this towering franchise, with its legions of fans and its box-office dominion. The Force Awakens is as loud and actively busy as any Star Wars movie—this is the series' seventh episode, in case you needed reminding—but it's also rooted in its characters, trading George Lucas's unparalleled mastery of action (and utter disinterest in actors) for some good old-fashioned storytelling. Obi-Wan Kenobi once remarked (somewhat infamously) that stormtroopers shoot straight. Abrams shows us that they bleed.
And so do filmmakers. The digital effects of The Force Awakens
are impressively invisible, but you can still see the sweat that Abrams
poured into this production, the heartfelt labor of a true fanboy. He's
undertaken quite the challenge, tasked both with servicing the masses of
ticket-buyers who consider Star Wars their personal property and
with propelling the franchise forward into uncharted space. It's a line
he straddles with extreme caution, but he mostly gets it right. The Force Awakens is not the best Star Wars
movie, nor is it the most dazzling. But it remains a sturdy, highly
satisfying production that flashes glimmers of true greatness, and it
skillfully advances the series' mythology while simultaneously reuniting
us with old friends long gone. This may not be the work of a Jedi master—Abrams is more of a tinkerer than a virtuoso—but then, it's the everymen who made Star Wars so appealing in the first place.
Everymen are everywhere in The Force Awakens, beginning with Poe Dameron, a cocksure
fighter pilot who seems to have spent his childhood boning up on Han
Solo novelizations, and who is played with flinty charm by the great
Oscar Isaac. As this monstrously ambitious movie opens, Poe is captured
by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, trying his hardest), a lightsaber-wielding
heavy who, with his black garb, voice-muffling mask, and imperious
demeanor, suggests an off-brand version of the twentieth century's most iconic screen villain.
Their initial encounter camouflages itself as by-the-book cinematic
interrogation, until Poe slices through it with a wisecrack ("Do I talk
first, do you talk first?") and a lopsided smile. Beyond affirming what
fans of Inside Llewyn Davis and Ex Machina already knew—that Oscar Isaac should be in every movie—that jibe breaks the ice and forcefully reminds you that The Force Awakens is about flesh-and-blood people, not automatons dutifully fulfilling a plot.
now named Starkiller Base, which can obliterate entire planets with the
thoughtless push of a button (think the Death Star on steroids). If
only a ragtag group of plucky fighters could somehow destroy this
fearsome weapon before it eradicates the Resistance once and for all...
Given the acrimony that Star Wars fan have expressed toward
George Lucas's much-maligned prequel trilogy, it's understandable that
Abrams steered his new sequel back to basics. It's also disappointing.
Part of the allure of making new episodes in the Star Wars universe—beyond the gazillions of dollars to be raked in—is the limitless sense of possibility available to their creators. Return of the Jedi
may have ended on a note of untainted triumph, but that was more than
three decades ago, and we've all wondered: What has happened since? Out
of the millions of fanboys, Abrams received the impossible chance to
answer that question himself, to treat this canonical property on a
blank canvas. Instead, he's stenciled a previously existing painting,
returning the series to a place of familiarity and safety. At times, The Force Awakens feels like a smartly curated update of an old classic, less Episode VII than Episode 4.1.
But everything old is new again, and what this movie lacks in
originality, it compensates for with brash enthusiasm and spunky
personality. Remember that bloodied stormtrooper? His name is Finn (John
Boyega, excellent), and after seeing death close up, he decides he's
not thrilled about his employer's mission of mass murder. With Poe's
help, Finn escapes the First Order and crash-lands on Jakku, an arid
planet with lots of sand dunes and little wealth. (Sound familiar?
Never mind.) There, he encounters Rey (Daisy Ridley, a smashing
success), an impoverished scavenger who knows her way around a
spacecraft and who has conveniently become the de-facto custodian of
BB-8. Oh, and that critical data housed inside BB-8's shell? It provides
a clue to uncovering the whereabouts of some guy named Luke Skywalker,
who, as the opening crawl bluntly informs us, has vanished, to the
consternation of both the First Order (which wants him dead) and the
Resistance (which has a hunch that he just might prove useful). Luke's
role in this conflict will be resolved in future episodes; in immediate
terms, the map to Skywalker is essentially a MacGuffin, as it results in
the entire First Order hunting Finn, Rey, and the droid they're most
definitely looking for.
He also graciously cedes the spotlight to Ridley, an untested actress
who fearlessly makes Rey her own. Rey is an ace pilot and an able
warrior, as is quickly established during the movie's first and most
robust action sequence, in which she and Finn commandeer a suspiciously
familiar-looking, hunk-of-junk spaceship and find themselves in a
dogfight, the camera racing after them as they hurtle into tight dark
spaces and then back out into bright blue sky. But she is also a novice,
still discovering herself and trying to understand her place in this
gigantic world, and Ridley highlights both her toughness and her
vulnerability. It's tempting to view Rey through the lens of feminist
empowerment—in one amusing moment, she yelps "Stop taking my hand!"
after Finn instinctively reaches to protect her—and to be sure, the Star Wars
films have always been a bit skimpy with well-developed women (Princess
Leia notwithstanding). But Rey is too vibrant a character to function
as a mere political corrective. Instead she simply reminds us, with
unimpeachable and fiery clarity, that chicks can be heroes too.
As terrific as The Force Awakens is with its heroes—in one of the
movie's best runners, Rey proves herself every bit as gifted a pilot as
Han, to the latter's perpetual bewilderment—it's less successful with
its villains. Admittedly, Kylo Ren is a sneakily revolutionary
character, and Driver's apparent wobbliness skillfully masks the novelty
of a figure who's trying to be bad, in defiance of his better
angels. (He's also armed with a cross-hilted lightsaber, which is pretty
cool.) But the film's big bad, a glowering giant named Snoke (Andy
Serkis), is a borderline parody who unfortunately recalls Thanos, the
similarly oversized supervillain whom Josh Brolin portrays in the Avengers
franchise. And the First Order, with its shrill Nazi-esque imagery and
its strident commandant, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, overdoing it),
is a limp caricature of a totalitarian state, too outrageous to engender
Looper's Rian Johnson, a director with greater panache, might do with Episode VIII come 2017.
But such speculation is pointless—as a wise creature once said, always
in motion is the future—and looking ahead disserves this movie and its
tangible, valuable accomplishments, which extend to its third act (a
rarity in franchise fare). The Force Awakens delivers legitimate
catharsis in its final scenes; both a lightsaber duel in a snowy wood
and a tremulous tête-à-tête on a narrow bridge within a cavernous arena
achieve a haunting, elegiac intimacy. Those moments affirm the value of
blockbuster filmmaking, demonstrating how the massive machinery of
Hollywood can be harnessed to tell powerful, human stories. It is
certainly possible to envision a better version of The Force Awakens—riskier,
livelier, with more surprises and less fan service. But this movie,
with its strong characters and solid storytelling, is a salve for those
who had despaired (wrongly) that the magic had leaked out of the Star Wars franchise. It may not be a perfect movie, but it is more than enough to give all of us new hope.