Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens – Spoiler Free Review
Writer’s Note: This is truly a spoiler-free review. And while normally I’d never ask for anyone to censor themselves, allow me to issue this simple plea: don’t spoil the movie in the comments section. The Force Awakens is one of those watershed moments in nerd history that deserves to be experienced fresh, as the filmmakers intended. So if you haven’t seen the film yet, please don’t worry about reading further in fear of having the plot spoiled for you. There is so much more to discuss about The Force Awakens, but we’ll all have plenty of time to do so once everyone is up to speed. Thanks in advance for your cooperation.
The Force Awakens has finally arrived, and it is phenomenal. Fulfilling the promises Kathleen Kennedy and J. J. Abrams made when it was announced, Episode VII is a worthy next-entry in perhaps the most beloved series of movies ever made. The doubters, naysayers and skeptics have, by and large, been silenced. Star Wars is alive, well and in good hands.
The Saga Continues
Continuing a franchise as beloved as Star Wars, particularly after a layoff measured in decades, could have been an exercise in fan service the likes of which has never been filmed. And yet—despite all the whining, complaining and pre-judging—The Force Awakens successfully mines (and even repeats) franchise history without feeling trite or even derivative. J. J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan have delivered a story that couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than a Star Wars adventure, but with a level of polish and humanity that was lacking in the prequel trilogy.
From the absolutely perfect opening crawl through the final scene, The Force Awakens feels fresh, despite hewing very close to A New Hope both in plot and structure. Having seen the movie twice in the last four days, I’ve come to the conclusion that this was an intentional—and intelligent—creative choice. I wouldn’t go so far as to call The Force Awakens a reboot, but it immediately and definitively establishes a new status quo that allows newcomers (if such a person exists…) to jump in with both feet, without missing a beat. New characters blend with old. New planets and locales hearken back to the original trilogy in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And new mysteries are introduced with little or no pre-amble, in true Star Wars fashion.
This is a spoiler-free review, so I won’t be discussing the plot details. But are the details, at this point, really that important? There is the Light Side and there is the Dark Side, and they’ve always been at war. The Force Awakens doesn’t stray from that formula one iota, and it works. The set pieces are as grand as ever, the questions raised are largely left unanswered, and the decades that have passed between Return of the Jedi are acknowledged, discussed but never really explored in-depth. This is a movie rooted in the past, but not beholden to it—both in plot and execution.
Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac all deliver nuanced, emotional performances. All of them are 100% invested in their roles. They never look bored, stiff, or embarrassed by the material. They look like they are having a blast and the movie is better for it. Driver, in particular, is all-in. His performance as Kylo Ren was a revelation. As someone who didn’t particularly care for Driver or HBO’s Girls, I was happily proven wrong. There is an emotional weight to his performance that takes Ren’s arc to another level.
Ridley and Boyega have an amazing chemistry together, as do Boyega and Oscar Isaac. The first scene involving Isaac’s Poe Dameron sets an irreverent but dangerous tone that is maintained throughout the film, very much in the vein of Han Solo. Boyega treads the line between humor and angst masterfully. His character, Finn, is wonderfully complex without being indecipherable and his performance is the perfect combination of physical humor, emotional conflict and burgeoning heroism.
Ridley is the hero that ties the whole thing together. Her performance is a mélange of heartbreak, exuberance and destiny that serves as a backbone of the film. Ridley’s ability to portray Rey as equal parts wide-eyed innocent and lonely orphan is to be lauded. In a galaxy populated by the fantastic, she is truly the most human of all the new characters.
Our returning heroes exceeded my expectations. Harrison Ford, in particular, delivered a standout performance. Ford can often appear bored or less than thrilled with the movie he is in, but he was in full Han Solo mode throughout the movie. Han is still the same scoundrel we all know and love, but he has scars and he doesn’t do much to hide them. Ford took all the “never tell me the odds” heart and sarcasm that made Han beloved and added a layer of world-weary wisdom that is completely appropriate to a Han Solo in the twilight of his years. His one-liners added a warmth to the movie that would have been missed otherwise.
Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, reprising their roles as Luke and Leia, did yeoman’s work. Their time on screen was mesmerizing and their performances were at once both familiar and new. Like Han, the performances felt true to the characters and had the weight of years behind them. The Force Awakens achieves the perfect mix of old and new, and never once feels like a torch is being passed. Instead, it feels as if each character—both old and new—is finding a new place in an ever-changing galaxy.
The Look and Feel
Unlike the prequel trilogy, The Force Awakens looks and feels like Episodes IV–VI made with modern technology. There is no jarring CGI a la The Phantom Menace. Abrams’ use of practical effects was an inspired choice, and his judicious use of CGI is subtle and unobtrusive. It further immerses the viewer in the film, as opposed to jarring us out of it. There was not a single shot that screamed “green screen!” despite the fact that so much of the backdrop—particularly in space—was computer generated. Contrast that with The Phantom Menace or Revenge of the Sith and you’ll quickly conclude that J. J. Abrams used technology to further the story, as opposed to Lucas’ penchant for tailoring the story to technology at his disposal. It is a subtle distinction, but an important one, because Abrams’ film allows the viewer to maintain their suspension of disbelief throughout the 2+ hours of the film.
The galaxy instantly feels like the same galaxy of the original trilogy. The combination of advanced technology and primitive implementation is present, and looks authentic in a way the prequels were unable to capture. The galaxy looks lived-in. The people (human and non-human alike) are fully realized, from their appearances down to their modes of transportation. That bright, shiny toy-like feeling so prevalent in The Phantom Menace is gone, replaced by a more organic—yet no darker—palette that breathes life into every shot.
The sense of speed and brutality in the battle scenes—both in space and on-planet—is a welcome addition to the mix. Conflict truly feels like conflict. It is more organic, more visceral and less stiff. Stormtroopers have better aim, and actually feel dangerous as opposed to simply having overwhelming numbers. Pilots use skill and strategy when engaging in raids and dogfights. And lightsaber duels are violent dances that never feel choreographed.
The Nerd Stuff
The Force Awakens does not suffer one bit from not being a cinematic retelling of Heir to the Empire. The “death” of the old Expanded Universe—the source of so much angst and vitriol from fans—didn’t affect this film at all. In fact, as someone that was initially upset at the demise of the “Old EU,” I can now unequivocally say that my fears were unfounded. Disney and Kathleen Kennedy should be commended for their work on and support of this movie.
The utter lack of any overt Disney touches was a complete shock to me. Unless I missed it—twice—there wasn’t even a Disney production card in front of the film. Previews, a reminder to turn off your phone and then, “A long time ago…” No Disney castle, no “When You Wish Upon A Star” fanfare. If we all weren’t hyper aware that Disney now owned the franchise, there would have been zero way to peg this as a Disney film. To me, that speaks volumes.
Lucas himself has said that he believes the franchise is in good hands. Abrams, Rian Johnson and all the other attached filmmakers have lauded Kathleen Kennedy’s contributions to the process. The Mouse is truly acting like a caretaker instead of the pimp many expected them to be. In retrospect, I feel silly for expecting otherwise. The Marvel movies have been wonderful and as non-Disney as one could ask for. They’re Marvel’s films and Disney is there to both write and cash checks. Star Wars is getting the same treatment.
Perhaps my recollection of the hype surrounding the prequel trilogy is clouded, but I think the marketing and merchandising efforts have been far more subtle and unobtrusive this time around. Disney’s marketing machine is unlike any other, and with Star Wars they’ve managed to be omnipresent without being obnoxious. It is an amazing feat when you really think about it. Sure, there are loads of toys, clothes, apparel and every other Star Wars branded item someone could want available at reasonable and not-so-reasonable prices in every retail outlet imaginable. But that force-fed (forgive the pun) feeling is decidedly absent.
I chalk all of this up to one thing: the lunatics are now running the asylum, and I mean that in the best way possible. Kennedy, Abrams, Johnson—they were all Star Wars fans first. Even before they made movies or ran studios, they were just like the rest of us—enthralled and mystified by this wonderful, confounding creation George Lucas unleashed upon the world so many years ago. They are living out their dreams—and by extension our dreams—by making these films. The love and affection in every frame of The Force Awakens is palpable. Make no mistake: this is fanfic of the highest order.
George Lucas simply lost the plot. I don’t fault him for it. He was micromanaging, he was revising, he was making creative decisions for business reasons. He was too close to his baby. Letting go, handing over the reins, putting his baby in Disney’s hands—that had to be a difficult decision, billions of dollars be damned. And yet in doing so George Lucas gave us the greatest gift he possibly could—he gave us the keys to the kingdom. Because J. J. Abrams is us. Kathleen Kennedy is us. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are us. We’re represented by proxy in this world we all love. Sure, Star Wars is no longer a singular vision. But has anyone been happy with Lucas’ vision since Jedi?
The Force Awakens is everything I wanted in an Episode VII and more. It holds true to the past without being beholden to it. It is a loving, joyful retelling of A New Hope that was clearly made by fans, for fans. The look, feel, plot and tone of the film are unmistakably Star Wars. I look forward to see how the seeds Abrams and the rest of the crew planted blossom in Episodes VIII, IX and beyond. Star Wars is once again a living, breathing, evolving organism. A galaxy far, far away has never felt so close.