The Force has indeed awakened, “Star Wars” fans. Thanks to Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm we have been gifted a new movie and all the excitement and anxiousness that comes with it. And while it has only been 10 years since the last new “Star Wars,” it has been more than 30 years of wondering what happens to the beloved characters of the original trilogy after “Return of the Jedi.” And so, it is at times a teary-eyed delight to see these old friends return to the big screen.
Therefore, before a single trailer surfaced, “The Force Awakens” was rife with nostalgia, and few directors understand the sensitivities of nostalgia the way J.J. Abrams does. His film “Super 8” was an exercise in ’80s nostalgia and his reboot of the “Star Trek” franchise also demonstrated respect for decades-old and beloved sci fi/fantasy with massive, dedicated followings. It made him the clear choice – and the safest choice – for “Star Wars: Episode VII.”
In collaboration with writer Lawrence Kasdan (“The Empire Strikes Back,” “Return of the Jedi”) and based on some work from Oscar- winner Michael Arndt, Abrams crafts a new “Star Wars” chapter that is in turn very safe, but safe in the way of warm old blanket that has been patched back up with some new fabric. Abrams and Kasdan identify and distill classic “Star Wars” tropes and re-forge them into a new movie, sometimes down to even the plot details. The result is a constant feeling of familiarity coursing throughout the film and branding it as unequivocally “Star Wars.” Even many of George Lucas’ directing hallmarks are adapted in a show of humble reverence.
This was, in many ways, a strategic first move back into “Star Wars” by Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy because it makes “The Force Awakens” somewhat impervious to criticism. By sticking so closely to the formula of old “Star Wars” films, the choice for the creative direction can be attributed to homage. That’s how you appease fans – they can’t complain if what you give them is a near replica of what they fell in love with in the first place.
“The Force Awakens” is truly a film for the fans in this way, with new characters and ideas introduced with a measure of subtlety. The inclusion of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill along with Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2 serve not only the purpose of appeasing fans, but also as a way to transition the story to the new characters, a passing of the torch, of sorts. These folks – ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), stormtrooper-turned-hero Finn (John Boyega), skilled scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the adorable ball droid BB-8 – are the real gems of “The Force Awakens” in their performances and characters (not unlike the fresh faces of “A New Hope” at one time were) and will take future episodes to great new corners of the galaxy.
What feels new – or what Abrams adds to the “Star Wars” universe – is a greater sense of danger and an appropriate degree of complexity. I wouldn’t call “The Force Awakens” violent, but there’s an added realism and grit to the violence to the action sequences of this film that Lucas seemed to avoid in all six previous episodes – and it makes a difference. There’s so much more tension and suspense. Adam Driver as Kylo Ren also brings an element of unpredictability and complexity to the pantheon of “Star Wars” villains, who have usually been very stoic, enigmatic and dignified. Ren is none of these, though arguably he aspires to be.
But complexity doesn’t necessarily translate to depth. “The Force Awakens” comes off as purposefully vague at times (about character history and anything that’s happened in the last 30 years) and doesn’t linger on one idea or in one place for very long. The story moves at hyper-speed, as if by avoiding any stationary activity it can stave off the many questions the audience will surely have about, well, everything. It wants to be fun and exciting, not bog you down with details about how the First Order came to power, what went on between Leia and Han since we last saw them, why the Rebellion is now the Resistance, etc.
The most common negatively inclined thought one will probably have throughout the film or after is: “I expected there to be something more to that.” And that’s probably what Abrams preferred. Better you should be upset with something you wanted to see because it means you were intrigued, than because something was in the movie that you despised. Whatever questions you had, whatever characters you wanted to know more about or see more of, can be addressed in the next two films. It’s a smart move.
But most importantly, Abrams puts the emphasis back on the characters and that’s why “The Force Awakens” works and will win audiences over. The actors and the story give us enough of the characters to care about their journey, in the same way we did in “A New Hope.” That’s the essence of “Star Wars” and that’s why fans will be clamoring for “Episode VIII.”
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac