STAR WARS: The Force Awakens

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The most eagerly anticipated film of the year (decade?) has finally arrived, and the web-o-sphere is swirling with thoughts and spoilers and appraisals. By this time you’ve undoubtedly been exposed to the conventional wisdom, but in case you need further reassurance before braving the long lines this weekend – STAR WARS: The Force Awakens is… great!

Not that we should be surprised. All the ingredients were there: JJ Abrams at the helm, directing a script he co-wrote with Lawrence Kasdan (who penned The Empire Strikes Back – arguably the best film in the entire STAR WARS line-up), and a score by the legendary John Williams.

And yet the most interesting thing about this movie is how surprising it is.

Like many of fans of the original trilogy, I was hooked the minute I discovered the original cast would be returning. And to be sure, it is a thrill to see them back together again for the first time in decades. But it’s also a little sad in ways I didn’t expect, yet totally should have. Han Solo is every bit the scoundrel he ever was – maybe even more so. But he’s also weary – the years of adventures having finally caught up with him.

I suppose I was naive, but I didn’t really anticipate how much of the kinetic energy of the film would be derived from the new cast – or how much I would love them. This movie is very much about passing the swashbuckling torch on to a new generation, and Daisey Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac are more than capable.  Isaac’s character ‘Poe Dameron’ delivers the rogue fighter pilot I imagine George Lucas always dreamed of. John Boyega’s ‘Finn’ is the reluctant hero and comic relief, with some of the best lines in the movie.  But for me, it’s Daisey Ridley’s ‘Rey’ who steals the show. Like a young Luke Skywalker, she grows up an orphan on a desert planet – but unlike Luke, she is immediately confident and self-assured, and by the end she is clearly a force to be reckoned with.

Also unanticipated was how dark in tone The Force Awakens is. This movie borrows from the general narrative of the original trilogy by rebooting the old conflict with new names. The Empire returns as The First Order, and the Rebel Alliance has become The Resistance – thus comparisons between this film and A New Hope are inevitable. But A New Hope was made with little expectation of a sequel, so it is relatively self-contained within a complete story arc – including a happy ending. In contrast, The Force Awakens is imbued early on with a sense of foreboding that carries through to the very end. It’s not really a “feel good” movie, and out of the entire seven-film series, it is perhaps one of the darkest of the bunch.

The Force Awakens is also not as visually complex as I expected. One of the hallmarks of STAR WARS has been that each subsequent film set the bar a little higher in terms of backdrops and creatures, to the point that the prequel films were practically seizure-inducing. It’s been well publicized that Abrams made a conscious decision to rely as little as possible on CGI, which is most readily apparent in the creature effects. But he also took the same less-is-more approach to the landscapes and architecture. The backdrops are simpler and more natural, but in a way they’e also a little less otherworldly, which was oddly disappointing for me. Still, it’s a welcome change from the plastic-looking prequels, so this is such a minor thing it hardly even qualifies as a complaint.

Finally, I want to commend Abrams for putting women in more central rolls in the STAR WARS filmverse.  Having both female heroes and villains in a STAR WARS movie is long overdue, and Gwendoline Christie’s  ‘Captain Phasma’ practically rivals The Force Awaken‘s prime antagonist, Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver. It was also satisfying to finally discover evidence of female stormtroopers, be it ever so subtle. (In one brief scene, an armor clad trooper delivers a status report in a distinctly female voice.)

Ultimately, despite its comforting nods to nostalgia, the best things about The Force Awakens are the new and unexpected. It does what every good movie should – it leaves you wanting more.

Rating: 4/5 ★★★★☆ 

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About Dave_P

Dave_P studied fine arts and film history and is a graphic and web designer, and a diehard movie fan. David has been involved with a variety film festivals including the Cinephile Film Festival, the PRIDE Film festival, and the Manhattan Short Film festival, and is currently the director of the Dark Carnival Film Fest in Bloomington, Indiana. (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com)

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