Stay On Target: The Force Awakens Review

In the opening moments of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (the latest chapter in the all-consuming franchise), newly minted villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) lays waste to a village on the desert planet Jakku. Ren[1], desperately in search for data that will lead him to the MIA legend Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), quickly captures Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), an excellent pilot for the Resistance[2] that the film positions as one of its many original faces. But before Dameron is found, he is able to fire off a lone blaster bolt at Ren, which the villain stops spontaneously with the Force, a move that we’ve yet to see in six films. The bolt remains midair as Ren interrogates Dameron, making for a cool visual moment that gives director J.J. Abrams a chance to showcase his trademark lens flares. This neat special effect does even more than that though: it’s showing us a different spin on a universe popular culture has obsessed over ever since its debut in 1977. Sure, the starships may sound the same, enemies still have a penchant for black attire, and Death Stars continue being constructed but Abrams (and by extension Disney[3]) is underlining right up front that we are seeing a familiar setting with a fresh perspective that only deepens an already rich template.

The Force Awakens is a terrific entry into the Star Wars saga for a number of reasons but the one that permeates it so thoroughly is its hearty investment in character. The film is set over thirty years after the end of Return of the Jedi and the galaxy looks surprisingly the same, despite new locales and updated weaponry. The remnants of the Galactic Empire have been transformed into the First Order, led by the Supreme Emperor Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his apprentice Ren. Meanwhile, the reformed Republic has armed an insurgency known as the Resistance to battle the fascist Order. Both of their quests to retrieve an exiled Luke come to a head when the Resistance droid BB-8 comes across Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger on Jakku who must rely on her wits and technical genius. The two are soon aided by Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who has deserted his post with the First Order due to his recently awoken conscience. These three young heroes (a white woman, a black man, and a droid that resembles a soccer ball) kick start a new saga that sees them running into the likes of Han Solo (Harris Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and Princess General Leia (Carrie Fisher).

These latter characters are a treat to see but it’s the former group who are worthy of the price of admission. Upon moments of being introduced to her, Rey instantly joins the pantheon of Star Wars icons. Her dreams of escaping her desert circumstances mirror Luke’s but her meager circumstances are much direr. Fans will remember Luke’s frustrations coming off as a tad whiny in the original trilogy; here however, Rey seems to have accepted her situation in spite of desperately waiting for the return of her family, who left her on Jakku when she was a small child. Ridley, previously an unknown, takes her chance at leading a monumental blockbuster and runs with it. Like Rebecca Ferguson before her in this year’s Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation, Ridley more than proves she belongs with the boys who all too often rule the narrative. Ridley does one even better: she outthinks and outlasts men who continually underestimate her potential. The impossibly “cool” Tom Cruise is nowhere to be found, quite simply because Daisy Ridley makes the case that she may very well be the next Tom Cruise. Rey finds every opportunity to scrape past any and everything her enemies (or even allies) throw at her. Nonetheless, Ridley’s quivering fear at the next challenge in front of her never allows her character to become anything less than tangibly vulnerable. The success of The Force Awakens was always going to rely on its young star(s)’s ability to see this well-known universe with a modern sense of awe. Entrusting Ridley with such a task turned out to be Abram’s wisest creative decision.

But the masterful casting doesn’t end with Ridley. John Boyega’s performance of Finn continues the film’s tradition of taking old archetypes and remixing them for today’s audience. Finn’s invigorating presence in the story extends well beyond his identity as a deserter of the First Order. Boyega’s placement in a role that is written as racially neutral gives the franchise a much needed dose of racial diversity that one would never characterize as forced. 2015 has already proved to be a banner year for gender and racial diversity in mainstream cinema. It’s extra special that the biggest movie in the world decided to embrace a wider net of inclusivity. The script though doesn’t have time to focus on Finn’s racial politics. His abandoning of the First Order is sparked by a massacre he is ordered to take part in. Finn’s own consciousness is born when a fellow Stormtrooper drapes a bloody hand across his helmet, visually setting him apart from the uniform starkness of the rest of his unit. He realizes the hold the First Order has had over his entire upbringing, effectively propaganda that has robbed him of individuality or abstract thought. Finn meets Rey and the two become fast friends as both help compliment the other’s skills. He lies to Rey that he is a member of the Resistance, later admitting than his time with the First Order is clouded in immense shame. At first, I was a little thrown by how Boyega portrayed Finn: brash but scared, jokey while terrified. But the more I thought about it Boyega’s choices were right on the money. A character whose development has been arrested for so long is bound to go through swift changes in emotions that can come off as bipolar. The performance evens out over time as Finn’s arc develops and his choices echo a more insecure Han Solo from the original trilogy. Rest assured, like Rey, Finn feels like a unique creation that is most welcome.

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The evolution of past archetypes applies to The Force Awakens’ villains as well, with Kylo Ren taking up the lead in that department. One senses that Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan[4] took great pains to correct the problematic aspects of Anakin’s depiction in the prequels. Driver perfectly channels Ren’s roller coaster emotions to a degree that makes him frightening in a way we really haven’t seen past villains be, one of contradiction and doubt. Ren presents himself as a put together baddie who has zero tolerance for insubordination or incompetence yet his private moments reveal him to be wary of the temptations of the light side of the Force, a great turn of events that has yet to be presented to us on the big screen. The rogue also has an obsession with Darth Vader that results in him praying to his charred helmet and adoption of a costume that looks like a harkening back to a time when such garb instilled inestimable fear all across the galaxy.[5] Ren’s misplaced nostalgia feels like a perfect antagonist for a series nearly forty years in the running.

The Force Awakens still finds time for some returning favorites and none shine brighter than Han Solo. Harrison Ford has made no qualms about his disinterest in fans’ enthusiasm for the series to a point where his annoyance has given way to outright contempt. Whether it was his satisfaction with the script or the money truck that Disney inevitably pulled up in front of his house, Ford wears the role with a satisfying snugness that makes it feel like he portrayed the character only yesterday.[6] In the intervening years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, Solo has abandoned the Alliance/Resistance in favor of returning to his life as a smuggler for hire. Like Obi-Wan in A New Hope Star Wars, Solo is once again wrapped up in the galactic struggle after finding his old friend Luke is mentioned as Rey and Finn’s primary objective. Solo and Chewbacca are back with their one-of-a-kind banter that feels like it was plucked right out of 1977. The old pair and the new duo (Rey and Finn) have lots to learn from each other if their mission has any chance of success.

And their mission turns out to be as varied as one would expect from any Star Wars adventure. Desert starship chases, tight corridor blaster battles, and forest foot chases are littered all throughout The Force Awakens. Abrams shoots the action with his usual gusto that combines classical Hollywood technique with a more contemporary touch of intimacy and realism. Again, he takes great pains at shooting the familiar with a fresh set of eyes. Rey and Finn’s commandeering of the Millennium Falcon, which gives way to a chase from TIE Fighters across Jakku’s desolate landscape that finds our heroes evading capture by dodging the innards of a downed star destroyer, is a personal highlight. But whether it’s a long tracking shot that features Poe taking out a wave of TIE Fighters or a lightsaber duel that marries the old, conversational style with a heightened tint of peril, Abram’s and his crew make a Star Wars film firmly driven by modern sensibilities that still tip a hat to the illustrious past. This sense of the new remixing the old trickles down to the film’s prodigious production design. The technicians behind the movie, no doubt lifelong fans who have memorized them forwards and backwards, painstakingly recreate old hallmarks their fellow devoted on the other side of the camera will pick up on: the roar of the TIE Fighters, the look of X-Wings as they jump to light speed, the sound of Solo’s blaster, even to the placement of the breathing masks on the Millennium Falcon. The Force Awakens is nothing short of a treasure trove of callbacks and Easter eggs.

However, not all of the film’s fan service is well placed. It doesn’t take a viewer with an M.F.A. in screenwriting to see the film’s slavish devotion to the plot of the original Star Wars. Droids carrying valuable intel, wizened old men being pulled back into the fold, young people questioning their place in the galaxy, and Death Star trench runs are admittedly old hat for the series. This would be a bigger problem if the new characters that populate the film weren’t such a joy to be around. Rey and Finn are much more than retreads of archetypes of past characters: they’re improvements on them. Even BB-8, the ball droid who steals the show in nearly every scene he appears, is more expressive and valuable than R2-D2. It may be a leap of faith to trust that the Abrams’s and Disney’s decision to replicate plots of the past was a gesture of good faith to burned out fans that would later give way to more adventurous narrative fare.[7] But as of this moment, the primary goal for the production appears to have been to introduce a stable of young, talented heroes and villains that have the goods to stand toe-to-toe with their aging counterparts. It’s on this level that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an excellent continuation of this universe that makes a definitive argument that there still many more stories to tell.

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[1] You’ll have to forgive me if I’m using my pronouns incorrectly with Kylo Ren. It’s a bold new world now.

[2] The Resistance is in effect the inheritors of the mantle of the Rebel Alliance.

[3] The Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm from its founder George Lucas in 2012 for the hefty sum of $4 billion. I think their gamble will turn out to pay off.

[4] Writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark and a number of other films.

[5] Basically, Ren is a bonafide hipster.

[6] More like The Ford Awakens, amirite?

[7] The choice of Rian Johnson (director of Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and Looper, along with some of the very best episodes of the exceptional Breaking Bad) to helm Episode VIII is an endlessly inspired move on Disney’s part to invest in quality, daring creators.

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