Note: this review is spoiler-free. Comments on it, though, may contain spoilers.
On Sunday we went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The theater was jam-packed with families; lots of kids dressed up as their favorite characters—including one kid dressed as Wolverine. I have a feeling he was simpatico with my youngest, whose complaint about the movie was that it had no Mechagodzilla in it. (You can’t argue with that.)
My six-year-old daughter has complained before that there are no Star Wars movies about the adventures of Princess Leia. So having a female protagonist for the new movie was something she absolutely loved. My eight-year-old son also walked out of the theater talking about favorite scenes. Upon arriving home, the two of them ran to their room and began playing Star Wars, substituting various stuffed animals and other toys for the characters in the movie.
What makes Star Wars work, and not work? I think it works when it adheres to the explanation given by Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) way back in 1977 when promoting the first film on British television. He described it as a fairy-tale.
That’s why the prequel trilogy didn’t work well. Lucas attempted to marry the fairy-tale aspects of his first movies to a politically aware science fiction world which seemed constructed of half-baked Star Trek tropes.
The Force Awakens shakes all that off and gives a strong return to the mythic feel of the original. But as good as it is, it also has a slightly uneasy sense of self-awareness about it. It feels anxious to please. There are copious callbacks to the first movies. The two main characters of the film, Rey and Finn, know of the exploits of the original cast, and speak of them with reverential awe. It is a little over-done even if there is a reason for it. At the same time, there is the knowledge that another movie is coming to follow-up on this one, so like The Empire Strikes Back, there is a sense that some of what happens is scene-setting for future events.
It seems that director J.J. Abrams wants to do two things here: reassure the old guard and allow for the torch to be passed to a new generation. This is made explicit in a couple of scenes, a gesture which then becomes an offering back to the original cast in the end.
This all sounds a bit heavy and portentous when written down here, but rest assured: while the mythic underpinnings of the original trilogy are here, the lightness of tone is as well. Han Solo’s ability to wisecrack in the face of danger is back. BB-8, the new roly-poly droid, gets as many comic moments as R2-D2 did back in the day.
Rey and Finn also get scenes which are every bit as iconic as the main players got in the original. Daisy Ridley is very good, and John Boyega follows up his charismatic debut in Attack the Block by showing that that performance was no fluke. And the primary villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is quite scary: an unhinged, emotionally volatile man obsessed with Darth Vader. His unpredictability is what makes his scenes genuinely menacing. The secondary characters don’t resonate quite as well: Oscar Isaac is good as the dashing Poe Dameron, but the story doesn’t give his character enough to do in order to be very memorable. Second-tier villain General Hux may have been more menacing with an iconic actor playing him, as Peter Cushing was in A New Hope, but young actor Domhnall Gleeson isn’t quite up to the task and comes off as rather lightweight.
J.J. Abrams also goes back to the sources which inspired George Lucas to begin with. There are scenes which are patterned on samurai movies, characters and settings which evoke golden age sci-fi illustrations. Abrams also strategically uses practical effects blended with computer animation, a move which grounds the movie far more in a feeling of reality than many blockbuster movies do these days.
If I were to grade the movie, I’d give it a B+, with room for upward adjustment once we see the rest of the assignment.
Star Wars is fun again.
Note to parents: I found the level of menace and violence to be comparable to the original trilogy despite the PG-13 rating. There are a couple of scenes which may be too much for very sensitive kids.