A lot of people call the Ewoks the thing they dislike the most about Return of the Jedi. My biggest problem with “Episode VI” was always something far more egregious: redoing the Death Star run. That original sequence is one of the most indelible pieces of cinema history. Trying to recreate it and make it land just as strongly or even better was a fool’s errand, and though the attack on the Death Star II was a fantastic technical and visual achievement, it felt narratively hollow and beholden to something greater. The Force Awakens is that stretched over two and a half hours.
The script for The Force Awakens (credited to Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams, who rewrote the original version by Michael Arndt) is so entrenched in the structure and story beats of the original Star Wars that it becomes impossible to ignore. There’s plenty of nice little bits of fan-service that are innocuous enough, but it’s the entire skeleton of The Force Awakens that makes it too familiar for its own good. This becomes damning for the film after a point because it stops being a distraction and actually makes huge swaths of the movie completely predictable. And yet again (for the fourth time in this series), we have a reconfigured Death Star run as part of the climax.
But, just like the attack on the Death Star II, The Force Awakens is cinematic visual splendor at its absolute finest. Every visual component from the cinematography to the set design to the thrilling action sequences to J.J. Abrams’ sure-handed direction are unbelievable successes. This is the best looking entry in the entire franchise by a wide margin, and this film demands to be seen in the most illustrious way possible. There are so many gorgeous shots from this movie that have imprinted on my brain, and though I may have serious issues with the story J.J. Abrams is telling, the way he’s telling it solidifies him as one of our most valuable filmmakers.
And the script isn’t a total write-off thanks to a new cast of lead characters that are all thoroughly compelling. Finn (John Boyega) is the most interesting on paper; as a stormtrooper who was trained from birth to do nothing but serve, his realization that he’s on the wrong side and his drive to do good because it’s the right thing to do is fresh and endearing. It doesn’t hurt that Boyega is unbelievably charismatic and more than earns his fair share of laughs throughout the film. Rey (Daisy Ridley) provides what might be one of the coolest moments in the franchise’s history so far, but it is hard to get beyond how much of her character is a copy-and-paste of Luke from Star Wars. It’s through her performance that Ridley salvages Rey by making her wide-eyed, energetic, and extremely smart. Heck, even that toy BB-8 works as a character, and provided me with one of my biggest smiles of the evening.
Then there’s Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). It’s difficult to talk about this character without getting into some areas others would prefer to discover on their own, but suffice to say that Ren is a fascinatingly conflicted character (serious shades of Vader in Return of the Jedi, which is made even more blatant when someone repurposes a line from that film and applies it to Ren) and has made for an antagonist that I’m totally invested in. Driver’s performance is certainly worth commending as he manages to make Ren terrifying, sad, and even humorous at times.
As far as the returning cast, we spend the most time with Han and Chewie and they are utter delights. The witty back and forth is still there in spades, and whenever the movie is playing with the two of them, it works. I wasn’t so crazy about Leia (mostly due to Carrie Fisher’s strained attempt at acting), but there was at least one exchange between her and Han that felt like old times. As for Luke? Well, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the entire film is structure around the search for Luke Skywalker, but what that means in regards to him I’ll leave for you to discover.
I was very happy that the majority of the lead characters (Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is so secondary that I forgot to mention him until just now. He’s fine but unremarkable) kept me involved because the film’s story was so tiring. It’s dangerously close to being a beat-for-beat retread of Star Wars, but some variety in the set-pieces and some unique character moments prevented it from being an unmitigated bore.
I’m planning on seeing the film again and doing a second take on it that is much more in-depth (read: spoilery), and I’ll also be having a spoiler discussion with some of the other CHUD writers this weekend, but as far as a general appraisal goes, The Force Awakens has provided an acceptable enough foundation for the franchise to grow on (the worst thing I can say about The Force Awakens is that I’m far more enticed by what the next entry will offer). There’s a lot of pieces to be picked up in Episode VIII and I hope Rian Johnson is up to the task, but more than that, I hope Episode VIII feels like no Star Wars story I’ve ever seen. I’ll give The Force Awakens the fact that it needed to act as a salve for the wounds the prequels inflicted on a large swath of fans, but it’s medicine that’s been sitting on the shelf for nearly forty years.