A film review by Craig J. Koban December 21, 2015


2015, PG-13, 136 mins.


Daisy Ridley as Rey  /  John Boyega as Finn  /  Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron  /  Harrison Ford as Han Solo  /  Adam Driver as Kylo Ren  /  Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca  /  Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa  /  Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker  /  Anthony Daniels as C-3PO  /  Lupita Nyong'o as Maz Kanata  /  Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke  /  Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux  /  Kenny Baker as R2D2

Directed by J.J. Abrams  /  Written by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan



Hindsight is a funny thing.

Back in 2005 when the last theatrically released STAR WARS film saw the light of day in REVENGE OF THE SITH many filmgoers – myself included – thought that we had essentially seen the end of George Lucas’ visionary, pioneering, and iconic cinematic universe.  

Then when Walt Disney Pictures acquired the STAR WARS empire from Lucas back in 2012 and announced a new sequel trilogy to his own beloved original trilogy, series fans were propelled into a newfound state of giddy nirvana.  Now, with Lucas out of the picture and ostensibly passing on full creative reigns to Disney, director J.J. Abrams, and former original trilogy co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, does (to quote its full title) STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS still have…the Force with it after a relatively long period of dormancy? 

The short answer: somewhat. 

Clearly, no new STAR WARS film – whether it be this one or any of the three previously released (and somewhat unfairly maligned) prequel trilogy efforts – would ever be able to re-capture that lightning in a bottle aesthetic that Lucas so masterfully concocted back in 1977 with the first film in the saga, which caused an unspeakably large seismic shift not only in the film industry, but also in terms of our prevailing pop culture as a whole.  The central quandary that the makers of THE FORCE AWAKENS find themselves in now is how to make STAR WARS fresh, relevant, and entertaining again for a new legion of potential fans.  The sheer creative challenge of paying nostalgic respect to the 38-year legacy of Lucas’ creations is undoubtedly daunting, not to mention the limitlessly arduous task of injecting a new film with an invigorating sense of intrepid world and mythology building.  On a level of placating years worth of insatiable fan expectations and giving them what they hungrily want, THE FORCE AWAKENS is on very sturdy and assured ground.  However, on a level of truly being audaciously creative in terms of propelling the series forward, the film is regrettably lacking in storytelling and narrative ambition…at least out of the gate if one considers this to be an introductory chapter to the next two films. 

Very true to the classic STAR WARS films of old, Abrams and Kasdan don’t waste time in the beginning stages of THE FORCE AWAKENS with a slow build of wasteful exposition (even though some elements could have demanded more explanation): they thrust viewers knee deep into the new story with a headstrong immediacy and without ever looking back.  The film is set – somewhat appropriately, but mostly out of obvious convenience – three decades after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI, during which time the Luke Skywalker (the last Jedi Knight) lead Rebellion repelled and eliminated the vile Galactic Empire once and for all…or did they?  In the shadowy aftermath of those events, the Empire rose from the ashes and evolved into the despotic First Order, which definitely takes a page out of the Empire’s playbook in terms of being a Nazi-esque regime with universe-dominating delusions of grandeur.   Resisting the First Order is the…Resistance, which I’m assuming is made up of spare parts of the previous Rebellion, something that the script neither dwells on, nor satisfactorily answers. 



But, blast it, where was the Tatooine-born farmer turned galactic savoir during all of this?  Revealed in the opening title crawl, Luke (Mark Hamill) has vanished, leaving uncertainty and diminished hope within the Resistance.  As a result of his abrupt and unexplained departure from the public eye, the First Order has been able to lay waste to much of the galaxy, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his right hand man/apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a cloaked, masked, and strong Force sensitive being that has a rather obsessive fanboy-esque attachment to former Empire baddie Darth Vader (depending on interpretation, this could be a potentially sly meta-commentary on deeply devoted STAR WARS fans).  One of the First Order’s own Stormtroopers Finn (John Boyega) has become disillusioned by his military’s murderous ways and has decided to go AWOL with the help of recently captured Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).  The pair crash land on the desert planet of Jakku (which has a disappointingly familiar look to Tatooine) and get separated.  

Finn manages to hook up with Rey (Daisy Ridley), a local scavenger that comes into possession of Poe’s own droid BB-8, which may or may not be the key to helping take down the First Order’s new ultimate weapon and locating the impossible to find Luke Skywalker.  In their attempts to leave Jakku in a very recognizable looking Corellian craft, Finn and Rey come in contact with the ship’s previous owners, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and the quartet decide to work in tandem with the Resistance (led by former Princess turned General Leia Organa, played by Carrie Fisher) to locate Luke and defeat the First Order.  In the meantime, the erratically violent and hot tempered Kylo Ren tries to make due on his promises to his master to thwart the Resistance’s plans once and for all…and all while having a very personal stake in said endeavors. 

THE FORCE AWAKENS is at its strongest on a level of infusing warmth, humor, and dramatic pathos back into the STAR WARS saga that hasn’t been felt in the series since its beginnings.  The new characters added to the roster of familiar faces are mostly well realized on an individual basis and as part of a unified group.  John Boyega has the new film’s most compelling arc as a conflicted man working on the wrong side that desperately yearns to be righteously good.  Rather surprisingly, he brings a goofy arrogance as his somewhat dim witted, but wholesome to his core First Order turncoat that craves to the do the noble thing and be a Resistance hero.  Oscar Isaac has a rogue-like charm that’s immediately winning in his somewhat underwritten role of Poe Dameron.  The two film standouts are, by far, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, the former displaying a photogenic luminosity while evoking a ferociously determined and physically and cerebrally empowered hero that will confidently carry this new trilogy forward (and how wonderful is it for this new series of films to be headlined by a charismatic and strong willed female protagonist?).  The most richly multi-faceted and gripping new creation is Driver’s Kylo Ren, a maliciously driven sociopath that is compelled – and deeply troubled – by his desire to mimic his inspiration in Vader while appeasing his master’s grand scheme.  The fact that this new villain pays off later in a profoundly dramatic manner and stands uniquely apart from his past STAR WARS antagonists is both noteworthy and commendable.  If anything, THE FORCE AWAKENS is definitely the finest acted STAR WARS film in decades. 

Abrams is adept as well behind the camera, utilizing a healthy – if not sometimes awkward – balance between computer generated fakery and real life practical sets and effects.  THE FORCE AWAKENS has a richly textured and tactile look and feel that even the impressively mounted prequel trilogy essentially lacked, which helps to cement and emphasize this new film’s impressive character dynamics.  THE FORCE AWAKENS’ technological sheen is gorgeously realized at times, but in comparison it lacks the conceptual design brilliance of Lucas’ films of old.  I applaud the film’s sense of environmental verisimilitude, but Abrams and company seem a bit too tentative and hesitant in terms of dreaming up the type of exotic and otherworldly locales that made the previous STAR WARS films such lush and immersive universes to get lost in.  THE FORCE AWAKENS has a sense of sweeping scope, to be sure, but the overall design of its multiple new planets, for instance, has a repetitive sense of Earth-bound sameness to them.  When the film does indulge in CGI, the results lack imagination.  For example, why utilize Andy Serkis’ formidable motion capture skills to play a character that sits throughout the film in holographic form, and one that lamentably looks like a discarded pre-production concept?  Even John Williams’ legendary music score and themes seem to be puzzlingly muted and lacking in the propulsively majestic tenor that accentuated the STAR WARS saga into the grandiose space opera we’ve come to love.  

Then again, repetition and an obvious and nagging sense of deju vu permeates THE FORCE AWAKENS and subverts it away from attaining greatness.  The original STAR WARS films were engineered to be loving tributes to the gee-whiz innocence of the Saturday matinee adventure and sci-fi serials that Lucas gorged on as a child.  THE FORCE AWAKENS is quantifiably the first STAR WARS film helmed by…a fan, which means that Abrams and his crew are attempting, I think, to lovingly reference Lucas’ original films in spirit and appearance.  On those levels, THE FORCE AWAKENS is an intended success as a grand homage, and it's certainly a giddy trip to see Ford, for example, strap himself back into the role that helped propel him into superstardom without missing a proverbial beat.  Unfortunately, though, Abrams’ intentional throwback vibe here gets in the way of series innovation and advancement.  Upon even modest scrutiny, the overall storyline from THE FORCE AWAKENS bares a startling resemblance to that of A NEW HOPE in a multitude of key ways, leaving this new film feeling like its made up more of recycled parts than it should be.   

Is THE FORCE AWAKENS a trail blazing and pioneering sequel or a thinly disguised remake of A NEW HOPE?  Fans and critics that have been so overwhelmingly swept up in the hyperbolic jubilation of seeing a new STAR WARS film seem to be forgetting to ask themselves this question while leaving the cinema.  Abrams has really trapped himself within a thorny Catch-22 predicament: Not enough callbacks to the classic trilogy would potentially offend fans, but boldly ignoring them altogether would have equally irritated diehards of the series.  All in all, it’s somewhat dissatisfying to see Disney take the safest and most pedestrian path possible with THE FORCE AWAKENS in terms of mixing new and old characters in an overall plot that we’ve literally seen before.  Love them or hate them, at least the prequel trilogy took calculated risks and gambles and dared to stand aesthetically apart from the classic films.  THE FORCE AWAKENS is so driven by fan servicing that it rarely feels like it’s propelling the series forward in truly revelatory ways.  

THE FORCE AWAKENS concludes on a positively stirring, but questionable climax that left me asking far too many questions of the film’s logical usage of the Force as an entity in the story (the manner with which, for example, the film plays awfully loose on how the Force operates as a spiritual entity and who can or cannot use it at pressure-laden times seems to distractingly contradict the series’ very mythology).  The film’s very cliffhanger ending may prove to be moving, brave, or frustrating (or a combination of all three) depending on your prerogative.  To be absolutely fair, THE FORCE AWAKENS does many things exceptionally right.  It evocatively recalls the series’ peak glory years while introducing us to a terrific menagerie of fascinating new personas that will help successfully propel us forward to Episode VIII in 2017.  The film has a wonderfully nuanced balance between dramatic urgency and light-hearted merriment that’s a pleasure to behold (unexpectedly, this might be the funniest of the STAR WARS films).  To his credit, Abrams has made a meticulously and proficiently crafted homage to the STAR WARS films of yesteryear that obviously comes from a deeply personal place from within that will resonate with viewers.  

Alas, the limitations of such an approach holds this introductory sequel trilogy episode back from achieving a truly powerful sense of newfound awe and wonder in the underlining material that Lucas magnificently concocted nearly 40 years ago.  Abrams uses and mimics the STAR WARS template and playbook well and to frequently exhilarating effect, but he rarely goes beyond it for inspiration. 



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