Star Wars: The Force Awakens
J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt
Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, Mark Hamill, Max Von Sydow, Gwendoline Christie
PG-13 for sci-fi action violence
Buy on DVD/Blu-ray
A long time ago in a theater far far away, the Force began its rise to power in the hands of director George Lucas and a legion of fans that have helped build a monolith out of a simple story. Star Wars: The Force Awakens takes audiences back emotionally and physically to a time when the simple son of moisture farmers rose to become one of the most important figures in the galaxy.
Before digging into the narrative elements of the film, it’s important to realize that some spoilers may be contained herein. They may or may not begin now. Luke Skywalker is missing and the First Order is gaining in strength as the Rebel forces, supported by the Republic, try to push them back. In need of Skywalker’s aid, a hotshot pilot (Oscar Isaac) sent to recover an important map fragment is ambushed and captured by the First Order. Having previously entrusted the data to his loyal astromech droid BB-8, a stormtrooper (John Boyega) has a crisis of conscience and helps the pilot escape only to become separated on the same planet on which the droid has hidden itself. The protection of the droid falls to the former stormtrooper with the help of a plucky desert dweller (Daisy Ridley). The two embark on a galactic adventure to deliver the spherical droid into the hands of the Rebellion so that they can locate Skywalker and save the galaxy.
While director J.J. Abrams spent a great deal of time on television creating unique and interesting dramas, his film output has been little more than endless list of films that ape other artists’ work, taking them and making their styles more action-heavy. With Super 8, he copied Spielberg’s legacy. With Star Trek: Into Darkness, he copied the action elements and a handful of physical elements of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Both times, he merely juiced up the action while tempering the narrative richness. The result was two films that pleased modern audiences looking for action over plot.
His other two big cinematic excursions, Mission: Impossible III and the original reboot of Star Trek, were stylistic mush, neither creating an inventive narrative nor taking the audience in directions they didn’t typically expect. His style has always been that of a cinematic geek unable to parlay his love of genre films into a palpable and definable authorial style.
It’s little surprise then that Abrams would excel in the realm of Star Wars, the original of which was George Lucas’ homage to Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone among others. While he didn’t directly copy those directors’ seminal works, Lucas was clearly inspired by them in creating this amalgam of feudalism, Hinduism, several other world religions, and western tropes that engulfed the imaginations of generations of fans who are now old enough to bring their children into the Lucas-crafted universe.
Abrams doesn’t reinvent the wheel and he shouldn’t. Lucas learned the hard way with his somewhat insufferable prequel trilogy that tampering with formula without understanding how those changes impact the whole of the work wasn’t the best of ideas. Thankfully, Abrams doesn’t have the level of directorial competence to alter the formula too much. The film is heavy on homage, heavy on structural similarities, and heavy on the general energy that made the original films so beloved.
One thing you might not notice much of in this film is the lens flares that became Abrams’ only distinctive style element in his previous films. Here, there’s virtually none which may owe more to Disney’s involvement than his own self-awareness. Abrams quipped that he would tone down the lens flares in his second Trek outing after the outcry over the first film’s heavy use of it. Yet, when Into Darkness released, lens flares were just as prominent in and perhaps more so than in its predecessor.
Disney’s influence is obvious. The studio has butted heads over everything Marvel and ended up pushing away many great directors who weren’t willing to stick to Disney’s playbook and pointed requirements. They are a machine that wants to control every aspect of their operation and it’s plain from the degree to which Abrams was reined in that it was partly due to the parent company’s controlling hand. This is all to the benefit of Star Wars, the most merchandised property in cinema history. Every facet needs to be tweaked and corrected to make sure that it fits their brand. If fans had rejected the film, it would have been the death of the rebirth of the franchise and a massive loss of a $4 billion investment.
With the help of the franchise’s greatest asset, Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams and Michael Arndt have crafted a screenplay that deftly reminds audiences of why they fell in love with these films 38, 35 and 32 years ago. They were films featuring grand adventure, lots of action and a streamlined plot that was light on twists, but high on content. Star Wars: The Force Awakens has little problem getting us back to the original trilogy in terms of plotting and adventure. There are many turns that are telegraphed well in advance and there are plenty of fun action sequences to keep the audience enthralled. It’s not high art by any stretch of the imagination, but for well crafted entertainment it’s nearly perfect.
Not unlike the original trio of actors who were introduced to audiences in 1977, Ridley, Boyega and Isaac deliver performances that satisfy, but aren’t particularly deep. Isaac does the best, drawing the audience in with significantly fewer scenes than his co-stars. Isaac was a star-in-the-making and it’s great to see he’s finally getting to break out of the indie mold. Boyega’s character lacks a sufficiently explicable backstory, which makes it hard to understand his motivations other than ultimately breaking the psychological tuning he’s undergone since childhood. His earlier moments are better than his later where he seems to fade into the bulkhead when confronted with the more affable Ridley.
Early in the film, Ridley is given several moments to put Boyega’s character to shame, not out of a need to show she’s better than he is, but to show that she doesn’t need anyone’s help to succeed. There are moments where they trade assistance, but Ridley gives us a strong, dominant female character that is not unlike the various modern princesses Disney has created since they re-invented the fairy tale in the early 1990’s.
And a fairy tale is indeed what Star Wars is. The original film was about a princess seeking assistance from a noble knight who must train and grow into a formidable force to not only save her, but also the galaxy. Here, the princess has grown up and must do the rescuing herself. It’s not that we need her to be better than her male counterparts. It’s that we need her to be strong enough to stand alone and fight for herself rather than having others fight for her. Like the original could be compared to the likes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty, this film could be equated to films like Beauty and the Beast and Frozen. The new film has modernized the gender dynamic narrative in potentially exciting ways. That it has moments of superficiality is almost irrelevant.
For the film to pop and excite, it was imperative to bring in the best technicians and creative teams possible. Start it all off with John Williams whose iconic score (for this franchise and countless others) has been cemented in our minds. What he creates ties perfectly into the franchise’s prior outings even if it never quite breaks out of its carefully crafted mold. Rick Carter, the man behind such glorious production designs as Jurassic Park, Death Becomes Her and Avatar blends his production into the original trilogy effectively, modernizing its trappings carefully without diverting so stupendously as to make things seem too radically different.
The teams behind the film’s visual effects likewise take us back to the world we were introduced to in 1977 by infusing modern technology with older techniques to create a cinematically equivalent effects landscape that captures the spirit and innovation that the original ushered in. The sound mixers and designers stood up to the franchise’s rich aural history and did more to generate a connection to Star Wars and its sequels than most would give them credit for.
George Lucas did the right thing handing off his creation to a new team. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, under the iron rule of Walt Disney Corporation, is crafted by artists and craftsman who were inspired by the legacy of Star Wars and wanted to build on that lofty framework with homage and innovation in ways that will please any die hard fan of the franchise. While it may not convert many new fans, it doesn’t need to. This is the perfect re-introduction to Lucas’ universe and while Lucas may no longer be involved, his imprint is clear and that’s exactly as it should be.
Guarantees: Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects
Probables: Original Score
Potentials: Picture, Production Design, Costume Design
Unlikelies: Film Editing, Cinematography
December 29, 2015