Fair warning: While this is a ‘spoiler-free’ review, I do briefly comment on minor characters and their functions in this film. Nothing major plot or character wise is spoiled here, but I wanted to give anyone who still hasn’t seen the film a heads up in case you want to go into it with no knowledge whatsoever.
The original Star Wars stands alone as one of the single greatest achievements in filmmaking history. It has been so seamlessly ingrained into today’s culture it’s hard for those too young to have seen it in theaters back in 1977 to truly fathom what a remarkable feat George Lucas managed to pull off. Not only did he single-handedly change the face of moviemaking forever and ever, amen, his work spawned what is arguably the most beloved film series of…well…ever. (That business of last decade’s Prequel Trilogy, in the words of Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi himself, ‘doesn’t, doesn’t count.’ – and, yes, I recognize the irony of using a quote from the Prequels to demonstrate their worthlessness, so SHUT IT!!)
With many a childhood influenced by the magic of the Original Trilogy, I can’t even begin to imagine how daunting the prospect of continuing the series would be, especially in the light of the rightfully chastised Lucas-scribed/helmed Prequels. But when Lucas sold his company along with all related franchises to Disney, he removed the very thing that was stifling the series’ creativity and well-being: Himself. Since he would no longer be playing an active creative role in future Star Wars films, the possibilities for the franchise were endless. It was the best creative decision that could have been made to guarantee its well-being.
Still, making a Star Wars movie must be an overwhelming notion, even for the most accomplished filmmaker. In fact, ‘overwhelming’ probably doesn’t even begin to describe the immense pressure of living up to the hopes of an entire generation of fans who grew up with and were inspired by these films, as well as ensuring the $4 billion+ Disney dished out for the franchise would not be in vain. Episode VII director/writer J.J. Abrams, co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, whose extensive writing resume includes the likes of The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Ark (No biggie), and Lucasfilm head/Executive Producer Kathleen Kennedy had an immense task before them.
But never tell them the odds.
Somehow, despite everything working against this creative team, they’ve managed to succeed. And not only have they succeeded, they’ve succeeded with flying colors. The Force Awakens recaptures everything you loved about Star Wars in the first place – the wonder, the humor, the tangible believability – and coily nods to the past while expertly pushing the franchise into exciting new places for the future.
The core of Episode VII’s success is a strong emphasis on character and those characters’ relationships with one another. Despite their pioneering special effects and rip-roaring action, the reason the original Star Wars films were so beloved was because we cared so deeply about its core cast of characters. Abrams and Kasdan have recognized this and filled The Force Awakens with an ensemble that will remind you just how crucial this element was to the series.
All of the new players are fantastic and the assembled cast is extraordinary. Newcomer Daisy Ridley’s performance as Rey is a wonder to behold. She’s beautiful, strong and kindhearted – a star in the making. John Boyega is hilarious and endearing as the brave Stormtrooper-with-a-heart-of-gold Finn; Oscar Isaac is perfectly cocky and lovable as Poe Dameron, the Resistance’s best pilot. And, of course, we have BB-8, who is flatout adorable.
Perhaps the most impressive addition to the new cast is Adam Driver as the film’s main baddie Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren is already one of the most fascinating characters of the entire franchise and it’s Driver’s performance, even more so than the writing itself, that is the driving force behind its success. He’s dangerous and frightening, and yet he carries a level of humanity about him. You empathize with him even when you don’t want to. A round of applause for the guy!
With the exception of Domhnall Gleeson’s strong performance as the ruthless General Hux, the remaining supporting cast is a bit forgettable. There was such emphasis placed on Gwendoline Christie’s involvement as Captain Phasma (that hulking, Chrome Trooper featured prominently in ads and posters) and it’s disappointing to see the character is mostly there as an excuse to sell pretty toys. Likewise Andy Serkis and Lupita Nyong’o, both playing fully CG characters, seem to fade into the background, providing interesting tidbits of plot info, but not much else. It’s by no fault of these actors that these characters don’t work as well as the primary players; all three of them are solid. It’s the script that comes up short in this particular instance.
Of course, anyone who’s seen any promotional materials for The Force Awakens is well-aware that the primary trio has returned for another go-round. And they’re great. Without going into specifics, I will say that I was really impressed with Harrison Ford in particular, who seems to have made a habit of phoning in his performances as of late. He really brings his a-game. It really feels like we’re watching the Han Solo we know and love from the Original Trilogy and not just an awkward impersonation of said character (I’m looking at you Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). The same goes for Carrie Fisher, who I was perhaps the most worried about. She does a superb job, hitting all the right emotional beats and moments.
And Mark Hamill? Well…if you haven’t seen the film by this point I’ll let you wait and find out for yourself how he fares.
No joke, The Force Awakens has arguably the best performances this franchise has ever seen. I cannot emphasize enough how incredible this cast is and how damned lovable these new characters are. They are, by far, this new entry’s strongest assets.
Less successful is the plot itself, which relies a bit too heavily on storybeats from the original 1977 Star Wars. On occasion, The Force Awakens goes overboard from being a loving homage of the events in A New Hope to just plain derivative of them. I won’t spoil why exactly (stay tuned for another conversational review between Richie and me and check out our review/ranking of the Star Wars Saga up to this point), but considering all the time and effort put into making things feel fresh and fun, you’d think a little more effort would have been put into changing things up a bit more plot-wise.
But now I’m getting nitpicky and to nitpick a movie that gets so much so, so right feels unwarranted. Abrams has instilled every moment with palpable glee. You get the feeling that everyone involved in its making has a great love for Star Wars and their passion comes through tenfold. What’s really impressive about Abrams is how much he seems to have matured as a director since the release of 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness. He allows moments to breathe, to flourish. When the pace is up and running, his direction and camera moves are exhilarating and breathtaking. When things slow down, the visuals are even more stunning. At this point I’ve seen The Force Awakens 3 times, and upon each repeat viewing, I catch more and more shots that, as a film fan, I couldn’t believe I took for granted the first (and even second) time around. It’s an outstanding directorial accomplishment and perhaps Abrams’ crowning achievement.
I’ll admit, the first time I watched Episode VII, I was completely overwhelmed. I knew I liked it, but I wasn’t sure to what extent I liked it. Little things about the story irked me, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about certain character choices. The 2nd viewing was much more enjoyable, partially because I no longer had to stress out about what was going to happen and I could surrender myself to the power of its storytelling. I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did I like the film, I genuinely loved it.
To put it bluntly, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is the most entertaining Star Wars movie since A New Hope, the best looking, most emotionally sound entry since The Empire Strikes Back and the most heartwarming since Return of the Jedi. It forgoes the stale artificiality of the Prequels and somehow, despite all odds, manages to recapture the spirit of George Lucas’ Original Trilogy. Most importantly, it is a delightful viewing experience that will put a smile on your face and remind you just how magical a galaxy far far away can be. Maybe Abrams and Kasdan played it a bit too safe with familiar plotting and storybeats, but the new cast of characters and some bold twists keep things fresh and exciting. This is one of the most joyous films of the 21st century so far and I for one cannot wait to see where Rian Johnson takes us in 2017.