Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasden, and Michael Arndt
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, and Mark Hamill
In 1977 when the original “Star Wars” was released the legendary film critic Roger Ebert said that “‘Star Wars’ is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions.” In 2015, thirty-nine years after the release of “Star Wars,” that statement still rings true. When it comes to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” this statement is given another layer because in the four decades since its release “Star Wars” has established itself as the popular fiction of the twentieth century. And indeed “The Force Awakens” is rooted in the “Star Wars” legend. The film expertly pays homage to the mythology surrounding “Star Wars” without ever feeling like it was completely retreading old ground. “The Force Awakens” calls back to the original trilogy, because that was Abrams intent with the film. Abrams had wanted to bring “Star Wars” full circle, bring it back to the original trilogy. While the movie obviously calls back to the original trilogy, it also subtlely calls back to the prequel trilogy. More on that coming a little later because going into detail on that point involves diving into spoiler territory.
“Star Wars” is the definitive cinematic epic and as such it shares many traits with the literary epics. Traits such as a hero’s journey, mentorship, good vs. evil, and most relevant to “The Force Awakens,” a story that begins in medias res (in the middle). The original trilogy is like Homer’s “The Illiad,” and the new trilogy that is starting with “The Force Awakens” is like “The Odyssey.” The two epics “The Illiad” and “The Odyssey” relate to one another because “The Odyssey” tells of events following “The Illiad.” In the terms of the “Star Wars” saga, you get the story of Luke Skywalker in one part, and you get the story of Rey in the other part. With the prequels, which in the epic of “Star Wars” function as that section of “Paradise Lost” where Gabriel tells Adam about how Lucifer fell from Heaven to Hell and became Satan, George Lucas was forced to start at a definite beginning. Using the world of “Star Wars” as the Lucifer character, instead of Anakin. Fortunately for Abrams, he did not find himself in a similar situation. “The Force Awakens” starts thirty years after “Return of the Jedi” and because of this Abrams was able to start this part of the story in the middle. The in medias res device was one of the high points of the original trilogy. It was great that Abrams was able to incorporate that device into the film.
“The Force Awakens” was Lucas should have made when he did the prequels. Abrams understood something that Lucas just did not, that CGI is a tool, not the tool. The CG effects and the practical effects blended seamlessly. At many points in the film, it is impossible to tell where the practical ends and the CG begins. The one thing visually that I was impressed with were the dog fights and the chase scene on Jakku involving the Falcon. There have not been dog fights like this in any other “Star Wars” movie. Most likely because the technology was not there yet, and because they did not take place in space. Both the dog fights and the chase scene took place within the atmosphere of the planet.
“The Force Awakens” features great characters both old and new. Harrison Ford was the best he has ever been as Han Solo. He has the classic Solo wit and swagger, yet he delivers a layered and heartfelt portrayal of the character. In many respects, it was a side of the character he did not get to explore much in the original trilogy. Chewbacca delivers excellent comic relief, the rest of the old characters are cameos. And yes, the burning of what happened to Luke is answered. No, I will not state that answer here. The new characters were great. This new trilogy is centered on Rey; she is the main character. Everyone else is just part of her story. Finn is the second lead. Ridley and Boyega, Rey and Finn respectively, play the characters so well. They have great chemistry together and with Ford and Chewbacca. Gleeson, Isaac, and Serkis are three of the finest actors working today, so adding them to anything is a check in the pro collum.
You can make a good argument that “The Force Awakens” is “Star Wars” recycled, but it is not. Yes, it has the same story structure and follows similar beats. “The Force Awakens” is clearly the first part of a new story arc that is intended to run throughout the new trilogy. The underlying political subtext of “The Force Awakens” is different from that of “Star Wars.” “Star Wars” was about a rebellion fighting against evil. “The Force Awakens” is about keeping that evil from rising in the fist place.
I would be remiss if I did not mention some of my favorite (non-spoiler) parts of the movie. This scene happens about halfway through the film when the antagonists find the protagonists on whatever the second planet is. As the enemy comes to attack, there is a shot of TIE fighters flying in front of a setting sun. A shot that is reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” However, the most interesting part was that the lightsabers functioned like real swords. In the original and prequel trilogies, the lightsabers were always like running a hot knife through butter. They would cut through anything and everything in a single blow. In “The Force Awakens” they behave like a real-world sword. They cut the enemy but do not immediately dismember him.