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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

December 18, 2015
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Right off the top, if you just want to know whether Star Wars: The Force Awakens is any good or not, relax: it is. In fact, it’s easily among the best of the whole series, and gives me a lot of confidence that the franchise is in the right hands going forward from here. Beyond that, as usual, I will try to avoid any actual spoilers. There’s nothing huge I need to bring up in order to explain what I want to say, but if you want to go in cold you can stop reading now and come back later.

Ready? good.

I grew up in the heyday of the original Star Wars trilogy. My best friend before my family moved from Minneapolis to Maryland even had the middle name “Lucas”, in honor of the filmmaker. And yeah, Star Wars was huge. But, to be honest, I kind of grew out of it as time went by. It wasn’t a case of being heartbroken by the prequel trilogy, or feeling jerked around by the constant tweaking and re-releasing of the original trilogy — though if Disney would release an “Original Version” blu-ray box set where Han shoots first and all I’d buy it. I don’t even hate the movies or anything like that; I think that Episodes IV, V, and VI are among the finest sci-fi adventure films around, but that’s all they are to me.

So when the news broke that Episode VII was on its way, I wasn’t gobsmacked. I didn’t break down in tears of joy to see the Millennium Falcon in the first of many trailers. This was not the culmination of a lifetime’s wait. Frankly, I don’t see how someone can get that excited going in and not come out the other side somewhat disappointed. I’m not going to pretend this gives me some sort of greater critical distance from which I can judge The Force Awakens more objectively, but it does mean that I can’t really speak to the experience of someone who loves these movies.

It also means that I can assess how The Force Awakens compares to what’s come before without the haze of nostalgia. And first and foremost that means admitting one thing: George Lucas is not a great storyteller. To be sure, he’s a visionary filmmaker, but his real talents seem to lie in the direction of special effects wizardry more than writing and directing his movies.

On the other hand, J.J. Abrams — whatever else you might say about his style — is a wonderful spinner of adventure yarns. People’s complaints about his handling of Star Trek, mostly boil down to the fact that he turned it into an adventure movie series, though I’ll probably have more to say about that when we get to Star Trek Beyond next summer. But Star Wars was always about adventure above all, and Abrams approaches Spielberg in his skill with this sort of thing.

And so when Abrams teams up with Lawrence Kasdan — co-writer of both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and sole writer Raiders of the Lost Ark, to boot — it makes sense that we’d get a solid story, especially when compared with the unforced errors of the prequel trilogy. Having him in the director’s chair only makes this more certain; it’s the closest thing we’re going to get to Steven Spielberg himself taking over his old pal’s beat.

The story that they come up with has a familiar ring: the Good Guys — the Resistance has become the paramilitary wing of the New Republic that rose up after the Rebel victories in Episode VI — and the Bad Guys — a fascist-inflected group of Empire bitter-enders calling themselves the First Order — are both looking for a MacGuffin: a piece of a map to the planet where Luke Skywalker has been hiding. The chase draws us into the conflict, wherein the First Order plans to use a megaweapon to take out the Resistance, and our heroes have to stop them.

That’s not all that The Force Awakens has cribbed from A New Hope; scene after scene quotes almost verbatim from the original trilogy. Even the characters sometimes feel like reshuffled versions of the old crew, each new one taking elements from two or three of the old ones and combining them in some new way. But it’s that recombination that keeps this movie from being just a straight-up fanservice remix.

Setting The Force Awakens so far after Return of the Jedi also means that Abrams can indulge in his Mystery Box techniques, and for once they actually pay off here. As familiar as we are with the general contours of the Star Wars universe, things are very different now than the last time we saw these characters. Sure, some of it is about “whatever happened to…” hooks, but there’s a lot that we don’t know. Fans who have paid attention to all the non-feature media will likely have a leg up on the rest of us who have only seen the movies, but making the environment so new means it’s easily possible to follow along without being intimately familiar with the continuity to date.

What this movie really does well is lay the groundwork for the next movies in the series, starting with the characters. We get not one but two Mythic Heroes in the Campbellian mold: Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger on a desert planet, and Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper who wants out. Each of them is an orphan in some way, and though Rey seems to take the lead in certain ways, Finn is every bit as robust a character, so it’s hard to say that one is more “the main character” than the other. Even more notably, neither one of them is a white guy.

And, as is often the case, a great story needs a great villain, and we have one in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who fills Darth Vader’s role right down to his rivalry with First Order General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). But Kylo Ren and Hux are much more evenly balanced than Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin were, and Kylo Ren is already a much more interesting antagonist than Darth Vader ever was.

So yeah, a thrill ride of special effects backed up by some of the best grand-scale adventure story writing we’ve seen in years. And all it took was easing old George out the door while thanking him for revolutionizing the field of special effects.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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