[Note: This review contains minor spoilers]
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
At long last, the Force has finally returned.
No, not the cold, sterile techno-babble from the prequels about microorganisms in the blood (aka Midichlorians). I’m talking about what the Force really stands for. Magic. Energy. Life. Heart. That’s exactly what director J.J. Abrams has brought back to that galaxy far, far away. “The Force Awakens”, indeed.
“A New Hope” also applies. Fans have been waiting a decade for someone to ease the painful experience of witnessing George Lucas spectacularly missing the point of what made “Star Wars” so special in the first place. There was never the sense that he made the Prequel Trilogy out of love. It felt more like an exercise in obligation, and even sadder, an excuse to generate more merchandising opportunities.
When Lucas sold the rights to Disney and producer extraordinaire Kathleen Kennedy was put in charge of Lucasfilm, fans dared to hope once again. Kennedy made a number of shrewd decisions. The first was to hire card-carrying “Star Wars” fanboy J.J. Abrams to direct, and Oscar-winning Michael Arndt to write. While Arndt’s script provided much of the basic premise and characterisation, something was still missing. So they brought in Lawrence Kasdan, the revered screenwriter of “The Empire Strikes Back”. Faced with a tight deadline, Abrams and Kasdan immediately set out with one goal in mind: the movie had to delight.
They did it.
This is the “Star Wars” I used to know and love. As if charged with the power of the Force, this film is coursing with positive, infectious energy, a spark of life that’s been sorely missing since 1983. Right from the get-go, there is an urgency and a forward momentum to the story that reminds us why the best adventures are called joyrides. Apart from a few fleeting moments of narrative dead space where some inconsequential stuff happens (one word: Rathars), the filmmakers don’t believe in wasting time.
Which isn’t to say they don’t take any time to build the characters. It’s just that characterisation is done economically and on the go, a virtue no doubt imported by Kasdan from his brilliant work on “Empire”.
In fact, the strength of the characters and their relationships are what surprised me the most. And I dare say it accounts for a lion’s share of the delight Abrams and Kasdan were going for. Don’t get me wrong; this is no soap opera. All the usual popcorn thrills are still very much intact, and I’ll get into that later.
However, the film has some beautiful moments that have nothing to do with lightsabers or shootouts or spaceships. They are just small, quiet scenes between two characters, often doing little more than talking. And yet, it’s some of the most powerful stuff I’ve seen this year.
One scene in particular really got to me. Without getting into spoilers, all I’ll say is that it is about the battle for the soul of a character. It’s a heartbreakingly tragic moment, and it drives home why “Star Wars” has such universal and enduring appeal. For all the grandiose themes of the hero’s journey and fulfilling some greater destiny, at the end of the day these movies work best when they nail the simple things like family and friendship. The continuing saga of the Skywalker family has never been this deeply personal or emotionally involving. I’ll even go so far as to say this one trumps Luke’s redemption of Vader.
And it’s all because the characters are written and performed as believable, multi-dimensional people with relatable feelings and personalities. Again, I credit Kasdan more than Abrams for this. But Abrams is the one responsible for coaxing some great performances out of his cast, both old and new.
Harrison Ford, wow. This is an actor who’s been on autopilot for years, so to see him here giving it his all is pretty heartwarming. What I like most about Ford’s portrayal of Han Solo is that he feels both familiar and somewhat new, suggesting this charming scoundrel has grown in ways we didn’t quite expect since we last saw him. Han’s still reckless, but now he’s got a certain practical wisdom about him. And his scenes with Carrie Fisher’s Leia have a bittersweet poignancy that hint at a lifetime’s worth of struggles both together and apart.
Of the newcomers, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver impress the most. Ridley is wonderful as Rey, a nobody who gradually learns she’s meant for bigger things. For someone with limited acting experience, Ridley manages to effortlessly convey vulnerability, grit, emotional turmoil and heroism. Sometimes in the span of one scene. It’s also refreshing to see a strong, capable woman in a genre pic who isn’t sexualised or reduced to a caricature. Her character may be rendered in broad strokes but it’s the right kind of broad strokes. This is “Star Wars” after all, so archetypes aren’t just expected, they’re essential.
The film does boast at least one nuanced character, and it is probably the most interesting one to inhabit this universe yet. Kylo Ren is a fantastic villain, full of imperfections and complex emotions. We’re presented with the rather juicy notion that even those on the Dark Side of the Force can be tempted by the Light Side, and Driver plays that internal conflict so compellingly. He may not be the most photogenic of actors, but he is at his most magnetic when the mask is off.
John Boyega is also good as Finn, a Stormtrooper who grows a conscience and defects. He tends to come off a tad overbearing at times, which is partly due to his character having to yell a lot. Although it works in the context of action scenes, it does threaten to wear thin after a while. Luckily, Boyega has enough screen presence to pull it off. Speaking of screen presence, one of the best characters isn’t even played by a human. The loyal, child-like droid BB-8 steals almost every scene he’s in, which is a testament to just how far we’ve come in terms of practical effects. Love this lil’ fella!
The rest of the cast is fine. Andy Serkis and Lupita Nyong’o are unfortunately wasted playing motion-capture CG characters, since there’s nothing about the designs that couldn’t have been executed with make-up or prosthetics. Oscar Isaac cuts a dashing figure as hotshot pilot Poe Dameron, while Domhnall Gleeson is stuck playing a one-note baddie. Neither one are in this enough to make much of an impression anyway. Gwendoline Christie fares the worst as Captain Phasma, a much-hyped role that ultimately amounts to a glorified cameo. Actually, it’s worse than that as her character does absolutely nothing. Hopefully, all these side players will get a better airing in the next two episodes.
Another way the filmmakers deliver the delight is via generous servings of humour. This ranks as one of the funniest instalments in the saga. Han & Chewie provide a lot of the laughs, as does BB-8, but some gags come from the most unlikely places and when you least expect it. Abrams has a good grip on the tone, so the movie knows when to take itself seriously and when to lighten up.
The action sequences are a good example. Lightsaber duels have a sense of life-or-death stakes, and play out less like the overly choreographed dances of the prequels and more like the down & dirty brawls of the Original Trilogy. By the way, I can’t tell you how glad I am to finally see lightsabers that cast real light on the surroundings.
The spaceship dogfights on the other hand speak to the inner kid in all of us. Full disclosure: by “all of us” I mean me. For my first viewing, I brought my 2-year-old son and during a scene where the Millennium Falcon executed an impossibly cool move, I turned to him and went “Pew-pew-pew!” We both grinned like goofballs.
There are several reasons why Kennedy chose Abrams to take on the massive challenge of re-igniting this billion-dollar franchise. The savviest reason is that Abrams is an exceedingly good copycat. Now, I mean that as a positive. Mostly. There are many directors who try to mimic someone else’s style and fail horribly. Abrams instinctively understands what is it about the films and the filmmakers he’s copying that make them work so well, and approximates it in his own work. In this case, Abrams has captured the flavour and feel of “Star Wars” even better than Lucas in his last three attempts. Plus, he’s bolstered by a top-notch cast and crew, not to mention a writer who helped shape the most venerated Episode of them all.
But his knack for copying is a double-edged sword. Earlier, I mentioned how this movie could be referred to as “A New Hope”. Because in many instances it almost literally is the same movie — from small plot points (secret plans hidden in droids) to major ideas (Death Star 3.0). Abrams knew full well that he was blatantly rehashing things and he went ahead anyway. As a result, the big climatic battle comes off predictable and pedestrian. The guy might rationalise that the similarities are intentional to complement the originals, like rhyming poetry. The problem is, all this does is remind us that the originals did it better.
At least when it comes to the dynamics of the good guys versus the bad guys, Abrams and Kasdan attempt to flip it around. After the Rebels won in “Return Of The Jedi”, a new Republic was established, while the defeated Empire — now the outsiders — eventually re-grouped as the First Order. Intentional or otherwise, there are shades of real-world affairs in here. While the fanatical First Order is clearly based on the Nazis, its most direct parallel today are well funded, insanely committed terrorist organisations like ISIS. It’s too bad though that the filmmakers choose to confuse things by naming the good guys The Resistance, and making the ruling Republic seem like they’re not really in charge of anything.
Along with these fairly noticeable flaws, there are smaller niggles like composer John Williams’ disappointing lack of any memorable new themes in his score. Truth be told, I’m not too bothered by any of this. Some of the film’s so-called problems, such as leaving things unexplained or unresolved are actually a plus point for me. People seem to forget that these are episodic stories by design. I am certain that most of these issues will be addressed come Episodes VIII and IX. Personally, I think it’s smart to take the slow & steady approach to the development of characters like Rey and Kylo Ren over the course of the trilogy. As of now, they’re off to a great start. The same can be said for the franchise itself.
The film’s imperfections are a relatively small price to pay for what Abrams and co have accomplished. They’ve made a terrifically fun piece of popcorn entertainment, by treating the material with love and respect then imbuing it with loads of heart. Sure, some of the movie’s appeal may be down to nostalgia, but no amount of rose-tinted sentimentality can overcome bad filmmaking. “The Force Awakens” is a damn good film, plain and simple.
Just like how the Force has been restored to its mystical spiritual status, “Star Wars” has finally regained that intangible magical feeling. It’s in that glint in my little boy’s eye. It’s in the renewed optimism of longtime fans everywhere that the return to that galaxy far, far away isn’t just about selling toys or lunch boxes anymore. It’s about telling timeless human fables with passion and skill, in the grandest, most rousing and most imaginative ways.
The Force is with us again.