He SAID: The Force Awakens

Scott F. Evans

I’ve always been a Star Wars fan. The original film way back in 1977 stoked my interest in both science fiction and cinema. I grew up with the franchise. The second film, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back is a much more mature entry than the first. It has a darker tone that’s almost chilling in some scenes. Unfortunately by the third film, 1983’s Return of the Jedi, creator George Lucas was clearly becoming more influenced by merchandising than by story. Half of the film is pretty good, but you can see the infantilism, creeping to the surface.

Then came the prequels, all of them written and directed by Lucas himself. These three disappointing releases, beginning in 1999 with The Phantom Menace, followed up in 2002 with Attack of the Clones and finally ending with 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, are almost textbook examples on how to destroy a popular series. Each entry was poorly written, barely directed and overly concerned with FX technology. Lucas got three strikes and I was done with Star Wars.

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When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 and announced a new sequel coming in 2015, I was underwhelmed. Between the prequels and constant barrage of kiddie cartoons, my interest in the franchise had waned. Star Wars was still one of my favorite films, but I’d been burned too many times by this property. So I maintained a healthy skepticism. J.J. Abrams being hired to direct didn’t help to assuage my apathy either. Abrams is an adequate director, but after rebooting the Star Trek franchise with wildly uneven results, he seemed an uninspired choice. He wasn’t bringing along his usual cadre of screenwriter collaborators so that was a positive, but I remained fairly indifferent. I was of course going to give the movie a fair watch. I am a professional after all. But it was going to take a lot to win me back to this series.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a solid piece of sci-fi entertainment. As an apology/course correction from the prequel trilogy, it’s brilliant. As a sequel to Return of the Jedi it’s a definite improvement. On its own, it’s no game changer. That moment passed thirty-eight years ago. Star Wars was the only thing of its kind back in ’77. In 2015, The Force Awakens has to compete with its own offspring. Every superhero film, and action oriented sci-fi/fantasy flick owes its existence to Star Wars. So after almost four decades of larger than life heroes, incredible creatures, and amazing technology, there’s nothing new here. However, it is a good film that works on nearly every level.

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I may be lukewarm on Abrams as a director, but he brings some badly needed elements back to this series and introduces a visual freshness sorely needed for the aging property. First and foremost, he and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt bring some genuine humor to the film. Not the cheap, juvenile humor based on slapstick and casual racism introduced in Menace, and not the forced comic moments in both Clones and Sith. The lighter moments here grow organically from character interactions and dialogue.  Abrams was also unafraid to inject a vital dose of maturity into the mix and he pulls it off with assurance. There’s real poignancy here. He’s willing to put his characters through emotional wringers. To be fair, Lucas tried, but it came off unauthentic and contrived.

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Visually, Abrams and cinematographer Dan Mindel nail it. These two are frequent collaborators and it shows. They bring modern cinematic language to The Force Awakens. Abrams likes to move his camera, but not so much that it disconnects this film from its predecessors. Thankfully, the intrusive handheld work and lens flares are not present. Unfortunately, Abrams still tends to edit his scenes too quickly. There are several beautiful shots here that deserved longer takes that end up looking like cutaways.

The Force Awakens main strength is with its casting. The old crew is (mostly) back. Carrie Fisher, reprising her role as Princess Leia, is ok, but looks a little bored. To her credit though, she’s not given much to do beyond stare at screens and give pep talks. Harrison Ford is back as Han Solo and he gives one of his best performances in recent years. He’s present and seems enthusiastic, like he’s genuinely glad to be back. But our three newcomers really carry this film. Adam Driver stars as Kylo Ren and although he’s styled similar to the classic villain Darth Vader, that’s where the similarities end. Driver infuses Ren with a faux swagger that recalls Vader but hides immaturity and a deep seated petulance. John Boyega shines as Finn, the heart and soul of the movie. Boyega’s having a ball here. He dives fully into the character. Sometimes the script takes Finn to the brink of being the standard black comic relief character, but pivots just before crossing that line. Instead, they give him agency and he’s an essential character. But newcomer Daisy Ridley owns this movie. She’s perfect as the defacto lead Rey, giving the character more energy and spirit than any other female lead in this series. She’s definitely molded after the original trilogy’s Leia but is far more active and miles ahead of the drab Princess Amidala of the prequels.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens does exactly what it’s supposed to do. It satisfies older viewers by resuscitating many of the elements we fell in love with from the originals, while not completely alienating the youthful fans of the prequels. It hits straight down the middle by being neither too adult or too childish. I was skeptical of Abrams, but he brought me back. It didn’t make me feel like a kid again, and I’m glad for that. I’ve passed that time in my life. But it did entertain me as an adult and former die-hard fan. I’m looking forward to the next one.

RATING: Need I even say it? Theater.

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