Note: This review contains no spoilers.
True, the hype for J.J. Abrams’ (Lost, Super 8) Jedi rejoinder has been inescapable, and just this side of nauseating if you’re not a devotee of the highly valued space opera. Under considerable pressure to outperform originator George Lucas’ lackluster prequels (Episodes I to III) and return to the series’ golden era (Episodes IV to VI), and with the Walt Disney Company backing the project, all eyes strained toward Abrams, who directs, co-writes, and co-produces, all with a wistful affection for the originals, and the knowledge that the fans are ready to embrace or rebuff him. What pressures!
Well, from the first fusillade of John Williams’ robust and instantly recognizable score and the retreating opening titles, we are back en masse to the long ago galaxy, and any fears of rickety science fiction pinned on triteness and platitudes are soon dashed. The Force Awakens restores the Star Wars tradition, introduces new characters while honoring and headlining the old, reworks the mythology and surreality we once cherished and offers the ultimate trip in escapist entertainment on the blockbuster ladder.
The Force Awakens picks up some thirty odd years after the events of Return of the Jedi (1983), whereupon Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has mysteriously absconded, and the Empire, reeling from the destruction of the second Death Star has reappeared in the form of the First Order. General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) leads the Republic backed Resistance, who’s top-prized X-Wing fighter pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is on the planet Jakku looking into a map that may lead to Luke.
This map is in the possession of one Lor San Tekka, played by the legendary Max von Sydow (The Seventh Seal, The Exorcist), who, while only in a relatively abbreviated appearance, adds to the all-star lineage the series is also known for – von Sydow, it’s easy to imagine, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with other series luminaries Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and of course, Alec Guinness.
In addition to Poe, other new characters to the canon include Rey (Daisy Ridley), a desert rat scavenger on Jakku, within whom the Force is strong, Finn (Attack the Block’s John Boyega), a deserter stormtrooper, and a dangerous new villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is surprisingly connected to the old charge in ways not to be spoiled out here.
Also putting in an extended and enthusiastic reappearance is everyone’s favorite space smuggler, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his lank Wookie coworker, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Their scenes, particularly with Rey and Finn, communicate a changing of the guard that’s both satisfying, and even bitter sweet.
And perhaps therein rests the biggest criticism of the film. The Force Awakens pays considerable fan service throughout, at times perhaps distractingly so. But after the ordeal that Lucas subjected his adherents to beginning with 1999’s The Phantom Menace through until 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, it’s fair to say the disciples deserve a little cake and ice cream at this point.
Perhaps the other rap on the knuckles that The Force Awakens has coming is that there are numerous story similarities to the series’ forerunner, A New Hope (1977). Like that film, The Force Awakens features a droid, here it’s the adorable BB-8 in place of R2-D2, carrying a cryptic message, hidden on a desert planet with a novice and reluctant Force-imbued hero – a heroine in this instance – with an evil Jedi and his army in hot pursuit.
There are a few other plot similarities, too, but, to be honest, I find them completely forgivable. When you consider the archetypes and heroic journey aspects of the Star Wars films that Lucas first brought to the fore and Abrams’ respectfully reinterprets and refurbishes, it makes sense that this struggle is doomed to echo and mirror itself until the operatic elements, karmically predetermined, play themselves out.
For a film cosmology as far-reaching and entertaining as this, who could ask for more? The characters are compelling, charismatic, and memorable, the visuals are imaginative and incredibly realized, and the story cues, while unsophisticated, contain astonishment and awe at nearly every turn.
Abrams, for his part, wisely eschews any of his lens-flare fuelled emblems in favor of a more methodical sweep that carries the brilliantly executed special effects and action sequences with verve and validity. Humor, also, is back in the trilogy, an aspect that Lucas failed to acknowledge much of in his prequels, unless you count Jar Jar Binks – and we don’t!
And without putting too fine a point on it, Abrams’ Star Wars has strong female characters – Leia has matured into a wise and diplomatic leader, no longer hot-headed, and Rey is never in need of rescue, and holds her own against any challenge – even brazenly passing the Bechdel test. Talk about refreshing! It may not quite have the patriarchal put down of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road but it certainly proves that feminism need not be dismissed in a galaxy far, far away. Now here’s a trend I hope continues to climb.
As with the best films in the Star Wars saga – namely A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back – The Force Awakens acknowledges film history in its machinations. C3PO forever echoes Fritz Lang’s 1926 sci-fi tour de force, Metropolis, the show of might in the rallying First Order ceremonial tableau is cheval glass to Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 propaganda piece, The Triumph of the Will, the aforementioned sexual politicking of Rey in the key protagonist role, even Finn as the deus ex machina, of sorts, is a rallying cry for race relations in no subtle way.
The Force Awakens is a pure-blood genre film that proudly pushes the boundaries of film as escapist enterprise. Storytelling on such a grand scale certainly sets itself up for a bit of a backlash, but don’t let the cynics sour the joie de vivre splendor or the mass appeal of such an exciting picture as this. There’s a childish and sprightly sense of exhibition and pop imagination at play here that is foolish to resist. The Force Awakens is a pure cinematic joy.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.