Adam Driver Daisy Ridley

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review: Nice Shot, Now Don't Get Cocky

Monday, December 21, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Director: J.J. Abrams
Writers: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt
Starring: Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill
Rating: Three and a half stars out of five
Available in every theater in the country.

[Spoiler alert for people who think knowing the premise of a movie before seeing it is somehow akin to having their first-born child stolen from them. No other major and/or surprising plot points will henceforth be ruined for you.]

From the first line of its opening crawl, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is, at its core, a story about searching for Luke Skywalker. This is not like the original trilogy of George Lucas's space opera saga, about Luke's metaphorical journey to discover who he is and how he fits in the universe. He is literally missing. People are scouring the galaxy far, far away to find him. The hunt for the now elderly Jedi master provides The Force Awakens with the bones of its plot, the gunshot at the start of a two-hour sprint full of spirited fun, butterflies-in-the-stomach reunions, wit, sadness, the works.

But the search-and-rescue or search-and-destroy missions, depending on which side gets to Luke first, too often get sidetracked by a threat larger in physical size but smaller in dramatic heft than the movie's mission statement. The planet-destroying device that provides the action-oriented climax of the film is an overly familiar plot callback to previous entries in the Star Wars universe. It is unconnected to the characters in any way beyond them having empathy for the loss of innocent lives – when the device is activated, it blows up a planet none of the principle characters have any emotional ties to. It's a missed opportunity by not dovetailing the search for Luke with the destructive spectacle. Its colossal murder rate could have been used as a guilt inducer to drive Luke out of hiding, or he could have secretly been stowed away on it while working to disable its power, or it could have been a pure punishment meant to destroy any possible hiding place for Luke. But no, it's there for some neat action setpieces, although one of those setpieces includes an emotional confrontation that works like gangbusters – it could have been part of a set of simultaneous emotional confrontations and revelations, though. Its functionality is deficient and it leaves some gaps in dire need of some connective tissue.

But The Force Awakens, as written by director J.J. Abrams and Empire Strikes Back screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, understands that does not need to hinge on its plot. It is better for that realization, because, like Disney's other 2010s pop culture behemoth, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Force Awakens knows it is a character piece, an introduction to new people in a stimulating situation, with some familiar faces on board to ease the transition.

Those people, and the ways they bounce off one another, are the soul of this go-round. The newbies are, one and all, shockingly for a series that has always had difficulty with this even in its finest moments, distinct and fully formed people. As is to be expected in this nostalgia festival, there are some personality similarities between them and the beloved denizens of the original trilogy – but Abrams, Kasdan, and the actors work to subvert the original's tropes. They put the characterization blender on “high” and let motivations, worries, and aspirations mix into something familiar but different enough to be novel.

Daisy Ridley's Rey has plenty of A New Hope-era Luke Skywalker in her, but she is not someone longing for adventure in the stars. She has a singleminded need for belonging, a pathological desire to return to the home she has made for most of her life, the desert planet Jakku, where she was abandoned by her family as a child. She cannot shake the hope that they will return for her, and Ridley places an anxiety within Rey – to paraphrase her performance, “This could be the day they come back and I'll miss them!” – that shows she fully understands the opportunity cost of doing the right thing. She does it anyway, but that reluctance is central to her being.

The non-geriatric male leads of The Force Awakens, Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) share some qualities with the Han Solo of old, with their quick wittedness and the high esteem they have for efficiency. However, Finn, as a Stormtrooper defecting from the First Order (the Empire of the old movies), has something to lose. He's a bit desperate. He's in over his head. His humor comes from a place of nervousness, not Han's world weariness and Watergate-influenced 1970s disillusion. Likewise with Resistance (the 30-years-later name for the Rebel Alliance) pilot Poe, he's a true believer in the cause, man – Isaac's eyes beam with pride when he gets to do anything to get one over on the First Order. He cannot afford to be flippant with his well being, because he has things to do and freedom to fight for. Plus he's got his little buddy and copilot, the beach ball droid BB-8, to live for.

Besides, why give watered down retreads of the handsome rogue when you have him at your disposal? Harrison Ford doesn't punt on his return to Han Solo after 30-plus years. He's still a rascal. He still has fun quarrels with Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). But he's seen some stuff in the three decades since partying with the Ewoks on Endor. He's experienced real loss, and it's hinted that he's largely responsible for that loss. This isn't the same as him being a street smart orphan with a chip on his shoulder – it appears his actions directly led to his current, not always rosy situation. He's learned some hard lessons, and he's a more careful person for them, more willing to accept the strangeness of the world around him, and ever so slightly eager to help out the plucky kids who are in hot water.

And in pursuit of our heroes is a villain with some surprising issues, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). He's a guy who hasn't quite figured things out yet. He's obsessed with Darth Vader and wants to climb the same peaks as that half-machine Sith lord, but he has no clue how to do it. He lashes out when he doesn't get his way, and his own lack of planning or inability to execute causes continued frustration for him. He's an unhinged sort. Driver plays that up with vocal inflections that, on the surface, sound authoritative, but there's always a hint of insecurity hanging over every word – this is difficult to accomplish when a character wears a mask most of the time. His insecurities grow stronger in the presence of First Order General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), a shouty-but-scarily-competent Hitler type who seethes when he sees the flashy-but-messy Kylo Ren get the attention he should. Hux is the obvious choice for First Order golden boy, but either due to petulance or a lack of pizzazz, he simply doesn't get the respect Kylo Ren does. Their posturing competition is a new wrinkle to the Star Wars films, where a secondary character like Hux, full of something other than fear of having his throat crushed by a Darth Vader-like figure, would not have existed before.

This being one of those Star Wars movies, though, there is action. It looks and feels right, especially with a return to shooting on film after Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith abandoned celluloid for too-clean digitized pictures. Abrams does his thing here, where he renders the texture of something old in a modern package. He has the visual language of George Lucas's buddy Steven Spielberg imprinted on his brain. While he is not the master of putting the eye-popping images together in such a seemingly effortless fashion that Spielberg or early period Lucas were, he is still capable of crafting sweeping beauty. Particularly on Jakku, there are wide shots of a fallen Star Destroyer, or a handful of TIE Fighters screaming toward the camera with a setting sun behind them, that could have been yanked straight from John Ford's Technicolor Westerns.

The Force Awakens struggles just a touch with shot-to-shot editing, particularly as it tries to emulate A New Hope. Some chase sequences fall on the side of abrupt rather than the crispness of the original film – it's a slight but important distinction. That is almost entirely due to the general evolution of action editing since 1977 rather than the specific fault of editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey. It's hard to lay modernity on top of the classicism of a nearly 40-year-old film – the translation does not entirely compute here. Besides, the macro editing, the pacing of the picture, is full of easy oomph. The movie hums along without its two hours and 16 minutes being felt.

And that's Star Wars: The Force Awakens in a nutshell. It has trouble with the nuts and bolts of storytelling at times, where a tweak here or a purposeful overlap there could make it reach pop greatness. It's the opposite of so many other action-adventure movies in that it gets a little lost in A-to-B functionality, but it does the really hard stuff well. It gets the audience to invest in the characters because of their heart, their hurt, their humor. It bumps, it fizzes, it flashes. It's Star Wars. 

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