- Movie Rating -

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

| December 17, 2015

It is difficult to be blasé about Star Wars if you happen to be one of the millions who have spent the last 40 years with George Lucas’ seminal epic rattling around in your brain – believe me, there are a lot of us. But even if you aren’t, even if you‘re only a casual bystander, you still cannot deny that Star Wars is an experience, something special, a mythology given to those of us who were lucky enough to have spent our formative years in the last third of the twentieth century. Yes, It is fashionable to make fun of it, but those who dismiss it are completely overlooking its impact. Look around you. Look at the movies you’ve been attending for the last three decades; look at the video games; look at the high tech; look at the storytelling. It all owes something to Star Wars.

Alas, George Lucas. Once thought to be the master of all he surveyed, the architect of an enterprise that worked so well because he was surrounded by an army of talented people. When he tried to reverse back and tell the origin story of Darth Vader, he decided to go it alone and stumbled badly with a new series that did not meet factory standards and left the public reeling from the revelation that the emperor had no clothes.

When Lucas retired three years ago and handed the property off to Disney, it was the best thing that could have happened, especially since the man he handpicked to direct the next generation was a Star Wars fan himself. It is obvious that J.J. Abrams has a deep passion for Lucas’ cinematic mythology. If he didn’t then this whole new venture would have been for nothing. This is a saga very close to his heart and you can see the evidence right there on the screen.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a red-blooded adventure, teeming with heavy atmosphere; filled with dread and wonderment, action and suspense, wondrous and fearsome creatures, magic and mayhem, but most importantly the human element. Abrams opens up the world of Star Wars and digs into its buried myths, reminding us that – in this world – the legacies of good and evil are generational, and are based in very human qualities.

From this point on, Spoilers!

Thirty-Two years after the Empire was toppled by teddy bears, the galaxy has been marinating in its own turmoil. The Jedi, the Sith, the Death Star (and probably the teddy bears) have fallen into the realms of myth and legend, so much so that that new generation isn’t even sure if the stories are true. Luke has gone missing and remnants of the Galactic Empire are reorganizing into a new regime that makes the old one look like a special kindergarten class for kids with uneasy stomachs – seriously there’s a moment when the leader of the new regime addresses his legion of troops in a setting that is uncomfortably close to footage of the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg, up to and including their own brand of Seig Heil.

Comparisons to real-life events are not subtle – one of the first images in the film is patrol of stormtroopers – called First Responders – setting a small village on fire (echoes of the My Lai incident are practically shouted). The new Empire is looking for the pieces of a map that will aid them in destroying the one power in the universe that could overthrow them. The last piece of the map is housed inside the bulbous little droid named BB-8 whose head rolls around his round little body, giving expressions that R2-D2 never could.

Thrown into the mix by the course of destiny are three young heroes who become the last hope for salvation: a tough-as-nails scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), a celebrated X-Wing pilot named Po (Oscar Isaacs), and a conscientious objector named Finn (John Boyega) who sheds his stormtrooper armor when he suddenly wakes up one morning to find that he’s grown a conscience. The relief is that the new characters don’t feel that they’ve been grafted onto the story. We feel that they are part of it, even if they don’t know or understand the entire set of circumstances in which they find themselves. What is most noteworthy about the new characters is their diversity.  Women, blacks, aliens all finally get a stake in a series that has traditionally been almost completely white.

The center of the evil plan is the most interesting of the new characters, a metal-masked menace named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) whose story and motivations could have come from the pen of Shakespeare. Soliloquizing over the melted mask of Darth Vader, he vows to bring back the glory days of the Sith. He’s a force to be reckoned with, yet he’s got a lot to learn. His youth, petulance and inexperience are present. He makes mistakes and when he does, he’s prone to tearing a room apart with his lightsaber. His fears of failure are solidly linked to his master, a fearsome beast named Snoke (Andy Serkis) whose presence as a hologram towering over his charge are the most imposing image in the film. What they are planning is to build on the original Empire’s galactic domination scheme by means of something that I won’t spoil by saying one little word.

These new characters are interesting because they seem to be part of the world they inhabit. And their journey is helped along by the elders who have seen it all. Yes, Han and Chewie and Leia are here but they aren’t just walk-through cameos. They are solidly invested in what is happening. They are the human link to what has come before. What’s so wonderful about The Force Awakens is that you feel that this isn’t just a carbon copy of the original Star Wars, rather you feel that you’re visiting other parts of this universe that you haven’t seen before. We see interesting planets and visit wondrous creatures, some in the background some in the foreground – one of the most interesting is an enormous beast that seems to be made up entirely of snout and hind-quarters. Yet, for my money, there is no new character in the movie more interesting than a diminutive pirate named Maz Kanata (played by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o), an orange-skinned pirate whose eyes can apparently see into your soul. There is a lot of experience and wonderment to this character and plenty of echoes of Yoda, though she still feels new.

One of the constants in the Star Wars trilogy is the way in which the characters are introduced to one another by the whims of destiny. Fin runs into Po. Fin and Rey accidentally run into Han Solo and Chewbacca who just happen to run into Princess Leia and then just happen to run across R2 and 3PO. It seems to be all for the convenience of the plot (or lazy writing) but then you realize that this is how all characters in fairy tales meet. This is how the characters in the original trilogy and even the prequels met. Much of this film keeps with tradition. The older characters are our link to our memories of the Galactic war and we get to see how the adamant of age and of time itself have taken their toll.

One thing that Abrams and his writers improve upon here is the character of Han Solo. As fun as the character was in the original trilogy, he wasn’t much of a character beyond just easily-bruised machismo. Here he’s given an arc, he’s given a sense of purpose. He isn’t just wise cracks. Mistakes have been made in the past and we see in his deeply-lined face that they have plagued him for years. The development of his character is at the deepest heart of this story, so I will say no more.

Is it a perfect Star Wars movie? No. Is it a great Star Wars movie? You bet. One of the most tickling things about this movie is the simple fact that this is a movie that was never supposed to exist. Lucas maintained for years that there would be no Episode 7 but, of course, time makes fools of us all. Here it is. It’s not a prequel, it’s not a spin-off. It’s the movie that we waited 32 years to see and it is probably as good as it ever could be. It captures of the magic of that world that we played in all those years ago while being mindful of the logical place that such a world might have become in later years. It gives us the great pleasure of catching up with characters years later and seeing how they turned out. It gives us the great pleasure of seeing other parts of a world that we already know.  It gives us what we’ve waited on pins and needles to see.  The movie ends on a bittersweet note that is new for this series, and yet still on par with the traditions of the series.  We’ve waited on pins and needles for this new installment, and here is an ending that leaves us thirsty for even more.  It’s gonna be great, I can feel it.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.