STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS Movie Review: A Newer Hope

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Please note that we here at The Daly Planet have, after much contemplation, decided to carry on as if the Star Wars prequels never existed. If you are reading this review just to find out if the film is better than the prequels, the answer is yes. Although, that’s such a ridiculously low bar that it, by itself, tells you nothing about the new movie.

How do you top Star Wars? This was the question that director J.J. Abrams and the corporate overlords at Disney had to wrestle with as they attempted to create a sequel to one of the greatest, most beloved franchises of all time. The short answer, of course, is that you can’t; not really. Star Wars is a holy grail and the harder you try to reach for it, the more it eludes you. So, J.J. decided instead to remake it. The best way to describe Star Wars: The Force Awakens is as a soft reboot of the franchise. It is a film that heavily borrows story elements, archetypes, and imagery from the movies that came before it. It’s a safe, conservative route and The Force Awakens shouldn’t work. But somehow, inexplicably, it does.

The film takes place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. The Empire, toppled after the events of the final movie, isn’t quite as destroyed as everyone had hoped. They’ve gathered strength and reformed into The First Order, a military powerhouse led by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snook (Andy Serkis). To thwart them, Princess (now General) Leia (Carrie Fisher) has created The Resistance (basically Rebellion 2.0). Leia is frantically searching for her missing brother the Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who she hopes will help in the forthcoming conflict, but so is The First Order. As the film begins Leia has dispatched one of her best pilots Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) down to the desert planet Jakku in order to retrieve information that will lead to Skywalker’s location. This triggers a series of events that will sweep a group of people, new characters and old, into another fight for the survival of the galaxy. This is all information that’s revealed within the first 30 seconds of the movie, so if you’re about to yell at me about “spoilers”…lighten up.

If you’re thinking that all of this sounds familiar, that’s because it very intentionally is. The Force Awakens borrows a lot of it’s plot ideas from A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Sometimes it’s a straight carbon copy, others it’s clever twists on elements and archetypes. At times these callbacks work really well and you get some great nostalgic moments, but in others they feel completely shoehorned in. The result is an uneven, predictable story with tons of coincidental moments that are used to advance the plot forward. And advance forward it does. The pace is relentless, pushing you from scene to scene without giving time for any of the story beats to really land. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about the details of any of this here because I would be murdered by the spoiler police, but overall The Force Awakens has some real fundamental narrative flaws.

But they’re problems that don’t really matter. The focus in Star Wars has always been the characters, and The Force Awakens is no different. The story serves as merely a backdrop to see all these fascinating, original new characters interact with each other. From the first second each new lead appeared on screen, I wanted more. Some of the biggest smiles I had over the course of the film was seeing these guys come to life and play off each other in great ways. In a film filled to the brim with callbacks, references, and “remember how much you liked the originals” moments, it’s incredible that the most Star Wars-y moments were the small interactions between the new cast.

Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is the film’s rock. An ace pilot (the best in the resistance), Poe is loyal, brave, and absolutely dedicated to his cause. He never waivers, always does the right thing, and is even really nice to droids! This seems like it would be boring, but Isaac brings an energy to this performance that makes Poe a joy to watch. In a franchise in which characters constantly battle between the light and dark sides of themselves, it’s really refreshing to see a character who is just good, and knows it.

Poe’s inherent goodness is contrasted with Finn, who’s still struggling to find out what side he belongs on. Trained as a Stormtrooper, Finn couldn’t bring himself to hurt people in the name of The First Order and went AWOL. Finn is blustery, often talking himself into situations he can’t win. He’s kind to a fault, but also scared. He knows what The First Order is capable of and he just wants to get away from them no matter what. He is a man at war with himself. He wants to do the right thing, but also protect himself. John Boyega is great in the role, playing Finn as a goofy guy with a lot of heart, but even more fear. A lot of the comedy in the film comes from Finn, but he also has a fierce level of determination when he sets his mind on something.

The last of our new good guys is Rey, played wonderfully by newcomer Daisy Ridley. Star Wars has turned Ridley into a superstar, and rightfully so. She’s great here. Rey is a complicated character, and Ridley plays her with deft nuance. On one side she’s incredibly competent and skilled at just about everything she does. Finn tries to save her multiple times, but Rey doesn’t ever need saving. On the other, Rey is almost paralyzed by her fear. Her family abandoned her on Jakku when she was a child, promising to return. For years Rey has been waiting for them, turning to scavenging as a way to survive. Even when it’s clear to us that her family is never coming back, Rey refuses to accept it. As she’s pulled more and more into the events of the film, Rey resists and pulls back. As kind of a reverse Luke Skywalker, Rey is desperate to return home, just in case she’s missed her family. I can’t say more on Rey (again, spoilers) but it’s absolutely great that the main lead in a Star Wars film is a woman. 2015 has become a year of truly wonderful lead female performances in film, and The Force Awakens happily continues this trend.

But the film doesn’t just have new characters! Harrison Ford is back and absolutely great. As much as Ford has publicly discussed his dislike for the Han Solo character, the role has seemed to energize the man for the first time in a while. You can tell Ford has really jumped into the role, acting his heart out. He also plays great with our new characters, especially Rey. There’s a level of respect and surrogate fathership between the two characters that’s really great and a joy to watch.

But above them all is Adam Driver’s villainous Kylo Ren. My favorite new character in the series and the best part of The Force Awakens, Ren is a character that has never been seen in the Star Wars universe before. He’s a result to the question “How do make a better villain than Darth Vader?” You don’t! The result is a character as ridiculously obsessed with Vader as we are. Kylo dresses in all black and constructs a Vader-esque helmet of his own, even though he doesn’t require it to live. But like most Vader cosplayers in real life, Kylo just can’t pull it off because he’s trying so damn hard. He’s constantly disrespected by those around him, especially General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). His enemies talk back to him. When he doesn’t get his way Kylo pulls out his lightsaber and throws a temper tantrum, smashing up computer consoles. It isn’t until Kylo Ren removes his mask that you finally understand why. Driver plays Ren as a whiny brat who is basically incompetent. This all still makes Ren frightening. His command of the force would put Vader to shame, but he’s arrogant and unhinged. He couldn’t be less like his idol Vader. Out of all the characters in this film, Kylo Ren is the one I’m most anxious to learn more about.

I think J.J. Abrams was born to direct a Star Wars movie. His skills as a director just seem to perfectly align with what Star Wars is. This is, fundamentally an Abrams film; bolstered by his typical strengths and containing his usual weaknesses. It is a film that moves along at a breakneck pace, hardly stopping to consider the impact of anything that is happening. It manages to pull you along for the ride, and you almost don’t notice the glaring narrative problems as you’re propelled from scene to scene by truly great characters. The Force Awakens isn’t a perfect film. It won’t change your life. But despite all it’s problems it feels very much like a Star Wars movie. The stage is now set for a new trilogy. And for the first time in a long time, I left a Star Wars movie excited about what will happen next. And that is something.

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