By James Hancock December 17th, 2015
For those of you who want to go into Star Wars: The Force Awakens as fresh and virginal as the day you were born I promise not to utter a word about potential spoilers until I warn you in big bold letters. If you haven’t been scared away and are still reading, all I want to say is that Star Wars is back. For overgrown children like myself, we have been waiting for a good Star Wars movie since 1983. While there have been many fine efforts set in the Star Wars universe such as the 2003 classic computer game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, people who grew up loving the original trilogy have watched in dismay over the years as their beloved characters became the object of ridicule due to ill conceived prequels and misguided attempts to “fix” the original trilogy with special editions. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams has done a superb job of saving the Star Wars universe from complete obsolescence with an episode that lays a strong foundation for future episodes to come. Hardcore fans will spend the rest of their lives debating to what degree the film works, what story elements contradict official canon, and where the film should be ranked relative to the six previous episodes. But my theory is that all of these debates will come from a place of love and enthusiasm for what is the easily the most fun, feel-good movie of the year. While the film recognizably employs J.J. Abrams’s distinctive style of filmmaking, the movie absolutely 100% feels like Star Wars, a boast none of the prequels could lay claim to. Characters like Jar Jar? They’re gone. Midi-chlorians? Gone. This is a movie made for the original fans who have been severely underserved for 32 years. My number one concern going into the movie was whether or not I would feel those old emotions that only the original trilogy can generate. I’m talking about those moments when the hairs on your arms stand straight up and chills run up your spine until you have tears in your eyes. Without saying what or when these scenes happened for me, they did indeed happen, a fact which already ranks Star Wars: The Force Awakens in my eyes to be so dramatically superior to the prequels that much of the horror of those atrocious films can now fade into the past, admittedly painful but increasingly dim memories that warrant little further discussion. So I’m officially a very happy fan. If I could have done so, I would have eagerly sat through the movie all over again then and there. Luckily this movie is not going anywhere anytime soon and I already have my tickets to see the movie two more times this weekend. How many more times I will see it beyond that, only time will tell.
***Nothing But a Giant, Steaming Plate of Spoilers Ahead***
This is my last warning about spoilers because I am more than ready to talk about the movie. Outside of calling my friends and coworkers that I saw the movie with I have no outlet for my post-viewing enthusiasm so I am going to pour all my thoughts into this little rant. So let’s start with my favorite ingredient, newcomer Daisy Ridley who plays Rey, a character who for me was so compelling she almost threatened to throw the movie out of balance. Don’t get me wrong, Harrison Ford, John Boyega, Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac all do a great job and more than hold their own, but the character Rey totally steals the show. Rey has the type of extraordinary hero’s journey and personal growth that makes me want to follow her in her future adventures anywhere they may go. Watching her take her first tentative steps into the ways of the Force kept me riveted, in particular due to her dramatic contrast to the wildly unstable Kylo Ren played by Adam Driver. Kylo Ren is not some cheap imitation of Darth Vader. He’s young, relatively untested, and is crippled by the fear that he will never manage to equal the power and grandeur of his grandfather, a legend who Kylo Ren worships like a god. Rey’s innate understanding of Kylo Ren’s character flaws make their interactions and contests of will all the more engaging. In spite of actively seeking out story spoilers the last few months, somehow I went into this movie blissfully unaware that Kylo Ren is Han and Leia’s son, a violent man who was seduced by the Dark Side while studying to be a Jedi with his uncle Luke. Kylo Ren and his followers slaughtered Luke’s young pupils, an act that led to Luke’s decision to retreat into a life of total solitude. It would have been so easy for the filmmakers to make Kylo Ren a one-note villain, but throughout the movie I was fascinated by his inner turmoil as he commits the ultimate sin of murdering his father hoping that by doing so he will no longer feel the call of the Light Side of the Force. Han’s confrontation with his son is right up there in dramatic impact with some of the best beats in the history of Star Wars. I was completely blown away and look forward to seeing that scene again above all others. Han is not only a legendary character in the Star Wars universe but a cherished fictional character in any medium, and he could not have been given a more appropriate send off than his final fate at the hands of his twisted son.
This film is so overflowing with characters and information, it is impossible to predict how everyone will react and I imagine that for every note that I found either to be false or pitch perfect, reactions could just easily be reversed for someone else who considers themselves to be a hardcore fan. Just to avoid sounding like a hopeless fan boy, I will say that I think Carrie Fisher was a little stiff, the characters Finn and Poe become best buddies a tad too easily, the characters all find one another with alarming ease, and Supreme Leader Snoke’s motion capture work just looks a little too computer generated relative to a movie where there are so many amazing practical effects. But the moments that I love vastly outweigh those where I was a little critical. There are so many scenes where the movie just soars such as when the Resistance sends in a fleet of X-wing fighters flying low across a lake to rescue Han and his friends from certain capture. The lightsaber battles are dramatically different from the prequels. Rather than having two characters dance around one another in elaborate choreography never actually trying to hit one another, the duels in Star Wars: The Force Awakens are much more direct and brutal, almost like two individuals clubbing one another to death. Their confrontations actually feel like a fight. Many are going to complain that Finn and Rey seem to acquire their lightsaber skills too quickly but I’d argue that both of them have elements to their backstory that fully support their understanding of melee combat. The powers of the Force are handled particularly well. In stark contrast to the prequels, where the Jedi and Sith seemed to have godlike powers of leaping over buildings while somersaulting countless times, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens the powers of the Force are much more grounded. There is not a single display of telepathic or telekinetic skill that has not already been well established in the original trilogy, yet another reason for me to feel like the franchise is back on very firm footing.
But as much as I geeked out watching Rey pull a lightsaber into her hands for the first time or Han and Chewie back in full badass smuggler mode, the best part of the movie is the chemistry between the characters. Perhaps the most frequent complaint about the prequels was the cringe-inducing dialogue being delivered by wooden actors standing awkwardly in front of green screens. Nothing could be further from the case with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Chewbacca has never been more hysterical, the droids are totally adorable, and Rey and Finn form a bond that one can quickly see will be the heart and soul of the franchise moving forward. There were several scenes scattered throughout the film where I got choked up with glee but there was something about the scene where Rey and Finn officially introduce themselves for the first time where I knew that this new Star Wars movie was going to be something special. The magic is back. I want more. I have no idea how many times I will see this movie but I have no choice but to keep watching it until we start getting some teasers about what director Rian Johnson is up to in Episode VIII. Like with any great story setting from serialized comics, novels or films, when storytellers take their turn with beloved characters, they essentially take on the role of custodians of those characters for a short time until the next generation of storytellers gets their turn at bat. At a bare minimum they should attempt to do no harm to the franchise, but even better is when they take the toys out of their box to play with and after all is said and done they find a way to put more toys back in the box than they started with (thank you Marc Bernardin for coming up with that analogy). When characters are embraced for several decades or more, like James Bond, Batman or Luke Skywalker, these characters no longer completely belong to those who created them but instead are shared with the hardcore fans whose lives are made richer through their love of these characters. Along the way George Lucas lost sight of that and very nearly killed the extraordinary fictionalized universe that he created. J.J. Abrams along with writer Lawrence Kasdan and producer Kathleen Kennedy are the first people in decades to give us something new to play with in the Star Wars universe. As fans, we owe them a debt of gratitude and it is my sincere hope that this is the first of many such adventures for us to enjoy for many years to come.
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