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While the “original” trilogy (Episodes 4 ~ 6) have long become iconic and cherished by fans, the second trilogy (Episodes 1 ~ 3) has fallen out of favor as series creator George Lucas became accused of going against his own tenet by using too many special effects, filming nearly the entire three films on green screen with CGI and abandoning the characters. It could be said that Lucas was a product of the time and suffered the greatest wrath as CGI was the end-all be-all in movies back then. That bubble burst quickly and directors and artists have now made CGI more of an art with better integration in stories. When J. J. Abrams was given the task of bringing the next chapter of the franchise to theaters, there was a collective sigh of relief when he announced that he would be returning to form and utilizing practical effects, astonishing many as he strategically released details and behind the scenes to prove such, including the cleverly designed BB8 robot that everyone was convinced was CGI but is in fact just the opposite. Abrams promised to deliver the latest Star Wars saga with respect to Lucas’ original vision and an eye on the future.
And deliver he does. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Abrams deserves a place among the best directors in cinema, crafting a new story out of old cloth that is elegantly presented with a dedication and admiration for the source that I believe very few could ever have done. There is such confidence in this film, it feels like something new even though it is all about something old. There are moments of staggering beauty, shots so breathtaking that even Abrams seems to know to let it linger just longer than expected. That’s the thing. Abrams respects the audience, never pandering to the nostalgia that so weakened this year’s latest James Bond film, Spectre, which was far more interested in pounding us over the head with reminders of past Bond films it left behind its story and characters. Abrams doesn’t just let the past pop up in his film like a game of “I Spy”, instead, he breathes life into them, allowing them to be integral, weighted and substantial. When the Millennium Falcon arrives on the scene, there’s no musical cue, no pause for awe, no poke at us to say, “see, we knew you wanted to this!” feeling to it. It’s just there, as it should be in this universe, and we smile because, as fans of the series know, it affects us each the way all of it does, personally, and that is what Abrams seems to know best.
What truly makes this experience so strong is how connected we are to the characters, something seriously lacking in the second trilogy. Written by Lawrence Kasdan (Star War: The Empire Strikes Back & Star Wars: Return of the Jedi) and Abrams, The Force Awakens is populated by characters with a powerful sense of place, embedded in a world we are familiar with but shaken by how it’s changed. This impact makes every line of well-written dialogue crackle with urgency and sentiment. These are people who earn their part in this story, those who will become heroes and villains, and those who will fight and those who will sacrifice. This is a remarkable film. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s deeply emotional, and is one of the best movies of the year.
(Possible Minor Spoilers Ahead) The story takes place decades after the events of Star Wars Episode 6: Return of the Jedi (1983). It introduces a new cast to the Star Wars canon and lets the old be more than the cameos many worried they might be (though not everyone gets the same amount of screen time). The new one are Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a pilot for the Resistance, Finn (John Boyega) a Stormtrooper who abandons his post, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) a Dark Lord in service to the First Order, a splinter of the old Empire, and Rey (Daisy Ridley) a scavenger who will come to learn she is much, much more. These new members of the Star Wars lore are authentic, and each has a dramatic story that is given proper depth. These are people we care about, want to learn more of, and like decades before when we were introduced to their counterparts in the first trilogy, memorable.
The hunt is on for the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has turned his back on it all when his attempt at training new Knights failed in catastrophe. His whereabouts is unknown, his location locked in a map stored in the hopelessly adorable aforementioned BB8 robot. Kylo Ren, under orders of the Supreme Leader (Andy Serkis) is sent to find the elusive Jedi at all costs. Meanwhile, the First Order has developed a new kind of Death Star, a weapon that is organically built into an actual planet, which amounts to mostly an enormous laser that when fired, can destroy several planets at a time. That robot is in the hands of Rey, Fin, and Han Solo who know what secrets it holds and are trying to get to the Resistance headquarters before Ren and his Stormtroopers stop them.
Credit must be given to Kasdan and Abrams for putting the weight of this massive enterprise on the shoulders of two mostly unknown actors, Ridley and Boyega. That Ridley is a woman and Boyega, black, speaks much, and that neither of these facts is given any consideration in the story is even better. Ridley is perfectly cast, a wonder who more than capably fills the shoes of her character’s legacy, Luke. She is strong, intelligent, cunning, and resourceful. While she is fun to watch throughout, there are are three great moments for her character that I won’t spoil here, but each are stirring, and the fact that one of the best battles in the film takes place with only eyes is a testament to how well this film is made. Boyega is her equal, his Fin a driven character that provides some of the best emotional moments, his passion and despair for who he was a powerful component to the mix.
Harrison Ford gets the most screen time out of the returning cast and looks simply great as Han Solo once again. This iconic figure is as affecting as he was more than thirty years ago, his presence so impressive, every scene he is in is like a rush. Ford is such a charismatic actor and he is perfectly in step with the old Solo. His banter with his best friend Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew, doubled by Joonas Suotamo) is as sharp and funny as when he was in his heyday. But there’s more to Han Solo in this story than just his witty one-liners. A lot more. An early revelation makes for a startling moment later on. Many films have great moments that are made great by directors and cinematography and good scripts, but the best are made by the actor and Ford makes this his own. It’s a moment that will be discussed for a long time to come. Princess (now General) Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is also on hand and there are some unsurprising but touching moments between her and Solo that tug at the hearts of those who have known these characters as long as we have. And then there is Luke. A circle completes and a new one begins. But his story is not yet done.
Abrams isn’t trying to hide the parallels to the first trilogy, most especially Episode IV: A New Hope. Much of what happens is designed to link the past with the present and while we recognize it, it doesn’t feel empty. In fact, it is supremely compelling and while it is early and the hype surrounding it is at astronomical levels, The Force Awakens might just earn its place as the best in the entirety of the franchise, a position well-earned. Star War is back. And this time, the force is strong.
Director(s): J.J. Abrams
Actor(s): Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac
Genre: Science Fiction