J.J Abrams had his work cut out for him. By design, Star Wars: The Force Awakens demands to be judged by more criteria than most movies, yet how well it stands on its own is, surprisingly, least relevant of them. The film juggles the many responsibilities of being a remix/reboot emphasizing the most beloved elements of the classic trilogy, a clean jumping-on point for a new and expanding global audience, and a satisfying new chapter in an expanding saga (or at least better than the shitty prequels),
Considering how many balls he has in the air, Abrams puts on a surprisingly good juggling act. He holds tight to the humor and sense of adventure that made so many people fall in love with the classic Star Wars films. While there is some over-reliance on CG, (especially in characters that could have been better realized with makeup effects,) the move back towards practical locations and effects is tremendously beneficial. This is the movie that Abrams was born to make: neither original or surprising, but kinetic, exciting, and aping all the right notes.
The new cast and characters are phenomenally likable, bringing all the earnest gung-ho-edness that made Luke, Leia, and Han so lovable. Oscar Issac, John Boyega, and even the BB-8 puppeteers take what could have been rote heroes and give them an emotional depth that possibly outmatches those classic performances (with the unbeatable exception of Harrison Ford). The show’s MVP, however, is actor Daisy Ridley, who comes out of nowhere– realizing a protagonist that melds empowerment with vulnerability, and gentleness with passion. She is, without a doubt, the hero of a new generation, and I’d be shocked if her fame ended with Star Wars. Also noteworthy is Adam Driver, whose Kylo Ren is less intimidating than Darth Vader, but the most fascinatingly nuanced villain yet seen in the series.
While the cast is unbeatable, the plot is harder to applaud. Deus ex Machina pushes the story along nearly as often as the characters do, and it leans so hard on plot points and environments already covered in the original Star Wars that it feels redundant as a chapter in that series. While the story perhaps works better as a launching point to Disney’s new canon, it demands familiarity with pre-established characters and icons in a way that risks alienating newcomers. Additionally, several emotional and story beats feel like they were left on the editing room floor, and the film ends without answering a great deal of the core questions posed by the story. Either J.J’s mystery box is working full force to cliffhang viewers into watching the next movie, or the script wasn’t quite locked down when they started shooting. It’s more cogent than the prequels, but nowhere near as succinct as the original classics.
Ultimately, the success or failure of The Force Awakens will depend on what follows it. Disney has already promised to release a new Star War every year until Armageddon. I suspect that the comfort-food familiarity of this first chapter is designed to cement the perceived legitimacy of both Disney and their fantastic new heroes. My hope is that now that they have established that they “get” Star Wars to the world, they can go about reinventing it in exciting new ways.
May the Force be with them. They’re gonna need it.
3D Recommendation – Passable, but certainly not superb. Some good 3D moments, but the rushed quality edges dangerously close to distracting.