In 1999, the highly anticipated Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released and soon followed by subsequent installments, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). Returning to the director’s chair for the first time since Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope in 1977, George Lucas chronicled the tumultuous events that preceded the adventures of Luke Skywalker. While a massive financial success, the Prequel Trilogy was roasted by film critics and derided by a significant portion of the franchise’s fanbase, many of whom had grown up with the Original Trilogy. Personally, I felt that Lucas had betrayed the essential elements that made those movies so magical and so special for me at such an impressionable age. The real issue I have with these movies was Lucas’ inability to recreate the feeling of excitement and wonderment of seeing the Original Trilogy for the first time and how it captivated my imagination.
After Revenge of the Sith, Lucas said that he would not make any more Star Wars movies. I resigned myself to the idea that never in my lifetime would I be able to return to Tatooine or see the Millennium Falcon fly through space, which were a part of a rich universe that has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
In October 2012, he sold the Star Wars franchise to Disney and shortly thereafter it was announced that J.J. Abrams would be directing a new movie entitled, The Force Awakens (2015). It would take place approximately 30 years after Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) and not only introduce a new generation of characters played by the likes of John Boyega, Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley, but also see the return of cast members from the Original Trilogy such as Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill reprising their much beloved characters.
Burned by the Prequel Trilogy, I was understandably wary of this new movie but any lingering doubts were put to rest by a strategic media blitz that reassured the faithful that Abrams was one of us. He would be shooting this new movie on film stock instead of digitally as Lucas had done with the prequels, he would be shooting on location instead of green screen soundstages, putting an emphasis on practical effects over CGI, including building a full-scale Millennium Falcon, and, most significantly, bringing back Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the screenplays for Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi, to co-write this new movie with him.
Years after the events depicted in Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone off the grid after an attempt to create a new order of Jedi went disastrously wrong, resulting in his apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) going over to the Dark Side where he soon became a leading figure in the First Order, a group that rose out of the ashes of the Galactic Empire and bent on continuing Darth Vader’s plans. To this end, they want to find Luke and kill him thereby eliminating the Jedi for good. The Resistance, led by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), also wants to find Luke and send their best pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his loyal droid BB-8 to find him. This takes him to the planet of Jakku where he is subsequently captured by the First Order.
Meanwhile, a reluctant First Order Stormtrooper (John Boyega) witnesses a horrible massacre of a village on Jakku and decides that he can no longer be a part of this destructive group and helps Poe escape. They return to Jakku and are separated after the Tie Fighter they stole is shot down and crashes. Eventually renaming himself Finn, he accidentally crosses paths with a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) who has found BB-8 with the coordinates to Luke’s whereabouts. They run afoul of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and team up to get Luke’s location to the Resistance who is gearing up to stop the First Order’s Starkiller Base, a planet converted into a superweapon that makes the previous Death Stars look like tinker toys. This new base absorbs the power of a nearby sun and redirects the energy into a blast that is capable of destroying multiple planets simultaneously.
Unlike Lucas, Abrams knows how to work with actors, especially younger ones, and get the best performances out of them. All the newcomers to the Star Wars universe acquit themselves admirably with John Boyega, Adam Driver and, especially, Daisy Ridley being the heart and soul of The Force Awakens. All three bring their characters vividly to life. Driver wisely doesn’t play Ren as a one-note villain and is given the screen-time to portray someone struggling with inner demons that threaten to engulf him. There is a satisfying character arc to Ren as he succumbs completely to the Dark Side of the Force. Ridley’s character represents hope as Rey embraces the Light Side. She is a strong-willed character more than capable of handling herself and the young actress brings an undeniable charm and charisma to the role as she does an excellent job of showing how Rey comes into her own over the course of the movie. She is smart, proactive and more than capable of getting herself out a jam. Ridley’s performance is the kind of exciting breakout role that Elle Fanning did in Abrams’ Super 8 (2011).
Boyega’s Finn is somewhere in the middle between Ren and Finn, starting off on the wrong side but as the movie progresses he makes a choice by taking a side and believing in something. Boyega also gets the bulk of the movie’s humorous moments, demonstrating fantastic comic timing and then turning on a dime when it comes to the more dramatic scenes. The scenes between him and Ridley are among some of the strongest in the movie. Initially, Finn and Rey have somewhat of an antagonistic relationship that develops into something more meaningful as they learn to trust each other with their lives. The chemistry between them is excellent and feels genuine. Unfortunately, Oscar Isaac is given not as much screen-time as I would have liked. Poe shows up early on only to disappear for most of the movie and reappears near the end in deus ex machina fashion.
For fans of the Original Trilogy there is a definite nostalgic thrill in seeing Han Solo, Leia, Chewbacca and other characters again. The introduction of each one gives off its own unique emotional spark and then they are seamlessly integrated into the narrative with Han and Chewie, not surprisingly, getting some of the best moments in the movie as they banter back forth just like old times. I couldn’t help but tear up a bit when Han steps back onto the Millennium Falcon for the first time after all these years and Ford’s expression said it all, which made me wonder just how much of it was acting on his part. The veteran actor hasn’t looked this engaged in a role in a long time and it looks like he’s having a great time slipping on the blaster again. Sadly, Carrie Fisher’s Leia is mostly relegated to the sidelines in what I can only assume is a symbolic passing of the torch to Ridley’s Rey.
Clearly Abrams learned from the mistakes of the Prequel Trilogy by jettisoning annoying offensive characters like Jar Jar, utilizing actual locations whenever possible (the last scene in particular is breathtaking) and relying more on practical effects, which gives The Force Awakens a tangible quality – something that had gone missing since the Original Trilogy. Most importantly, this movie has an emotional weight and heart to it, which was sorely lacking from the prequels. For example, The Phantom Menace introduced a cool-looking villain named Darth Maul only to kill him off at the end of the movie, but it didn’t mean anything because we knew nothing about him – his fears or his motivation. Not so with Ren and this is what makes him a much more interesting character and formidable antagonist.
Structurally, The Force Awakens is a carbon copy of A New Hope albeit with a few variations but this seems intentional as Abrams and Kasdan are saying that those that don’t learn from the past are condemned to repeat it and this certainly applies to the First Order as they stubbornly follow in the footsteps of the Galactic Empire like some kind of perverse intergalactic version of Groundhog Day (1993). It should be interesting to see where the next installment takes it from here.
How does this Star Wars junkie feel about the first Lucas-less movie? Honestly, I’m ambivalent about it all. On the one hand, the franchise was his baby. Lucas became a legend on the shoulders of the Original Trilogy and rightly so. Almost 40 years in, my friends and I continue to gleefully debate which movie is the best. For years, we had cast Lucas out as the Darth Vader of his own universe, banished for the sin of betraying our childhood memories by constantly tinkering with his movies with needless changes. Over the years, he had gone from being an upstart rebel filmmaker to the emperor of his own vast empire. He had made the classic mistake of getting high on his own supply and had to have his own creation taken away if it was to thrive and survive thereby giving the world a new hope. By selling Star Wars to Disney, Lucas made the most beautiful sacrifice a parent can make for their children. He had to walk away from it all and let someone else take the reins and that couldn’t have been an easy thing to do.
In many respects, The Force Awakens acts as a bridge, transitioning from the Original Trilogy to a new generation. As a result, Abrams gets to have his nostalgia cake and eat it too by giving fans what they want and then building from it. Best of all, he has instilled his passion for Star Wars in every frame of this movie in a way that Lucas was unable to in the Prequel Trilogy. I was pleasantly surprised at how much this movie affected me emotionally and how invested I became in it. The Force Awakens is an unabashed entertaining and engaging movie that managed to recapture the sense of wonder from the Original Trilogy and transport me back to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.