Star Wars: The Force Awakens Dir. J.J. Abrams

[Disney; 2015]

Styles: sci-fi, action, adventure
Others: Star Wars: A New Hope, Star Trek (2009), Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi

Legacy plays a big part in most things having to do with Star Wars films. Within the original trilogy, there’s the legacy of the Jedi taken by Luke Skywalker and, eventually, the legacy of his father’s own legacy of betrayal and fall from grace. Then there’s the legacy of the original trilogy, which cast a shadow over the less-than-mediocre (sometimes just flat-out bad) prequel trilogy and even its own CGI-laden re-release. It’s no surprise that this first post-Lucas Star Wars film struggles with legacy both on a narrative level and in its storytelling structure. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, director (and co-writer) J.J. Abrams has crafted a fun blockbuster with great characterizations and a couple of compelling sequences, but it’s also so indebted to the franchise’s past that it can’t get out of its own way genuflecting to everything that people loved in the original.

But beware: this is not only a Star Wars film, but also a J.J. Abrams joint. You should be prepared for secrecy, twists, and protecting the ever-precious Mystery Box. I will try my best to tiptoe around the story’s details, but it’s difficult when the main problem with the film stems mostly from its plot: specifically, that there are too many echoes of the previous Star Wars films in it. Once again, the tale of an entire galaxy falls around another small group of people (seriously, how can they not be narcissists when they realize that the Skywalkers are the most important family in the whole galaxy?!); once again, a plucky teenager stranded on a desert planet strives for something more; once again, there’s an evil organization that has a planet-killing device that must be stopped by an earnest and spirited resistance group; once again, important information is hidden on a droid. Hell, easily one third of Han Solo’s lines are callbacks to the earlier films. The villains of the piece are the First Order, which is essentially the Empire with a face lift. Similarly, the Rebellion is now the Resistance. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what the real difference is between these groups from their original trilogy incarnations. I assume that the fact that they’ve established a Republic since the downfall of the Empire should be a big factor, but it just feels like the Star Wars status quo.

Too often, I felt myself thinking that this moment was just like another moment in the original trilogy — not in a complimentary manner but instead like a hollow retread. Even the CGI mimics the prequel trilogy’s problems: while it’s generally much better integrated with practical effects and sets, there are still obvious green screening and scenes in which the CGI sticks out like a sore thumb. There’s nothing new in the soundtrack either, with John Williams sleepwalking through without even delivering something as exciting as “Duel Of The Fates” from The Phantom Menace.

So, how can I still be excited after all of these problems? Because Abrams, along with co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, has populated these too-familiar beats with interesting new characters that will make viewers care about the action sequences and invested in what will happen next. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is, yes, another plucky teenager on a wasteland planet, but she’s also imbued with so much personality, longing, and agency that it’s no question she will inspire whole new generations to become a member of the Star Wars faithful. The actress does a great job, even when the otherwise well-written role feels like déjà vu. Similarly, Finn (John Boyega) is terrific as the everyman lynch pin that doesn’t fit into the First Order, but strives for something better. He’s not exceptionally written as a character, which makes his heroic efforts all that more affecting. BB-8 is as charming and lovable as his pre-release appearances in a million tie-in commercials have made him seem, all without being too cutesy. And with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the film has a compelling villain with intriguing depth, an agenda, and a killer look. He desperately wants to take up the mantle of Darth Vader, to command respect and fear, yet parts of him still struggle with adopting the ways of the Dark Side. This conflicted aspect, well acted and again well written, was missing from the prequel’s tale of Vader’s fall, showing just how important a good villain can be to any story.

Plus, there’s Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, a new cocksure Rebellion, er, Resistance, pilot with a great deal of swagger and style all his own; and Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata, who is an all-CGI creation that goes beyond ones and zeroes to become a fully-fleshed (er, not literally) but still enigmatic character in her own right. Even the older characters are re-energized with this script, with Harrison Ford seeming engaged in a movie for the first time in a long, long while. Sure, they are forced to repeat well-trodden lines from previous films, but there’s still a sparkle of energy and emotion in the readings that makes you remember why you loved them in the first place. It’s just a pity that so much of it is a rehashed, as it would’ve been nice to see new additions to their already long list of classic utterances.

So no, ultimately this isn’t the perfect film we Star Wars fans hoped for, restoring balance to the franchise. There’s too much lip service and fanboy bowing to the original trilogy, kissing the ring of what has worked previously instead of crafting a completely new path. But what is new is intriguing, exciting, and hopeful. With Rian Johnson (Looper, Brick, many episodes of Breaking Bad) taking over the reins for the next film, and with these unique and compelling pieces on the board, it’s set up to be a solid trilogy. When Star Wars: The Force Awakens isn’t preoccupied honoring the legacy of what’s come before, it’s bravely and brilliantly forging a legacy of its own.

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