Well, it turns out the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney didn’t destroy the franchise after all. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is fresh and retro, funny and serious, and certainly the most enjoyable action-adventure film of the year—and one that completely refreshes the cinematic myth.
There’s a lot of credit to go around, but first and foremost, hats must be tipped to director and co-writer J.J. Abrams, who did for Star Wars what he did for Star Trek in 2009. He’s given an old and creaky series a serious reboot, bringing it into the present while simultaneously honoring its heritage and even embracing some of its predecessors’ silent–movie serial flavor.
Full disclosure: I was around for the first Star Wars when it came out. But while I have followed the various franchise entries with amusement and disappointment over the years, I am not a Star Wars nerd (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I didn’t clap at the title when it appeared on the screen this time around, nor did I pee my pants, even a little, when the explanatory scroll began. But it was an enjoyable ride nonetheless.
The film is lean and stripped down in terms of plot, which makes things easy for newcomers and old-timers alike. The script is by Abrams, writer-director Lawrence Kasdan (dir., Dreamcatcher, Wyatt Earp, The Big Chill) and Michael Arndt (co-writer of Toy Story 3, and Oscar winner for the script for Little Miss Sunshine). It does a good job of keeping the narrative line simple and straightforward while incorporating necessary elements from the past to keep things connected to the earlier films (e.g., the Millennium Falcon), and still managed to pay homage to the myth created by Lucas. That’s a tough balance to maintain—all while working to create a film in its own right—but TFA does it well. Creed worked to do the same thing with the Rocky saga, and did it well. But this film does it even better.
Much of the credit beyond the director and writers has to go to the actors. In keeping with the history of the franchise, Harrison Ford has the largest role of the three leads in the original, and that helps the film immensely. Unlike some of his more recent performances, which he either grumbled through or phoned in, here Ford returns to both real acting and solidly recreating the iconic character of Han Solo. His presence energizes the film while connecting it to the best of the earlier episodes. (Spoiler alert) His apparent loss to subsequent episodes will be a challenge to the films’ creators, as his presence looms large here and is a major contributor to the film’s success.
Carrie Fisher is nearly unrecognizable at first as the now General Leia, and her performance seems tightly directed. Her character’s feistiness is gone (and missed) and she seems tired, though that works for her character at times. Leia’s presence helps the film, but the actress doesn’t bring much beyond a solid reading of her lines and the weight of years by both actor and character.
The biggest acting triumph of the film aside from Ford’s presence is the casting of the three leads that will carry us into the future—Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, and Oscar Isaac as Poe. They carry every kind of scene—action, comedy, adventure—with equal skill, and they have screen presence to burn—a wise choice on which to base future episodes. Ridley has perhaps the most intricate role, and owns it. She’s an immediate star. Boyega has the lighter and more emotional role, but he carries each of his moments as well. Oscar Isacc, who has been making a name for himself as a serious dramatic actor (Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year) plays the heroic pilot who disappears early and then (spoiler alert) reappears dramatically. He uses his intensity not for darkness, as he has in other films, but for echoes of depth and bravery in the character. All in all, these three are better actors than the original trilogy, which bodes well for the future.
Adam Driver does his best with this Vader-light character of Kylo Ren, but Driver’s quirky persona and his work in Girls may get in the way for many people. He hits his marks, does anger well, and wells up just as well, so perhaps his skills will push away the preconceptions some might have of him. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o makes no physical appearance at all, but simply voices—well, to be sure—a supporting digital character. She shows even more of her talent, but her presence was missed. But BB8, the droid at the center of much of the action, is more than a good replacement for the mostly missing droids and robots of the earlier episodes.
The film has a fascinating tension between the lightness and deftness of the plot and the weight of the franchise myth and some of its darker evocations. If there were hints of Hitler and the brownshirts in earlier episodes, the film’s evocation of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Domhnall Gleeson’s Hitlerian raving seem more of a direct comparison to the horrors of the Third Reich than earlier films. We were just three decades from Nazi horror with the first Star Wars; perhaps the gap of 70 years calls for sterner metaphorical measures now.
There are a couple of missteps, but small ones, all having to do with believability and logic. When Rey and Kylo Ren are battling things out and Rey has the upper hand, she simply walks around him when she is in a position to do him in, a photographically beautiful step but a curious one for a character who is battling for her life and seems to hold back when it is least called for. When the earth splits open between the two, Rey just stands there, which works well for a breathtaking shot but which defies common sense, as anyone hoping to survive would step back as gingerly as possible to avoid sliding to one’s death. Then when she (spoiler alert again) meets Luke and holds his light saber toward him, the film holds the image so long (complete with stunning swirling camera movement) that while I was appreciating the symbolic import of the image, I was wondering how long poor Ridley had to hold the light saber up and how sore her arm must have been.
These small kvetches aside, TFA is quicker, defter and in many ways as light an episode as any in the franchise. It’s an energetic joyride that manages to hit many of the most beloved touchstones of the saga along the way. And it ends the way it should—by making us eager for the next one to appear. (Can we really wait two more years?)