J.J. Abrams (Lost, Super 8) takes the directing reigns from creator George Lucas and delivers a better film than any of the prequels. Original core cast members join new players in a script co-written by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, who penned The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi with Lucas. The story takes place thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, as a new evil called The First Order rises from the ashes of the old Imperial Empire. A scrappy scavenger girl (Daisy Ridley) serendipitously teams up with a defecting Stormtrooper (John Boyega) to deliver important information to the Rebellion — I mean, the Resistance — which is again led by Princess — I mean, General — Leia Organa. At stake are the populations of entire planets, because The First Order has constructed a new Death Star (well, they call it something different) capable of draining stars and destroying multiple planets simultaneously.
So that’s all I’ll say about the plot. Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? It’s a gripe I have with the movie, but then Star Wars has always been big on narrative symmetry and recurring themes. I suggest you run with it, because the plot is secondary to character here. And what a welcome relief that is! I mean, for the first time in thirty-two years we have a Star Wars movie with actual characters in it! Characters with personality, for Christ’s sake! And as much as you might expect that personality to come from the established characters, you’ll get even more out of the new ones.
Ridley and Boyega carry the movie admirably. Together with Oscar Isaac, who plays a hot shot Resistance pilot, I can see this triumvirate really going places in future episodes. And Adam Driver (Girls) is also quite good as the new big bad guy, Kylo Ren. In all, I’m extremely happy that Abrams and Kasdan, along with third co-screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine), decided to focus on character over plot, because that was the main problem with the entire prequel trilogy — all tedious plotting, very little charm.
I question whether it was wise to rely more on nostalgia than originality, but at least this really looks and feels like the Star Wars I grew up with. The film offers some new backstory and revelations that I won’t spoil — except to say that the broad, operatic strokes are among the movie’s highlights. There’s also BB8, the round little robot who scurries along forest and desert floors through completely practical engineering (he’s not a computer-generated character). I fell in love with him instantly. I also loved the practical sets and creatures — a welcome relief from the glossy, animated look of the prequel trilogy. There’s still CGI in The Force Awakens, but whenever possible, you can tell Abrams chose to do it old school and he’s to be commended for it.
On the minus-side, John Williams’ score may be the least inspired of the entire saga — not that it doesn’t work. I was just hoping for more in the way new themes and propulsive action music. And I also have to say that the action set-pieces don’t come close to rivaling what we’ve seen in any of the past six episodes. I think that may be the biggest loss from Lucas’ departure from the creative process. He may have given birth to Ewoks and Jar Jar’s, and don’t even get me started on those ‘special’ editions, but the man was a genius at staging, choreographing, and editing action.
The Force Awakens isn’t perfect, but it’s good. It’s a return to form, and a return to what fans have been wanting for decades. And wherever it may fall short in comparison, it’s not in character or emotion. And those are the most important contests to win, if you ask me.
With Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Gwendaline Christie, and Max Von Sydow.
Oscar Nominations: Visual Effects, Film Editing, Score, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing