A lot can be said about the current film culture’s emphasis on leaning heavily into the realm of nostalgia—not story, not character development, but simply giving audiences flashes of what we’re familiar with and allowing that to pass for something new. Say what you want about his take on the STAR TREK franchise, but I was at least happy that, by creating a time travel understory, J.J. Abrams effectively let it be known that anything could happen from this point forward. The possibility of opening up entirely different paths for the crew of the Enterprise was there, even if that’s not exactly how it panned out.
In this retro climate, it should come as no surprise that the year’s biggest box office hit (and one of the biggest of all time) is JURASSIC WORLD, which is so devoted to the original film, JURASSIC PARK, that it effectively pretends that the two other sequels simply never happened. And perhaps you noticed that CREED is also doing very well with fans of the original ROCKY. Hmmmm…
Which brings us back to Abrams, who has always been devoted to recapturing the experience many of us used to have going to the movies in the 1980s, when you’d typically get a poster, one trailer, a couple TV commercials (none of which were available to watch repeatedly online, mind you) and little to know information about the film beyond the official synopsis. Abrams dares to ask us “Why do you want to know everything before you see the finished film?” A fair question, and he does everything in his power to suppress information leaks; good for him. But even if you’ve sequestered yourself for the past few months from all manner of STAR WARS details and images and are able to go into the seventh chapter, THE FORCE AWAKENS, relatively untainted doesn’t mean the final film is going to be a triumph. I’m guessing most devoted fans’ worst nightmare isn’t that the film is going to be bad, it’s that it’s not going to be great.
Working from a script by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS has moments of greatness; it approaches greatness at times; but it is not a complete success, largely because it becomes a constant barrage of the familiar that goes well beyond simply having a few of the same characters from the original trilogy. I suppose that since the Star Wars films are technically a single story in serialized form, some will think it’s okay for characters to still be dealing with the aftermath of the events of episodes IV, V and VI, even though this film takes places 30 years later.
But even outside of specific plot points, this new chapter is structured in such a way that so much of it feels like direct callbacks to specific scenes in Episode IV in particular. We’re dealing with yet another planet/moon-sized battle station, with a single weak point; there’s another desert planet opens; a droid is enlisted with invaluable plans; familial links play a key part in the conflict; there’s a brilliant, reckless pilot; a noble heroine; a masked villain dressed in black who reports to a deep-voiced higher power; a diminutive alien creature that has a special connection to the Force that it's willing to share with one of our new heroes; there’s even another cantina scene. Make sure to let your eyes wander around the corners of the Millennium Falcon, and you’ll see a few familiar objects. It’s actually bizarre how little has changed in 30 years.
The more traditional Empire, despite being decimated in RETURN OF THE JEDI, has somehow reformed under the new name The First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis) and his primary underlings: the power-mad General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson in full Hitler Youth mode) and the Sith-like Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, especially effective here as the agent of the Dark Side who is still somewhat drawn by his roots in the the Light Side). I was especially drawn to this character’s warped vision of the universe. He’s Vader wannabe, with a makeshift mask that he wears for no particular reason other than to give himself an artificial voice that kind of sounds Vaderish. If you examine his mask closely, you’ll see it looks like it was slapped together with rivets and poor welding, as it should be. Ren has backstory that I’m not going to dive into, but it deepens his internal crisis in a very necessary and vital way.
I was surprised that the first human face we see in THE FORCE AWAKENS belongs to Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a masterful pilot working for the Resistance who has a map that is said to be the key to finding the long-lost Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, who is absolutely in this film and in the trailer), who went into self-imposed exile after a group of young Jedi trainees were killed by a rogue student, an incident that scarred Luke deeply and drove him to drop out completely. Poe is captured by Ren, but is soon set free by a stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega), who is appalled by the mass killings in innocents in the hunt by the Order for this map. Before Poe is initially captured, he deposits the map in his droid BB-8 (“voice consultant” credit is given to comedic actors Bill Hader and Ben Schwartz), whom he instructs to find his way to the Resistance.
Poe and Finn manage to escape in a TIE Fighter, but crash on the desert planet of Jakku, and are separated with Finn retreating to a nearby town where they meet a scrap dealer named Rey (newcomer Daisy Ridley), who is now in possession of BB-8. Without going into anymore detail, from this point forward in THE FORCE AWAKENS, Finn and Rey essentially enter into an intergalactic road movie, getting to know each other, traveling to strange new worlds, and meeting all manner of interesting creatures, including Han Solo (Harrison Ford, slipping right back into it) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who have returned to a life of smuggling and dirty deals after a falling out with Leia (Carrie Fisher) drove him away from working with the Resistance. But Solo eventually agrees to help the young pair deliver BB-8’s map to the former princess.
Not surprisingly, everything is building to big conflicts both in the air (the Resistance is attempting to destroy this new Starkiller Base using X-Wings) and on the ground (heroes both old and young clash with Kylo Ren, other First Order soldiers, stormtroopers, you name it). We get brief visits from old friends—R2-D2 and C-3PO show up briefly, feeling slightly wedged into the story—and new acquaintances, including the badass stormtrooper superior Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), who is only on screen a couple of times briefly, but makes an impression that leads me to believe we’ll be seeing more of her in upcoming segments. I love that Phasma is at her angriest when she catches Finn without his helmet.
I was so impressed with the new performers in this film, that it wouldn’t have been crazy to try and make THE FORCE AWAKENS without any old characters on hand. I’m not saying that’s a better idea, but Ridley, Boyega, Isaac and Driver are so good here, they could have carried a film on their own steam (with a little kick in the pants from John Williams’ still-inspiring score). But of course, we need our old friends on hand to make the transition, to pass the torch onto the new generation. Ford is the primary member of the old guard on screen here, and he slips right back into Han Solo so easily, he really makes its seem like no time has passed at all. The hair is a little lighter and the wrinkles a bit deeper, but it’s the same scoundrel who absolutely would have and does shoot first.
Also impressive is how Abrams’ film doesn’t really look like any other STAR WARS film. While it has it’s glossy moments, most of THE FORCE AWAKENS is told from the perspective of an outsider looking in. It’s rougher around the edges, dustier, more banged up. The use of hand-held cameras at times adds an immediacy to the battle sequences and fight scenes. It feels more like real war. And I believe for the first time, we see a stormtrooper bleed after being shot by a blaster (no, not Finn). I love the Rey and Finn are so young that names like Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are almost mythological to them, and they aren’t even sure these people are real. They are of a generation that was raised on these tales of war and bravery and sacrifice. It’s a adds a completely different tone to the storytelling, one that is, at once, lived in and like something born out of a book of legend.
The simple truth is that STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS has too many references—specific and big picture—to what came before for its own good. It doesn’t kill what is so damn good about it, but it tarnishes it a bit, only because it isn’t necessary. And after about a dozen of these in the first 30 minutes, I started to wince as they continued to roll in. I realize for some fans, there can never be enough, and for those of you who think that way, you’ll be crying and shaking and visiting your therapists by the millions. That being said, it’s still a terrific film that keeps things moving, forwards a story I’m still very much interesting in continuing, and sets up what could easily be an even better sequel in the hands of writer-director Rian Johnson. I’m rather desperate to see where this ship takes us.