Sitting down in a packed theater, awaiting the most anticipated movie in years, there was an odd and unexpected sensation in the air: restraint.
Certainly there was excitement – the trailers could’ve showed a preview for the second coming of Christ, and fans still would’ve been annoyed the movie hadn’t started yet – but actual expectations felt subdued. After all, "Star Wars" fans have been down this road before, only to be greeted by plank-like performances, midi-chlorians and Jar Jar Binks. After hoping for the world before, this time, audiences just wanted a movie that wouldn’t embarrass them. This time, they just wanted a "Star Wars" they could be proud of.
Thankfully, "The Force Awakens" clears that bar. Episode VII may not the completely new, fresh "Star Wars" we want – it plays a little more like the rock band reunion tour where it’s just fun and nice to see familiar faces play the old hits well – but at least it’s a good "Star Wars." Just good, but after the sad disappointment of the prequels, just good will do just fine.
(WARNING: While I wrote this review with avoiding spoilers in mind, plot elements will be discussed below.)
30 years after the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone missing – and not just from the movie’s marketing campaign. After an attempt to create a new generation of jedi failed – only helping to create Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, "Girls"), a fierce and powerful young follower of Darth Vader and the Dark Side now working for the evil Empire-like First Order – our old hero disappeared, scattering pieces of a map to his whereabouts for the Leia-led Resistance to put together.
One of those crucial map messages is left in the hands of Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, "Inside Llewyn Davis") and his lovable droid buddy BB-8 (voiced by, of all people, Bill Hader and Jean-Ralphio himself Ben Schwartz). When Poe is captured, however, the message is sent adrift in his droid, where it comes upon a young desert-planet dreamer – a scavenger named Rey, played by newcomer Daisy Ridley. With the help of Finn (John Boyega, "Attack the Block"), a former nameless First Order stormtrooper petrified enough by his side’s war crimes into flipping sides, and old friends Han Solo and Chewbacca, Rey and company set off to aid the Resistance, find Luke Skywalker and save the galaxy.
You may have noticed words like trade embargo are nowhere to be found in that plot summary. Indeed, "The Force Awakens" brings "Star Wars" back to feeling like "Star Wars" again, returning to the classic sense of adventure that made the original films pop cultural icons.
The universe feels huge and wondrously weird again, filled with bizarre and unique alien creatures – many of which appear to be actual puppets, like in the classics – casually popping up on screen or walking by, built into scenes not just cluttering them with effects. There’s a moment early on where BB-8 rolls through the desert alone at night and an alien head casually pops up from a nearby dune to look at him. In the prequels, something like that would’ve felt like a CG excess and toy cash-in; here, it’s a playful and charming bit of color in the "Star Wars" world.
A world that, once again, feels like a real place, with tactile ships and actual settings. When Rey is introduced early on sliding down a massive sand dune, it’s a perfect course correction from the CGI-overload of "Revenge of the Sith," a bit of cinematic magic once again returned to go along with the magic at the story’s center.
It all feels right – and of all the things thankfully brought back to "Star Wars" in "The Force Awakens," that’s the most important one: feeling. Despite featuring extremely broad attempts at comedy and big soap opera romances and dramas, Lucas’ prequel trilogy desperately lacked any actual heart – from the cold political dealings to the cold performances to the cold CG environments.
Now, the characters feel again, no longer burdened with stiff interactions and poorly written motivations. Even BB-8 is a more emotive rendition of R2-D2, able to convey a lot – urgency, fear – with just swivels. Forget the force; the most important awakening is the return of emotion to the franchise – the yearning for adventure, the excitement of finally going on one, the fear of evil and the urge to fight against it – all lovingly recaptured by J.J. Abrams and his fellow co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt.
Of course, part of the reason why "The Force Awakens" feels so much like "Star Wars" again is because, in terms of the plot, it is pretty much quite literally "Star Wars" again – a remix of "A New Hope" in particular. Once again, a droid is sent out with an important message and finds a gifted loner on a desert planet dreaming of more. The cantina scene is rehashed. The villains are essentially Darth Vader Jr. and Emperor Palpatine but with a bigger hologram now – and a bigger Death Star.
It’s given an impressive and engaging new remodeling, but plot beat by plot beat, this is a movie we’ve seen before. And that’s not even including the many fan servicing cameos, callbacks and references scattered heavily throughout the movie, each one seemingly pausing like a SNL guest star for the audience’s applause of recognition.
Now, if any series is allowed to bask in some nostalgia, it’s "Star Wars," and when it does these moments right – like the clever and sly reintroduction of the Millenium Falcon – it earns the smiling recognition it wants. A lot of it, unfortunately, plays like a crutch, going for comfort rather than actually creating something new. "The Force Awakens" recaptures the spirit of the original films so well; it’s unfortunate that it feels it has to do so so literally, in the process missing out on the joys of discovery and surprise that make great adventures so beloved. There’s a whole galaxy of potential stories and ideas for a new "Star Wars" tale; it’s a somewhat shame we got such a similar one again.
From "Super 8" to "Star Trek Into Darkness," pillaging nostalgia is a classic Abrams issue. His films’ stories lean heavy on emotion and less so on logic, working like the bus from "Speed": It if stops moving, it dies. "The Force Awakens" is no different, constantly in a forward commotion. It works in the moment – there’s a reason why "STID," despite being generally disliked now, has an incredibly high Rotten Tomatoes score – but when one tries to lay out the chaotic storytelling, it tends to fall apart.
"Star Wars" seems tighter crafted than Abrams’ other efforts, but there’s still a lot of holes and cheap, or just plain unexplained, conveniences driving things forward – namely involving maps and lightsabers. And speaking of lightsabers, when it comes time for the duels, there sure are a bunch of sword combat amateurs putting up strong fights against seasoned, talented veterans.
That’s a mild nitpick, however, of a movie that, despite its repetitive nature, a whole lot of fun (I suppose if you’re going to crib notes, it might as well be off of one of the greatest adventures ever told). As noted, Abrams works in emotion, not logic, and when he gets that right, "The Force Awakens" sucks you in – especially visually. There are a few shots – the TIE fighters at dawn, Rey’s introduction, light streaming in through the darkness during a crucial final confrontation – that are just gorgeous to look at, and while chaos may reign in his plots, Abrams is a strong, visceral action director.
The space battles here – most hovering near the ground, which spices things up nicely from the old atmospheric air battles – are excitingly crafted and dashed with fun character and humor, while the lightsaber fights go back to the originals’ philosophy, more about the meaning and the characters than insane moves and gimmicky stake-raising ("You have to fight a character has EIGHT lightsabers!").
However, the best part – for "The Force Awakens" and, more importantly, the rest of this trilogy – is the cast, especially the new members. With little notable on her resume coming in, Daisy Ridley was a concern, but as the center of these movies, she’s a perfect new hero. She’s feisty, determined, excitable and playful – all of which she makes utterly contagious for the audience. When she looks over at an older woman doing the same miserable scavenging job as her in the early going, you feel the yearning, and when she hears Finn’s mission, her bubbling excitement radiates through the screen.
She also plays magnificently off of Boyega, who's just as charismatic – bounding funny banter off of Ridley, BB-8, Ford and Isaac – but also deeply felt with his traumatic stormtrooper past. Meanwhile, Isaac has less to do here than his other two new co-stars, but he makes the most out of all of his scenes, capturing the perfect fun, charming hero’s swagger and humor.
Then there’s Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, who manages to take a role that shouldn’t work and make it amazing. His role requires him to basically play the shadow of cinema’s most famous villain, but he completely makes it his own tortured, drolly raging beast. He looks young, but he uses that immature look perfectly for his character, one uncertain, torn between both the light and the dark – almost like two fathers pulling him in separate directions.
There’s a key decision near the end that should be predictable based on the "New Hope" script forging, but instead, it plays tense and dramatic because he plays the role so perfectly, the youth of the light and the obsession with the dark both haunting him and fighting for control of his fledgling confidence. Trying to recreate or even touch Vader should’ve been the biggest mistake in "The Force Awakens"; instead, it’s one of its best attributes (save for his odd habit of destroying objects when he’s very mad, which plays like the Bad Cop chair rampages from "The LEGO Movie").
As for the old cast, Hamill’s a little over-the-top (considering his role in this film, however, it’s much ado about nothing), but the rest all fit snuggly and pleasantly back into their classic roles. Ford especially reacquaints himself nicely with the role, having the most casual and natural fun he’s had on screen in a while. He’s not the sleepy, stiff Indiana Jones we saw in "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," that’s for sure. But really, the new cast grabs the film and owns it.
The only casting misfires are Domhnall Gleeson, who doesn't seem quite confident enough to go full-worm on his bad guy role, and unfortunately Lupita Nyong’o, whose voice doesn’t quite fit the wise old sage character she’s made into. Both try their best though.
In general, though, the new cast is so good that you wish their first film didn’t come with its training wheels on, with chaperones to make sure their voyage gets off on the right foot. Not that it’s a critical flaw. It’s just the end result of "The Force Awakens" feels a little safe. It’s reminiscent of the Chris Columbus Harry Potter movies, sticking close to the book and taking fairly few risks to make sure everyone’s on board for the rest of the full run. It doesn’t make many memories of its own, but it does satisfyingly rekindle the old memories and feelings of why the audience fell in love with this franchise in the first place.
And now that that’s done, it’s time to start the actual new adventure.
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens": *** out of ****
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.