Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Premise: Picking up thirty years after Return of the Jedi, the galaxy remains in a state of civil war. The despotic Empire has become The First Order and they fight The Resistance, which defends the democratic Republic.
What Works: The Force Awakens is the first installment in a new trilogy of Star Wars movies and the picture succeeds in grafting itself onto the original series of films (Episodes IV, V, and VI) while setting the pace for a new story. Like A New Hope and The Phantom Menace, this film introduces new characters and forges their relationships amid a broader conflict. The Force Awakens does that especially well. The new leads of this Star Wars film are Finn and Rey, played by John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, respectively. Finn is a Stormtrooper who defects from his unit, giving him one of the most interesting backstories in the Star Wars movie series, and Rey recalls the best aspects of Princes Leia in the earlier films. The new villain of The Force Awakens is Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, and the film’s most interesting and unexpected turns involve his character. The most prominent returning roles of The Force Awakens are Han Solo and Chewbacca, again played by Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew. They link the new film with the old ones and Ford is quite good here; the story does more than just reintroduce him. Devastating things have happened to Solo since he was last seen in Return of the Jedi and his character has the gravitas of age in much the same way that Alec Guinness’ Obi Wan Kenobi did in the original film. For those who have a fondness for the original trilogy, The Force Awakens delivers a pleasantly nostalgic experience and for everyone else it is a solidly enjoyable action adventure. One of the underappreciated reasons that the original Star Wars was so successful is that the movie was a great deal of fun to watch. Although Hollywood makes a lot more science fiction and fantasy films now than it did in 1977, movies like Batman Begins, Man of Steel, and even The Avengers have taken a self-serious turn. The Force Awakens is fun in the same way as the original Star Wars. It has the action and the fast paced storytelling that distinguished the 1977 film but The Force Awakens also has its good humor. It’s funny without annoying the audience or trivializing the conflict the way that The Phantom Menace did.
What Doesn’t: In fantasy films it is important to establish the internal logic of the story world. In this respect The Force Awakens falls short. The original Star Wars benefitted from a simple and recognizable conflict; an insurgent Rebellion fought an evil Empire. The movies that followed complicated the fight but the nature of the conflict remained consistent. Even the prequel films, as flawed as they were, had clearly defined sides fighting for a coherent goal. In The Force Awakens, the Resistance combats The First Order but the bigger picture isn’t clear and so the nature of the conflict remains vague. The ending of Return of the Jedi implied that democracy had been restored but The Force Awakens suggests that this wasn’t the case. In an attempt to give fans the Star Wars they know and love, the filmmakers try to retain the populist conflict of the original trilogy and so they’ve substituted the Empire with The First Order. That’s indicative of a deeper flaw in The Force Awakens. It recycles a lot from the other Star Wars movies—especially the 1977 film—to such a degree that it plays like a greatest hits reel. The film coasts on the audience’s nostalgia but there’s not much to The Force Awakens that is new or creatively risky. Director J.J. Abrams had previously helmed 2009’s Star Trek reboot and The Force Awakens also duplicates elements of that film, importing several key set pieces and plot twists.
Bottom Line:The Force Awakens isn’t going to redefine Hollywood cinema the way that the original Star Wars did nor is it the new standard for sequels like The Empire Strikes Back. But The Force Awakens is a solidly entertaining movie that will please both longtime Star Wars fans and newcomers and it serves as a firm foundation for new adventures in this series.
Episode: #575 (December 27, 2015)