I did my best to make this a spoiler-free review, because my hope is to be able to write something more specific – and spoilery – later in the week. (Needless to say, I plan on seeing it again.) But obviously, depending on spoiler sensitivity, your mileage may vary. Read at your own risk!
Most surprising about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is how well it delivers without delivering very much. The sense of myth is broad as its sense of scale is narrowed. The movie, helmed by franchise hermit-crab J.J. Abrams, means to establish the bassline for this new Star Wars suite. Yet at certain points, this feels less like the proper first movement as is does the orchestra practicing scales – giving the patient audience a hint of what’s to come, even if the melody hasn’t fully kicked in yet. This sounds backhanded – perhaps it is – but I intend it as largely as compliment. After all, a seasoned listener can still gather certain impressions of the symphony’s collective skill set even if they’re just warming up. The Force Awakens is best absorbed as a warm-up, a $300 million tone poem to the original series of films so profoundly venerated by moviegoers eager to confirm the Star Wars license is in good hands. It is an act of franchise curation, like so many other films docketed for multiplexes today. But unlike those other films, this is Star Wars. And it has itself awakened to epitomize the very moviegoing culture it helped create four decades ago. As a certain Sith Lord once said, “The circle is now complete.” Take that as you will.
Let’s talk about the corporate “tone poetry” of The Force Awakens which, based on the early reviews and first impressions of my fellow audience members, seems to be what engages and rankles most. Abrams, who co-wrote the screenplay with Empire Strikes Back alum Lawrence Kasdan, recycles a significant number of the plot devices and ideas of the original trilogy (which themselves were greatly recycled in the prequels) off of which to hang this movie. We sense echoes of interplanetary menace, the adventure-starved orphan, the adorable McGuffin droid, and sneaky infiltrations into high-security bases. The script gives ambivalent resonance to Star Wars’ central aesthetic trope of the “used future;” that trope used to apply strictly to the movies’ set design, but it now applies to the narrative as well. Whatever freshness there is to be found in The Force Awakens, it’s not in the plotting.
I know I shouldn’t use my movie review to respond to other people’s responses, but I can’t help but feel (for now, at least) gripes about echoes of the original trilogy seem slightly overblown. Perhaps Abrams, who infamously crafted one of the hollower big-reveals in recent movie memory, has only his auteurist impulses to thank for his audience’s impatience with shout-outs and callbacks. We largely know what to expect from Abrams – who is for better and for worse a middle-management visionary; a tender to other artists’ gardens – and what we expect is a mixed bag of deliverance and deflation. Though the blatancy of those old-trilogy echoes and facile nostalgia-shots can’t be ignored, Abrams’ worst impulses are greatly reigned in with The Force Awakens (That means comparatively less by way of swoop-pans of skimpily-clad characters strolling down nostalgia lane.) He is more interested than ever in compositions and landscapes, in trying to understand the geography of his locations and planets, of not overkilling the movie’s fast pace (by today’s blockbuster standards, some scenes in this movie might even be considered longueurs) and pausing occasionally for a moment of pure wonderment. One character pauses midway through the movie, simply to take in the surroundings. And it’s the most human thing Star Wars has done in ages. Such small moments (and I spotted a lot) beg the suspicion that this is first time Abrams has felt truly invested in a series he’s been hired to direct, and he knows his #1 job is to make a Star Wars movie. And thankfully, it’s clear Star Wars is Abrams’ dream job.
The real essence of The Force Awakens rests not in its familiarity of tone, or in its blatant nostalgia, or even in its director’s pared-down film language. It rests instead in its ability to craft characters truly worthy of investment not just for one movie, but for several. Of course, familiar faces like Leia, Chewie, and especially Han Solo mark their welcome returns, and their not-exactly-protracted interactions feel uncomplicatedly good. Which is another way of saying they made me grin like an idiot.
But our time is best-spent in the company of this galaxy’s new guard. Of the new heroes, not one character feels incomplete (or rather, less complete than needed), and not one performance lags behind the rest. That’s truly remarkable, considering how ill-regarded Star Wars has always been when it comes to characters and performances. The arcs for each character won’t feel terribly original, yet the charisma of the performances (not to mention the freshness inherent to their racial and gender diversity) heralds, as far as I can tell, an entirely new achievement in a Star Wars movie: the character exchanges engage me more often than any action sequence does (though admittedly, the action sequences here are surprisingly unmemorable). Daisy Ridley’s Rey, both by nature of her role and her performance, meshes a steely confidence and vulnerability rare for a major Star Wars character. Girls and boys alike should want to be her on the playground. John Boyega’s Finn has a refreshingly inward-leaning character arc; he’s so busy shaping his new ideals as a reformed Stormtrooper to look too far beyond his immediate field of vision. And Oscar Isaac? Let’s just say, with this movie, the actor caps off the most exciting year for any screen actor in a long time.
The villains tell a different story which, unsurprisingly, is very much the same story for these movies’ villains. From Darth Maul to Boba Fett, badass villains in Star Wars get routinely vaudeville-hooked offstage in favor of a central baddie (i.e. the Darths Vader and Sidious). Similarly for the Force Awakens, the officers of the mysterious First Order get sidelined significantly in favor of the mysterious Force-wielder Kylo Ren. But for once, I don’t feel short-changed. Ren, with an ingeniously well-cast Adam Driver, is a unique breed of Star Wars villainy; neither classically-rooted like Emperor Palpatine nor impotently angst-ridden like Anakin Skywalker. I fear I can’t explain more without revealing too much, but the more hints we receive in Ren’s backstory, and the more glimpses we get into this character, the more clear it seems that his mystery will propel this new trilogy.
And it’s that key word that encapsulates the true appeal to The Force Awakens: Mystery. Star Wars officially enters this modern blockbuster landscape – one where billion dollar franchise hopefuls are as commonplace as flatulence. Equally commonplace are soulless franchise installments that depend more on bloated, self-serious pop-mythology and world-building that are employed less like sources for wonderment and imagination than as mechanical cogs meant to entice the moviegoer’s anticipation for the next installment. I’d wager The Force Awakens raises more questions than gives answers, which of course is catnip for anybody hoping to stitch in a consumer base. But unlike the interminable Marvel movies or Jurassic World, the mysteries Abrams unleashes feel better-rooted to the characters he’s fleshed out and the truly interesting questions entailing the mystery of this new galaxy. The Force Awakens is not a truly fresh product like, say, Mad Max: Fury Road – nothing is – but it’s nowhere near as mechanical as the other bantha fodder the studios have doled out in recent years either.
Star Wars won’t need hopefulness to become a billion-dollar franchise; that success is a foregone conclusion. For a fan like me – and believe me, I’m a fan of this series like nothing else – it’s on me to remain hopeful that their investment in the future of the movies of their past will not lose its soul. Under the Disney banner, and with Kathleen Kennedy’s editorial stamp hovering above, I have no clue if such a loss will happen. Truthfully, if Lucasfilm’s production cycle’s to be believed, it’s only a matter of time. But with The Force Awakens at least, and with the new mysteries and new characters it unsheathes, hope is not lost yet.
Oh, and how ‘bout that BB-8?