Star Wars: The Force Awakens is definitively, almost exclusively a Star Wars film above all else, bringing to theaters an experience the likes of which our world hasn't seen since 1983. This is an absolute must-watch film of 2015, even if you've never seen Star Wars before (and if you've actually never seen any of Star Wars before, just get out of here).
It's been a long time you guys, and I am one ecstatic scruffy-headed nerf herder to have it back despite its fair share of issues. And boy does it have issues.
The seventh entry in the line of the biggest franchise in the history of cinema, the film locks itself in with restraints made of its own nature. Just as any long standing storytelling franchise, it is obligated to revisit certain elements that make up the core of the franchise, but this film isn't satisfied with a simple revisit.
Force takes place 30 years after the climactic end of Return of the Jedi, and contains every familiar base element that objectively makes a Star Wars movie. Among which are the likes of the Millennium Falcon; a desert planet; a new planet-killer space station; a new secret-harboring astromech droid; a new shadowy master of puppets; and even a new Skywalker.
Taking these elements and restructuring them in ways that seem new and fresh to the layman doesn't attempt to hide that the movie is in fact a not-so-subtle remix of everything that came before it in the original trilogy. Not just in the text, but thematically as well and I'll get to that in a bit. But let's talk about ol' J.J. baby for a second.
As much as you can ask of any artist, director J.J. Abrams made the movie he wanted to make, and right from the iconic opening crawl it's clear that this was the movie J.J. Abrams was born to make. He is no stranger to the galaxy far, far away as is evident in all of his work to date. Lost vibrates with influences from Star Wars mythology while Abrams' more recent endeavours, the overtly Star Wars-y Star Trek reboot, further confirmed every suspicion that this is where it was all headed.
J.J. Abrams is a master of setting premises. Perhaps that is why he was chosen to helm the franchise's return, since most of Force feels like setup for a movie we are still yet to see by the end (presumably Episode VIII). But his penchant for story construction is only surpassed by his eye for ensemble casting, and coupled with his knack for character-driven humor Abrams brings to life the very best aspects of this new trilogy so far: the characters.
Every single one of the new characters are instant classics. And every one likable for their own reasons, on their own terms.
The plot swoops in with can-fly-anything Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) acquiring a piece of the map to the location of Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi in existence and target of much intrigue from both the Resistance and the First Order (resurgent remnants of the Empire). Before being captured by the First Order, Poe hides the map away with his ever-charming astromech droid BB-8 which ends up crossing paths with the scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) on planet Jakku (little different from Tatooine in all but name). Déjà vu anyone?
Meanwhile, the most empathetic rookie Stormtrooper ever, FN-2187 (John Boyega) makes the heavy choice to not follow through with the only thing he was trained his whole life to do and rescues Poe from the First Order, crash landing on Jakku in the process and meeting Rey and BB-8 along the way, barrelling through to meeting the older legacy characters from the original trilogy.
These first acts where we are introduced to the new characters and their motivations are possibly the best parts of the movie. It's a real joy figuring out who they are and how they will fit in with each other. Rogue Stormtrooper Finn and Poe Dameron connect instantly as they escape the First Order, with Poe even christening him with an actual name. While Jakku scavenger Rey's friendship with Finn grows into something of real emotional heft by the end of the film. Even BB-8 with all its charming ball-droid vaudeville antics pairs with each character in a unique way.
The way these actors and their characters work together is so joyfully reminiscent of, yet entirely different from the original characters' chemistry that the irony in their inclusion is deeply palpable.
After nearly 40 years, seeing Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill's glorious return to the fold is indeed glorious and the heavily indulgent nostalgia at play here is on par with nothing I've ever felt before. It's pretty magical.
But it is also at this point that the movie starts to struggle between what works and what simply doesn't belong. Among the many faults that can be attributed to this, it mainly comes down to the filmmakers' decision to include one legacy character: Han Solo.
Han Solo is the most popular character from the entire franchise, a true icon in the larger zeitgeist and he is also a big reason why this movie fails to achieve its potential. Many believe, myself included, that Han should have died by the end of Jedi. It would have completed his arc from selfish scumbag smuggler to self-sacrificing Rebel Alliance Captain Solo who would've died to save his friends.
But for all our intents and purposes he didn't die at the end of that movie, which left J.J. Abrams to set up the exact same emotional conditions for his eventual death in this movie at the hands of his son, Ben Solo, now fashioning himself as Kylo Ren. Which also meant the inclusion of Chewbacca, C-3PO, and of course General Leia, the mother of his murdering offspring.
This movie works hard to earn that moment on the bridge (designed to thematically resonate with both the death scene of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke's first confrontation with Darth Vader), and earn it they do because the scene is absolutely heart-wrenching! But that also means the filmmakers spent a considerable amount of time retreading Han's entire arc from the OT. An arc we've experienced already, spanning three whole movies.
Han Solo's inclusion makes Force feels like two different stories actively working against each other in the same film. One being Rey, Finn and Poe's search for Luke Skywalker. And the second being Han, Leia, and the Resistance's assault on Starkiller base, the First Order super weapon controlled by General Hux, Supreme Leader Snoke, and Kylo Ren. The second story is being carried almost single-handedly by Han Solo while the three new protagonists are involved in their own story that appears to be worked around and into the other, simply because Han Solo must die.
In the end we are left with a movie that is all setup consisting mostly of plot points already visited in previous Star Wars films, only walking onto its own path after Han's death with a spectacular lightsaber duel in the snow. And it really is spectacular, casting some of the most evocative imagery in any Star Wars movie to date.
The most interesting character in Force carries the most interesting story beats as well, and his name is Kylo Ren. Fittingly enough, he also encapsulates the most perfect metaphor for this film's very identity. Wearing all black, heavily masked and even with voice distortion, Kylo fashions himself in the image of Darth Vader, his grandfather.
But Vader he is not. Kylo is petty, and for all his insecurities he is angry. Where Vader struck fear into all around him by standing stoic, resolute, exercising his power with little more than a Force choke or two, Kylo Ren throws temper tantrums with his lightsaber, slashing and destroying everything in his way.
So the filmmakers craft a new Vader for a new Star Wars by not making him Vader at all, but in fact giving him the defining characteristics of Anakin Skywalker from the prequels. The same Anakin that could never live up to his eventual fate of becoming Darth Vader, just as the prequels failed the OT.
Similarly, Kylo Ren worships and assumes the legacy of Vader just as The Force Awakens assumes most of the traits of the OT. Moreover what drives this home is that Kylo Ren is fully aware that he is not his towering grandfather—and this is what kills him inside. Despite his best efforts, he constantly feels the pull of empathy and the light side of the Force. Only what Kylo is unaware of is that he is most like Anakin Skywalker than anyone else in his deeply broken family. Anakin felt the same struggle in his younger years too, except he yearned to be good while the dark side pulled him in too deep. It is a clever reversal that works wonders to carry the Skywalker lineage into the next phase of the saga. Because Star Wars is nothing if not about family and the weight of your blood, a theme that reverberates through every painful second of Kylo Ren's patricide.
Empathy doesn't just define Kylo Ren in this movie. It helps shape Poe, Rey, and Finn's journeys as well. Poe Dameron is so damn likable because he seems to care about everything and everyone around him. Rey gets swept up into the adventure simply because she cared for a little droid. Being alone her whole life, she has never had anyone care for her, that is until she meets Finn who betrays everything he knows because he couldn't reconcile his life with his inherently empathetic nature.
Unlike the flawless character construction, the film's structure is a constant battle between the intellectual and the visceral, which is all too familiar among any of J.J. Abrams' work. Sometimes with text actively fighting themes for a place in the story, but mostly with text seemingly missing altogether. But because the movie pumps along only on steam from character decisions coming from strong character motivations, even those signature Abrams narrative leaps seem well worth your time and make for a thoroughly Star Wars experience in every way. Which is all any of us can really ask for after George Lucas' fiasco trifecta as a storyteller with the prequels.
The zeitgeist has been starved of Star Wars for so long that it gave birth to the most fan servicing film in the franchise yet. The Force Awakens' only fault is that it extracts all it can from the existing mythology of Star Wars but doesn't feel the urge to add anything back to it. Which is something creators should be held accountable for, as part of their responsibility to create. But regardless of whether you're into that, the fact that this movie even exists in 2015 is nothing short of a miracle. And now that Star Wars is back for good, I'm more than ready to follow these new characters on their own journeys to even the deepest reaches of the Outer Rim.
Just no more Death Stars, okay?