Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Saga Begins Again – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and BB-8 (centre) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

This review contains major spoilers for The Force Awakens.

The stars (and wars therein) have aligned: my 100th review for Critics at Large is of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams’ continuation of the space opera blockbuster series created (and subsequently ruined) by George Lucas. This is significant because Star Wars is the film series that has most inspired me from a young age, fostering my lifelong fascination with science fiction, storytelling, special effects, and cinema in general. It’s immensely gratifying to me that these stories of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away are back in theatres, inspiring a new crop of wide-eyed kids. Just to put the true generational nature of this phenomenon in perspective: Star Wars is almost forty years old this year! I sat down for this newest incarnation and saw an almost totally even split between grey-haired veteran fans, t-shirted nerds around my age, and younglings small enough to need booster seats. And I know from experience that the latter is who these films are truly for.

The Force Awakens really only had to achieve one thing (apart from making a shit-zillion dollars for Disney): be better than Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Star Wars fans have been through the emotional ringer already, becoming incredibly excited about their long-dormant series returning, and having their devotion rewarded with some of the worst filmmaking ever projected in public cinemas – a trilogy of inept prequel films that represented a baffling and infuriating corruption of the adventurous, exciting films they knew. So I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being wary of Abrams’ attempt, as promising as it looked in the trailers. I had been burned badly before.

I’m utterly relieved to report that J.J. and Disney have done what they needed to do, and made a film that’s better – much, much better – than The Phantom Menace (1999). It’s better than any of the prequels. It’s better, in fact, than any film J.J. has made. It’s not perfect, but it absolutely nails what makes Star Wars Star Wars. And I think history will agree with me when I say that’s really all that matters, especially given the charming but imperfect nature of the original films. (Plus, considering that the film annihilated all existing domestic box office records in presale revenue alone, Disney’s expectations for the franchise’s success were met, and then some.)

The Force Awakens is set approximately 30 years after 1982’s Return of the Jedi, and functions as a brilliant passing of the torch from the original trilogy to a new generation of heroes and villains. What others have unfairly dismissed as empty fan service – the inclusion of Ford, Hamill, and Fisher reprising their iconic roles as Han, Luke, and Leia; the familiar desert and snow-bound settings; the swells of John Williams’ score; the return of countless other familiar visual and narrative elements – is actually a delicate, nearly impossible balancing act that Abrams had to undertake: politely ignore the prequels, acknowledge and do justice to the beloved characters and themes of the original trilogy, and introduce new, equally appealing characters who can carry the franchise forward into unprecedented territory. Abrams does this by achieving what Lucas could not, in his attempt to make the prequels “rhyme” with the original films. As the first chapter of a new trilogy, The Force Awakens acts like a counterpoint to the first of the old trilogy, Episode IV: A New Hope (1977). The film opens with a freedom fighter (Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron) hiding a vital secret inside an adorable bleeping droid (BB-8). Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young dreamer stuck in a hand-to-mouth existence on a desert planet, has her life upended and experiences an awakening in the Force, prompted by the passing down of an ancient Jedi weapon. She is joined by Finn, a brash and reckless young man (John Boyega), and an aging warrior (Harrison Ford returning as Han Solo) in a fight against a tyrannical dictatorship, whose seat of power is a massive orb that fires planet-destroying lasers. A masked villain wielding a red lightsaber (Adam Driver) gets in their way, and raises terrifying questions about Rey’s past. In almost every significant plot detail, The Force Awakens is an echo of A New Hope, like a song returning to a familiar chorus. Where I disagree with the film’s detractors is that I believe this was a smart, appropriate, and inevitable choice.

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

With a film release as popular as this, it’s natural for legitimate criticism to be ignored while most moviegoers are still riding the high. Let’s get the bad out of the way first so we can give voice to these qualms, which I think are deserving of attention. The Force Awakens is very much a J.J. Abrams movie, with all that entails. Its sizzling energy and flashy élan compensate for a script that, while functional (thanks mostly to veteran screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who penned 1980's The Empire Strikes Back, largely considered the best of the series), feels rushed and somewhat incomplete. It’s unclear how the First Order, in all its shiny, well-funded glory, rose from the ashes of the Empire in just 30 years, and what the Resistance has done in the interim (not to mention how the new Republic was formed, who leads them, and what relationship they have with the Resistance). This missing backstory could be filled in by the subsequent films – The Force Awakens introduces plenty of mysteries to solve going forward – but they won’t be able to fix the artificially accelerated development of our new heroes, like Finn, whose betrayal of the First Order seems less meaningful without an understanding of who he is beforehand. While I think the attempt to mirror A New Hope is generally successful, some elements simply don’t work, like Starkiller Base (or as I’ve taken to calling it, “Death Star 3.0”). The sequences involving the base are well-executed but it’s a lame idea from the ground up. In this case, I would have greatly preferred if they had just come up with something entirely new. Also, sometimes the repetition of familiar elements – like Han wielding Chewbacca’s bowcaster, and finding that he quite likes it – happen once or twice too often, and become tedious. Like all of J.J.’s work, the faults in the film’s structural logistics only become apparent once you leave the theatre, and eventually come down from the high. In the moment, you’re too swept along by the breakneck pacing and colourful action to notice.

Where Abrams and The Force Awakens succeed, though, is in the bigger picture, and the ability to balance old and new – for everything old, there’s a new twist on it, or something entirely fresh instead. BB-8 is a brilliant evolution of R2-D2, with a lovable voice and a level of expression that far surpasses the original bleeping tin can. He’s as impractical and fantastic as a lightsaber, but still indicative of Abrams’ desire to show us things we haven’t seen: you think, how does he get up stairs? And then bam, J.J. has him shoot out cables to pull himself out of sticky situations! The distaff protagonist, as another example, is a very welcome change – not least because Daisy Ridley is a goddamn revelation as Rey, investing this unknown character with so much likeability and interest (the scene where she eats alone in her makeshift shelter in the bones of a downed AT-AT walker, grinning to herself as she plays pretend with an old Rebel helmet, lasts about thirty seconds but contains more significant development than any amount of verbal exposition could convey). Her moment of actual “awakening” – when she uses the Force to pull Luke’s old saber to her hand, igniting it as the music blossoms into the familiar Jedi theme – packs a huge emotional punch and cements her as my new favourite character in Star Wars. Some have expressed that this moment felt unearned, and was cheapened by her accelerated development (it took until Luke’s second film before he could yank the same saber through the air, after all), but I believe we were given all we need to establish this arc, and it’s easy to attribute her quick, instinctive learning to a wellspring of Force power unlike any we’ve yet seen.

This power – and Abrams’ commitment to showing us things we’ve never seen before – are personified by perhaps the best villain of the series to date, Kylo Ren (a.k.a. Ben Solo, the film’s big shocker). Here, for the first time, is a baddie motivated by complex emotions like inadequacy, shame, and guilt, which are focused through a lens of white-hot rage, making him a terrifying but ultimately pathetic figure. He’s young and incredibly powerful but very much out of control, and for all his posturing (striding around in a hooded cloak, cobbling together a Vader-like mask and a makeshift lightsaber, which crackles, like the young man himself, with unstable energy as though ready to explode), he is completely transparent. Abrams again succeeded where Lucas failed – this was the character Anakin Skywalker was supposed to be, as the centerpiece of a tragedy prompted by his own weakness. Ren is also a perfect foil for Rey, like a dark reflection of her own youth, power, and inexperience. Darth Vader was instantly iconic, but Kylo Ren, helped very much by Adam Driver’s intense performance, is interesting – and I can’t wait to see where the series takes him. (The kid stopped a blaster bolt in midair with the Force! What else has he got up his sleeve??)

Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

When The Force Awakens mines the series for nostalgia, it taps into the richest veins. I’ve been hard on Harrison Ford in the past, and for good reason; he’s been among the grumpiest, least committed actors I’ve paid to see for a decade now. But here, stepping back into the role that made him a star, I saw the old scoundrel again: a commanding presence, a cocksure swagger, some roguish sarcasm, and a real vulnerability. Like everyone in the cast, he looked like he was having the time of his life. And I think his beefy screentime in this film was perfectly intentional, as a way to honour the character before killing him off (which was telegraphed early on, adding a dark tension to all the second-act action). Ford didn’t just show up, say a few lines, and collect his cheque – he fired up the old chemistry, bouncing off Peter Mayhew’s Chewie with wonderful comic timing and finding some real tenderness in his scenes with Carrie Fisher – who acquitted herself, to my great surprise, with an equal amount of care and effort. Fisher, whose Leia is now a General of the Resistance, shows no signs of having been largely absent from cinema since the last film to star her character (and does a great reinterpretation of Alec Guinness’ signature slump, when a great loss of life echoes through the Force). The reappearance of R2-D2 and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO complete the nostalgic loop, but their involvement is thankfully trim (Abrams again paying homage to the past, while maintaining his focus on the future).

It’s Mark Hamill’s Luke, however, that intrigues me most. Showing up only in the film’s final scene, he conveys a wealth of emotion and unspoken backstory with his quick wordless appearance – a defeated and damaged version of his old mentor, Obi Wan. His disappearance drives the film’s plot, and is the focal point of the many mysteries that the following Episodes will (hopefully) answer: who were Luke’s apprentices, other than the young Ben Solo? Is he Rey’s father? Who is Rey’s mother? Are Rey and Ren siblings, given to foster parents like Luke and Leia were? How did Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) acquire Luke’s saber, last seen gripped in his hand as Vader sliced it off? Who is the shadowy Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), and what are his plans to “complete [Kylo’s] training”? And, more tangentially, what happened to Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie)? Rian Johnson’s as-yet-untitled Episode VIII will surely take these threads and weave a greater and more complex story from the whole cloth of The Force Awakens, and with Hamill’s Luke at its heart I think it has potential to be the greatest of the franchise.

More than any other element – the thrilling action, the warm-hearted humour, the wonderful cast (who, as in the case of Domhnall Gleeson as the First Order’s fascistic general, often do much with little) – I think the success of The Force Awakens lies in its dedication to the kind of mythical storytelling that makes the original trilogy so enduring. It’s a film that focuses on character and heightened emotion, with lightsaber battles whose purpose is less a thrilling, flawlessly-choreographed action sequence and more an internalization of the characters in the scene. Every action, every fun-filled chase, every snarky quip and every doubt expressed, are part of the greater and more timeless story at play, where relatable people must confront the dual natures of their souls, and the monochrome themes of good and evil are as much an opportunity for engaging fantasy storytelling as a vehicle for pure cinematic excitement. Abrams, himself a dedicated Star Wars fan, understands this, and knows the limitless potential of that galaxy far, far away to tell stories that resonate with people of every age. The Force Awakens, despite its shortcomings in plot and pacing, resonated very strongly with me, and it wasn’t just due to nostalgia – it’s a breathtakingly exciting film in its own right, and one that deserves all the attention it gets. My overwhelming feeling now is one of relief: that this film deserves its title, and that the future of the franchise is very bright indeed.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.


  1. Justin Cummings is a good find for CAL. This is one of the most intelligent commentaries on The Force Awakens that I've seen.

    1. Thanks for the kind words! I'm glad you liked my take. I may revisit this film later on, because I believe there's still more to say...

  2. That was a tight review. ("Tight" means "good").

    1. Oh, good, thanks for clarifying - I can never keep up with what the kids are saying these days.