What a time to be alive.
I arrived in the early afternoon for a 7 pm showing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in IMAX on December 17th. I got my ticket, sat down in line, pulled out my laptop and tried to find Wi-Fi so I could finish a movie review. That was unsuccessful at first, so I began making friends with the people around me.
There was a girl my age: a junior at NAU who was studying the exact same things as me in university. She was so dedicated to being at the premiere that she was taking an online final in line. Later her father arrived, and he shared a few memories with me about seeing the original Star Wars as a young man. Two friends- a budding filmmaker and a well-traveled member of the military- were especially talkative and excited for the movie.
Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon. It didn't just unite me with some interesting strangers in a line. It has united generations of people. My parents grew up with the original trilogy, I (unfortunately) grew up with the prequel trilogy, and now a new generation gets to grow up with the sequel trilogy. Never have I seen that many different kinds of people at a premiere for a movie.
But when that opening crawl started and the indelible Star Wars theme rang out, every human being in the theater cheered and clapped and was united for a couple of hours.
Point is, the Star Wars movies deserve respect for the mark they have left on cultures around the world. They have changed the film industry and what it means to be a movie fan- for better and for worse- forever. But we've seen these movies disrespected before. A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back were outstanding pieces of entertainment- Return of the Jedi less so, but it's still a good film.
Then George Lucas destroyed the universe with the abysmal prequels, and that's all I'll say about that.
And now we have Episode 7: The Force Awakens, and expectations are sky high for good reason: with a director like J.J. Abrams and the screenwriter behind Episodes 5 and 6 (Lawrence Kasdan), the creative team is beyond capable. Do they respect Star Wars enough to make Episode 7 the movie we're looking for?
Yes! For the most part. The Force Awakens is an exhilarating and warm return to the Star Wars universe, led by a stellar cast and a bit of franchise fever. It's not perfect or even the best of the franchise, but it is the best Star Wars movie since 1980 by a long shot.
Let's get right down to it. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a blast to watch from start to finish. If you're a Star Wars fan, it's downright euphoric. Abrams nails the tone of the original trilogy perfectly. Ever heard the age-old distinction "Star Trek is sci-fi, Star Wars is fantasy"? J.J. understands the genres deeply (I mean he should, he's directed both franchises now), and he knowingly shaped The Force Awakens into a compelling space opera fantasy.
He and Kasdan (and Michael Arndt, who wrote this movie's first draft and Toy Story 3) get the family drama. They get the mystical spiritual undertones. They get the swelling, clear-cut "good guys vs. bad guys" conflict and the personal turmoil than can stem from it. They get the light touches of humor that are either human and relatable, or alien and comically unfamiliar. They get that the lightsaber duels are supposed to be grandiose in a medieval sense; that we still want to feel like kids again as we watch spaceships flying around and doing cool things while shooting at each other.
So they heap all of this (minus all the casual racism and miserable dialogue of the prequels) on us in controlled, beautifully paced portions, and lather the whole thing with enough respectful nostalgia to make even the most casual moviegoer smile through tears. It was surreal to experience a great new Star Wars film in theaters, and I have Abrams' knowing direction to thank for that. In terms of the franchise The Force Awakens is bringing back to life, this movie is a friendly triumph.
This joyful sense of familiarity does wear thin in a negative way though. The first problem is minor: some of the expected funny one-liners come off as pretty wooden (the majority of jokes that don't work come from John Boyega's Finn, for some strange screenplay-related reason), even when the situational and visual comedy (little aliens popping into frame, etc.) always works.
The second problem is moderately sized: the plot encroaches on retread territory. We've seen the majority of these narrative beats before. When the adventure does start to approach uncharted territory, an annoyingly convenient deus ex machina (a filmmaking technique in which a plot device makes everything suddenly work out for no discernible reason) usually breaks up the unsafe story beat. It's not necessarily a bad thing when the familiar spectacle is done so well, but it doesn't let the movie become particularly new or memorable. The freshest and most game-changing moment is so clearly signposted that it carries no tension before or after the fact.
Speaking of spectacle: what an auditory and visual rapture! The artists behind the visual and sound design of this movie really made full use of modern filmmaking technology to the best of their ability- almost as if this technology was prepared in advance to make The Force Awakens a gorgeous marvel. John Williams' score, the sights and sounds of weaponry, the landscapes, and the sets all capture interest and wonder. An increased use of practical effects and costumes rather than CGI realizes the worlds delightfully, adding dashes of enchanting realism to the foreign planets presented.
The casting director did a fantastic job as well. Rather than rely on big names, The Force Awakens pulls a number of extremely talented actors that are gaining recognition in the indie scene (if you're not a part of that scene, get there!) Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson (hey, the Ex Machina stars), Adam Driver, Gwendoline Christie, Lupita Nyong'o, and more show up to the party. Most of them end up in supporting roles, but the stages are set for this trilogy to have an amazing supporting cast.
Members of the old cast up the nostalgia factor with inspired appearances. Harrison Ford indicates a deep love for the character of Han Solo, giving his best performance in probably the last couple decades. Saying much more would be to dip my toe into the land of spoilers and malice.
And of course, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are the new stars of the show as Rey and Finn. In the tradition of the original Star Wars, our main characters were completely unknown before leading The Force Awakens. They're both 23, they're both relatively new to the acting world, and they're both incredible. John Boyega carries himself with infectious confidence and a complex expression of humanity. Daisy Ridley's performance screams leading woman in every word and action- her work with her piercing eyes alone could carry the entire trilogy. They share a natural chemistry as well, which provides the movie with much of its emotional core. BB-8, the adorable new droid, evokes a lot of sympathy too. I love you BB-8.
Disappointingly, The Force Awakens' most major problem lies with the new characters. They all feel severely underdeveloped. Even by the end of the movie, Rey, Finn, and villain Kylo Ren feel far more like templates for characters than actually realized humans, thanks to a lacking screenplay. Without giving anything away: they all have their respective backstories, but they are left vague and general enough to let the characters do a wide variety of story-advancing things without ever feeling out of character. This problem persists from start to finish. They're not completely undeveloped by any stretch of the imagination- Rey and Finn certainly have strong progression- but their development starts from a place that is so lacking in sufficient detail that they're held back from greatness.
I blame this on a blatant case of franchise fever. The Marvel template of structuring cinematic universes has created an excuse for movies not standing on their own. Signs of further development for Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren are hinted at repeatedly, but The Force Awakens has no right as a complete film to save this for Episode 8 or 9. A New Hope formed whole characters in Luke, Han, and Leia before the credits rolled. That's missing here.
But when all is said and done, there's way more to cheer and clap and smile and happily cry over in Star Wars: The Force Awakens than there is to criticize. If I had to rank it alongside the main movies in the franchise, I'd say it's the third best of seven, behind The Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope. It's a new Star Wars movie, and it's a truly great film. Go buy your ticket, I promise you'll have a wonderful time watching this cultural phenomenon :)
(Also Daniel Craig is hidden in this movie, can you find him?)