STAR WARS: The Force Awakens (2015)

18 Dec

In many ways, the massively anticipated, Disney-approved STAR WARS reboot/sequel/franchise launch was a huge success simply because it wasn’t a complete trainwreck.

Director and longtime George Lucas fanboy JJ Abrams (Super 8, Star Trek) seemed to hold all the cards in his hand leading up to the release of Episode 7. He had somehow managed to wrangle up original cast members Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher. He had been given a massive 200 million dollar budget. With over a month to wait, pre-sale tickets literally broke the fandango site. Abrams had even managed to keep even the slightest of plot details under lock and key and prevented any major spoilers from being leaked online – a miracle when considering the amount of attention the project had receiving for years among Star Wars obsessives.  With so much pressure riding on his shoulders going into the project (including a pricey 4 billion dollar investment in LucasFilm by Disney), there was one statement that resonated on the lips of studio executives, diehard fans, and casual moviegoers everywhere since the film was announced in 2012: JJ better not mess this one up.

And what a better way not to mess things up than by taking the risk-free approach of sticking to what has worked before? By rehashing old franchise elements, while still giving the fans just enough new material to keep speculation high for future films, Abrams has seemingly rescued the Star Wars franchise from the tragic misfire of Lucas’ prequels and repacked it for both old and new audiences.

The Force Awakens picks up 30 years after the events from The Empire Strikes Back. A signature pre-film crawl gets us caught up to speed: though the empire run by Darth Vader is gone, an uprising called the First Order led by a mysterious Rylo Ken (Adam Driver) threatens the balance of the galaxy. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher reprise their iconic roles as Han Solo and Leia respectively, but it’s the new generation of protagonists: a scavenger (Daisy Ridley), ex-stormtrooper (John Boyega) and pilot (Oscar Isaac), who bring fresh character dynamics to the franchise. Princess Leia is now a military captain who is leading a group of rebels now called “The Resistance”, and Jedi Master Luke (Mark Hamill) has gone AWOL with the only map showing his existence given to a resistance leader named Poe. There are a couple new baddies too: notably Rylo Ken and his assistants General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie).

Abrams had been in the blockbuster game long enough to know what works and what doesn’t, and he delicately mixes several classic Star Wars ingredients (fighter dogfight space battles, planet-destroying weaponry, climactic lightsaber duels, grunting humanoid creatures, the Millennium Falcon at lightspeed, etc.) into a story-driven setting. Though the Star Wars community has been rampant about their disdain for spoilers, the plotting of The Force Awakens is nearly already spoiled by previously existing films. Too much of the narrative backbone is simply comprised of throwbacks that seem to be lifted straight from the original trilogy (someone is being held prisoner and tortured by the bad guy, someone is searching for a droid, someone is trying to take the shields offline, someone is having daddy issues, etc.); what new material we get is either mostly propelled by direct character exposition or set up mcguffin-style in a payoff that doesn’t quite reach its full potential. And then we have the many plot holes to deal with (that link is loaded with spoilers FYI).

Still there is a lot of fun to be had in The Force Awakens. The set design and look is fantastic, there is a solid amount of carefully-placed humor, and the new cast members act circles around the older ones (who sometimes feel like a forced cameo stretched too thin). It’s a solid setup into what will inevitably be the biggest franchise in movie history. Yet, somehow it feels that The Force Awakens knows it will never outgrow the original trilogy’s shadow, so it might as well be a fun tribute to the older film’s legacy.

While it’s clear that Abrams has a passion and loyalty for the original material, he also seems to have innocently duplicated existing story structures without toying too hard with any new narrative ideas. But who can really blame him? If history does repeat itself, then we will indeed have a long and lucrative lineup of sequels, spin-offs, and video games that can flesh out the risky, new narrative material (personally, I’m most excited for the Boba Fett spin-off where our protagonist has an existential crisis after realizing he is a clone and his life has no meaning).

It’s true, Abrams hasn’t pissed anyone off by copying the stuff that worked so well 30 years ago, and presenting it repackaged here for a new generation. But The Force Awakens does little to exceed expectations for the viewer who wants to see more than the nostalgic salute to an older era of cinema.

Bottom Line: By sticking to basic and proven blockbuster tropes, while having respect for what the diehard fans want, JJ Abrams has ensured that Star Wars will remain a culturally relevant and money making entity for years (light-years?) to come.  

“You hear that Chewie?….. That’s the sound of a 250 million-dollar opening weekend…”

Film recipe: A New Hope + Guardians of the Galaxy + Empire Strikes Back 

Rating: 6/10 

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