Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review

A Remake Awakens

Director J.J. Abrams produces what is obstinately a Star Wars film, more so than the borderline imposters which composed George Lucas’ own prequel trilogy. Force Awakens is an intensely textured film. It’s decorated with lavish costumes, physical characters, and choreographed laser blasts which make up a glittering light show of Hollywood’s grandest proportions.

Unlike Lucas though, Abrams is strung up in a system. He’s not independent. At least, not independent enough. His ideas never feel like his own. The film lacks a definitive signature. Force Awakens is often suffocated by an array of hurried nostalgia and inorganic reveals. They become a running joke in and of themselves. These incidences are less connected to a story than they are to merchandising. Spaceballs continues to be right.

The celebratory fireworks and cuddly Care Bears of Return of the Jedi have been whittled by another galaxy-crunching force in the First Order. Lucas was never coy about his adaptation of authentic war footage. Abrams is more direct. First Order become an unnerving stand-in, a galactic Third Reich who hoist red banners and set about their rule – even if their totalitarian existence feels unusually rapid. Force Awakens is dusty and worn as a result, their tyrannical rule unflinching and developed by stellar production design.

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Their adversary is progressivism. How appropriate. Force Awakens is driven by a heroine in fiery Daisy Ridley – Rey – less a moisture farmer on a sand-draped planet than she is a parts farmer… on a sand-draped planet. Rey snaps at men who would hold her hand and swings a makeshift staff at anyone who comes to attack her. She’s defiantly self-sufficient even if her character is trapped in the routine of film which comes across as an exploitative 30-year high school reunion.

Force Awakens is a jarring transitional feature which wants badly to be a contemporary reboot or sequel rather than a concentrated continuation.

Force Awakens is designed to elicit cheers from a salivating open day/weekend crowds. It will get them but they won’t last. Rey bumps into Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3P0, R2-D2, Leia, and others in a stream which knocks the narrative senseless. Each re-introduction is either comically abrupt or primed by pre-installed drama. Force Awakens feels as if it’s surrounding those aging focal points rather than diving into a narrative concerning a routine MacGuffin. Star Wars is at the level where a flash drive is its primary motivator – a bad motivator.

A swell of dialog exists as canon primer. Characters once went there, some characters did that. “It’s all true,” says Han Solo. Exposition this stiff is wholly unconvincing, stirring as it may have been in truncated trailers. The infestation of marketing has no limitation: Make the new trilogy’s landing pad comfortable for those who skipped six prior films. Newcomers will buy more merch too.

Lucas wrote and directed a catastrophic three-film love story, but he (almost) effortlessly made his two series conjoin by their close. Jump from Episode III into Episode IV and the segue is sensible. Force Awakens is a jarring transitional feature which wants badly to be a contemporary reboot or sequel rather than a seamless continuation. Lucas’ faults were his own. Abrams’ attempt feels helpless under the marketing monolith which inhaled an entire film saga for billions of dollars.

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New characters are pinned together with the overdose of sentimentality. Suddenly Rey’s lead feels a touch dishonest. It’s less progressive than it is dubious – give the reset trilogy a female lead to best relate to a pitifully ignored audience who will buy and collect action figures. Then, pair her with uproariously funny John Boyega as the skittish Finn to reach minorities. That’s wonderful representation. But, given how far Force Awakens goes to mingle them with the old rather than set them off on adventure with the new, that Disney banner is raised as high as the First Order’s.

Underneath it all is a story which spits up a near remake of A New Hope – a narrative safety valve. Mitigate risk; tell the same tale, even into character arcs. A third act, self-referential comparison is almost too much. It’s bigger, the movie says, and Force Awakens has the schematic to prove it.

Force Awakens may not carry Lucas’ penchant for film serials particularly well, but there is a displayed mastery of his comedic charms.

Force Awakens proves dazzling to look at, dazzling to watch, and dazzling to admire. None of these films have been anything other than spectacles upon release. Abrams’ specific reliance on puppets and suits and masks and models is refreshing. It will hold against the revealing effect of time. BB-8, a roly-poly droid inhabiting the ornery spirit of Jar Jar Binks (mercifully without the surplus of reviled idiocy) and playful usefulness of R2-D2, is genuine. He exists on set. His practicality makes those around him better.

Entertainment value soars. All of the geek-ish Star Wars humor is intact. Force Awakens may not carry Lucas’ penchant for film serials particularly well, but there is a displayed mastery of his comedic charms. Dramatic lows are exquisite too, one harrowing moment set-up with a gluttonous metaphor and then thematically proper release. Force Awakens appears ready to let go until its final images render the forward movement moot for a final blast of Star Wars homesickness. In this one instance, it’s okay.

Star Wars sharply progresses the industry standards and hopefully can now progress itself. For its showcase of spreadsheet-toppling, special effect expenditures, Force Awakens is far too content to reuse and recycle. Tie Fighters and X-Wings whipping by the frame, flinging their Christmas colored laser beams. Stormtroopers and Rebel… err, “Resistance,” engage in tenacious ground warfare. Universe-saving heroes piloting the vaunted Millennium Falcon in foo-foo-to-physics aerial showmanship. Force Awakens sure can be fun.

Ahead can only be newfound clarity, revitalized storytelling, and sci-fi freshness. At least, that’s the hope.

Movie ★★★★☆ 

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