Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Peter Mayhew, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Mark Hamill, Gwendoline Christie, Max Von Sydow, Anthony Daniels
I honestly didn’t realize until this year how much hate Star Wars: The Forces Awakens has gotten. Yes, it has a high score on Rottentomatoes, and yes, there are many Star Wars fans who consider it in the same league as the original trilogy. But if you go on IMDB, you will find pages upon pages upon pages of user reviews giving it a 1/10 rating. Some even went so far as to say that it actually made the George Lucas-helmed prequel trilogy look good by comparison, while others said that Rogue One was more of a true Star Wars movie than this one was.
Now look, given the major hype surrounding this movie, it was inevitable that some were going to be disappointed with the movie. I also believe that everyone has a right to their opinion. It’s just a movie, after all. That being said, after having just finished The Force Awakens for the third time, I have to ask, where in the crap is all the intense hatred for this movie coming from? Does it have some of the same story beats as A New Hope? Okay, yes, I’ll give you that. Even so, the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt, and director J.J. Abrams has enough about it that’s fresh and compelling to have it stand as its own movie.
And as its own movie, it’s a visually stunning and propulsively paced sci-fi adventure, with a sharp script and some terrific action scenes to boot (the climactic light saber battle, set in a snowy forest, gets my adrenaline pumping every time I watch it). It must have been frightening as heck for Abrams to jump start a new trilogy in such a popular franchise, but he handles it not only with confidence and energy, but also with the upmost reverence. This is a Star Wars movie directed by someone who is clearly in love with the franchise.
It’s been a few decades since the fall of the Galactic Empire, and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is now missing. General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) has sent her best pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to find him. His first stop is on the desert planet Jakku, where a village elder named Tekka (Max Von Sydow) holds a piece to a map that’ll lead to Luke’s whereabouts. The village is soon raided by storm troopers from the First Order, led by the menacing Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Ren slaughters the villagers and takes Poe as a prisoner, but not before Poe put the piece of the map in his faithful droid BB-8 and sent him out of the village. The next day, BB-8 is saved from a ruthless scavenger by a far more sympathetic scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), who has made a home for herself inside a fallen AT-AT Walker.
Kylo Ren, it seems, is also looking for Luke (who is said to be the last Jedi) with the intent to kill him, and after a grueling interrogation/torture scene between him and Poe, Ren sends his troops back to Jakku to retrieve BB-8. It is here where we meet one of the most interesting new additions to the cast, an ex-storm trooper named Finn (John Boyega), who grows seriously repulsed by The First Order after his first mission, and not only saves Poe from captivity, but also aids Rey on her quest to return BB-8 to the Resistance base once the droid’s importance becomes known to her.
Finn is a refreshingly complex character. He was taken from his family at a very early age to fight for a cause that wasn’t his own, and is constantly haunted by all the things he’s seen and done over the years. He tells Rey that he’s a soldier for the Resistance, when in truth he wants nothing more than to get as far away as possible from the First Order as humanly possible, and we can tell that even this lie eats away at him. There is genuine chemistry between him and Rey, so that when he reveals to her who he really is, or when she refers to him as “my friend” during a particularly tender scene near the end of the film, there’s actual dramatic weight there.
Kylo Ren is also a fascinating character. Yes, he’s a villain who wears a black mask that distorts his voice much like Darth Vader (Poe makes a good joke about that in the beginning), but that makes sense, given that he’s trying to follow in Vader’s footsteps. We even see him praying to Vader’s helmet, asking him for help to fight against what goodness he has left in him. Like his role model, Ren is guided by a sinister figure, this one named Snoke (Andy Serkis), yet whereas Vader was slowly seduced and tricked into becoming a soldier for the Dark Side, Ren seems to have willingly sold his soul to it, which is a curious path for his character to take, given that he’s the offspring of two of the most heroic characters in the series (hopefully, the future installments will develop him further and show how he got to that point).
The one character I’m most excited to see more of is actually Rey. Strong, intelligent, and charming as heck, the Force is also incredibly strong with her, more than she even realizes. In the beginning, she surprises herself with some of the things she can do (she’s able to flawlessly fly the Millennium Falcon out of Jakku during an excellent chase sequence), but once she becomes more aware of it, we’re treated to a really terrific scene where she not only uses the Force on a storm trooper to release her from captivity, but also to drop his weapon. Why is the Force so strong with her, and how is she able to use it so well when she didn’t even know that she had it for so long?
These aren’t plot holes. I have a feeling that the filmmakers could answer these questions for you in an instant if you asked them, and that the future installments will eventually address them. Questions also arise about Rey’s parents (rumors are already circulating about who her father is) and why they abandoned her at such an early age. Were they forced to? If so, then why? And what about Kylo Ren? During one particular moment (and it’s one that I’m sure many people saw coming), he makes a decision that you would think puts him past all hope. Is he beyond redemption now? And given how good Finn appears to be at wielding a light saber, is there some of the Force within him as well?
I am genuinely curious to see what the other movies will do with these characters, because I am genuinely interested in these characters. The performances aid considerably in bringing them to life. While he’s not in the movie for very long, Isaac is immensely likeable as Poe, while Driver does a fine job of bringing menace to such a conflicted character. Domhnall Gleeson is gleefully over-the-top as the sadistic General Nux, and Boyega brings effortless charisma to the character Finn. Ridley, on the other hand, is a revelation, so nuanced and spunky and affable that it’s impossible to look away every time she’s onscreen. She is a real find, and I can't wait to see more of her in the future.
With the new faces come the familiar ones as well, notably Carrie Fisher as Leia and Harrison Ford as Han Solo, and they’re just as wonderful as ever. When these two share the screen for the first time, it’s pure magic. The chemistry is still as strong as it was before, and with the passage of time, there is an added wisdom and depth to their scenes that wasn’t there in their younger years. Everyone’s favorite Wookie Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) is back, fighting alongside Han. C-3PO also returns, and while he’s just as charmingly annoying as ever, he might be upstaged by the personality rich BB-8, whose response to Finn’s thumbs up leads to one of the biggest laughs in the movie.
Visually, the movie is spectacular, seamlessly blending practical effects and CGI to create a movie that has the same look and feel as the original movies. Perhaps some of the film’s best and most haunting images come when we first see the planet-killing weapon used by The First Order in action. It looks like the Death Star, but it is actually much bigger, and a single shot of its laser can destroy multiple planets instead of just one.
I remember when J.J. Abrams made his Star Trek reboot back in 2009, he received a lot of hate from fans as well, although again, I haven’t the faintest idea why. I think the man is a terrific filmmaker, and while The Force Awakens might not quite equal his work on the Star Trek films, it still works as a very strong stand alone film, and a worthy addition to the Star Wars franchise. Let the haters hate all they want to. The Force is definitely strong with this one, and I can't wait to see what new directions the filmmakers choose to take these new characters.
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence
Final Grade: *** ½ (out of ****)