few audio and visual gags for all the fanboys and fangirls, and there’s more than enough of a plot throwback to the 1977 original. However, it’s not so much a reliance on the past glories; instead, it’s more just to reacquaint you with people and things you last saw in 1983. Everything from the Marksman-H combat remote which shot Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in the seat of the pants to Darth Vader’s mask gets thrown in here to show the passage of time and to mark the passing of the torch from the old guard to the new, and what a wonderful torch-passing it is.
As The Force Awakens’ opening crawl tells us, Skywalker has disappeared, leaving behind his sister Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) to lead a Resistance against the First Order, a terrifying, Nazi-like force (lowercase “f,” mind you) comprised of the last remnants of the once-all-powerful Galactic Empire. Led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) whose orders are carried out by General Hux (Domhnall Gleason) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a Jedi who has swung over to the Dark Side of the Force, the First Order has one objective in its sights: kill Luke Skywalker, for he seems to be the only one standing in their way of total galactic domination.
From here, we run into eager Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who runs into Finn (John Boyega), who runs into Rey (Daisy Ridley), who runs into… well, we’ll keep this as spoiler-free as possible, because The Force Awakens’ delights are better left discovered than written about. Once these three encounter each other, it’s back to the rowdy ebullience we saw back in 1977, with high-flying action – the kind of action which Abrams excels at giving the audience – and a perilous sense of danger so lacking from Lucas’ Prequel Trilogy. A lot of that is due to Abrams getting meaningful, thick performances out of every member of his cast, with Isaac, Boyega, Ridley, and Harrison Ford (who returns as famed scoundrel Han Solo) firmly anchoring the script by The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams, and Michael Arndt.
Another notable performance is that of Adam Driver. There’s something oddly familiar about how he plays Kylo Ren, who seems to be a boy masquerading as a man with a lot of power he so petulantly uses. He spends much of the movie behind a Darth Vader-esque mask (for reasons that are given in the film) as a means of striking fear into his enemies; even his peers cower at the sight of it. Yet I was totally caught off-guard when he takes it off and shows us his real face, and for me, this is why I think his casting is perfect. Driver’s facial features and gawkiness work so well in concert with the script, all of which combine to truly describe his character. He reminds me of a kid in high school who didn’t quite fit in with anyone and had to turn to bullies to be protected, eventually becoming a bully himself. He’s unsure, but he projects like he’s The Man, and Driver carries it off very well. I hate to be so superficial, but this is one of the few times a superficial quality leads to further discovery.
And what can be said about the new world Abrams has laid out for us? It’s full of contrasts, color, and wonder; Rey’s reaction to being surrounded by trees after having grown up on a desert planet says it all as she breathes in new air and sees new vistas. Women are no longer relegated to eye candy or stern mother-like roles; we have them in positions of power and leadership. For the first time, we hear a few different female voices behind Stormtrooper masks, and we see female pilots and technicians. The population is rife with humans from different cultural and racial backgrounds, a sensibility Abrams ported over from his work on Star Trek. Abrams brings us a more grown-up, contemporary world in which anything is possible and The Force truly shines in everyone. There are so many great things about The Force Awakens to relish and unearth, and I can’t wait to go back for a second time.
Or a third.
Or even a fourth.