This is a spoiler-free review of The Force Awakens. If you are desperate to know who our new heroes are, and what predicaments our veteran heroes find themselves in, this is not the review you’re looking for.
I was introduced to the Star Wars series in 1997, thanks to the Special Edition theatrical re-releases. I tend to judge films and books by how much they inspire me to write, and they capital-letters INSPIRED. I anticipated the prequels, and when I saw them in theatres, I enjoyed them immensely. I admit, they could do with thorough rewrite, but in the same way the original trilogy inspired me to write, the prequel trilogy inspired me to problem solve — to edit. I spoke about this a little over at Inside A Dog, the prequels prompted an entire community to discuss what revisions they would make to make the films more palatable.
I became comfortable with the idea of an Episode VII after marathoning the films in 2014. Six films, two days, two revelations. One, having soured on Attack of the Clones after repeat home-video viewings, I realised the film just works on the big screen in a way no film so oddly written and acted should. Kudos to John Williams. Two, Return of the Jedi is super strange, tonally. Most critics cite the Ewok/Emperor contrast in the film’s conclusion, but I had a sour taste in my mouth from the moment we entered Jabba’s Palace, where slapstick meets Luke’s darkness and Leia’s sexuality in this weird mixed bag of, ‘Who is the target audience?’ And don’t get me started on the Luke/Leia twist, which is a silly idea made even worse by its execution. As the credits rolled, Return of the Jedi left me yearning for a more fitting conclusion to my favourite film series.
Enter The Force Awakens.
This is the film I wanted it to be — respectful to the past, while still looking to the future. As absolutely thrilling as it was to catch up with Han (Harrison Ford), Luke (Mark Hamill) and Leia (Carrie Fisher), this film belongs to Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who each turn in stellar performances. Even though the film moves at a break-neck pace, director JJ Abrams sprinkles enough character moments throughout to make us care about the next generation of Star Wars protagonists.
Respecting the original trilogy was a necessity. Star Wars is a brand, a brand perceived by most to have been tarnished by three prequel films. The Force Awakens needed to remind fans what they loved about the original trilogy, but I have to say, I wish it reminded us less. As much as I love Ford, Han is used as a vessel for this overt fan service more often than I would have liked. His character arc is strong enough (Han + Leia 4Eva) that using him to frequently wink at the audience feels a little cheap.
A lot has been made of the film’s reliance on A New Hope. Star Wars has been copying itself since the Second Death Star, and The Force Awakens, at first glance, cribs a lot from A New Hope. But I would not say it rehashes. Instead, it remixes. It subverts our expectations, challenging the tropes of the damsel in distress more aggressively than I anticipated. It is aware of its diversity in a way I don’t think internet comments sections are going to like. But every time Ridley’s Rey took charge, I was grinning ear-to-ear.
To be fair, though, I was grinning a lot. In The Force Awakens, the franchise rediscovers its sense of humour. Abrams has said he wanted to recapture that feeling of joy from the original trilogy, and he has done that.
An even greater achievement, and one that cannot be overstated, is that he found a story after a Happily Ever After, which is difficult to do. For every Toy Story 3, there are scores of Sex and the City 2s. Abrams and co have crafted an Episode VII that does more than make up for Return of the Jedi or the prequels, it makes me crave an Episode VIII.
Do I have my qualms about The Force Awakens? Sure. I wish it was a little quieter, and the exposition a little subtler. I am also not quite sold on Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). But that is a post for another day, after another viewing. For now, Abrams has done his job, and it’s time for Rian Johnson to do his.
May the Force be with him.