J.J. Abrams and company have crafted perfect blockbuster entertainment out of a film with so much expectation, it seems impossible that it could fulfill the dreams of so many. Matching crisp, inspiring visuals with a real sense of adventure, and a wonderful balance of light and dark touches (pun intended), this franchise kick-start sets up promising new potential for the galaxy far, far away. In a surprising turn, its’ the new elements of the saga that really inspire, supported by the wave of nostalgia brought through the re-emergence of each beloved character from the original trilogy.
It’s apparent right from the start that these filmmakers ‘get’ what makes Star Wars so entertaining – that serialized, matinee feel of the 1977 original, the charm of swash-buckling adventure and anthropomorphic droids, the hero’s journey, and detailed, lived-in design. It’s no secret that ‘The Force Awakens’ evokes the tropes of that first film, but what is interesting is how it plays with the mythology of the films and universe built prior while also being able to stand on its’ own. Viewers with cursory knowledge of the franchise will still enjoy this film and need not be intimidated, yet the film also rewards those well-versed in all things Star Wars in that it calls back history and sets up an ever-expanding universe with infinite stories that can be told.
The whole concept of these movies would implode in on itself if not for actors who are fully committed to the material. Harrison Ford slips into one of his most famous characters’ boots, doing some of his best work in years. He adds a weariness to his scoundrel character, selling the fact that Han Solo has been through the wringer, but still retains that sarcastic edge that only Ford can deliver. He gets to interact with the new kids on the block, Finn, a defected stormtrooper, and Rey, a scavenger trading pieces of wreckage for food on a new desert-scape, the planet Jakku, an outer rim site that serves as a graveyard for a past battle between the Empire and the Rebellion. These two are played by relative unknowns John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, yet they handle their roles like pros while respecting the material and the legend. The stellar Oscar Isaac is also on hand as Poe Dameron, the best starfighter pilot of the Resistance, a somewhat underwritten character that Isaac makes his own. The actors and filmmakers succeed in that the audience connects with these new additions in different ways and wants to spend more time with them.
The threat of the First Order, an extremist off-shoot of the Empire, hovers over these proceedings in that they are a rising force to be reckoned with and feared. Adam Driver plays Kylo Ren, a Darth Vader obsessive with anger management issues, as a new kind of villain, one whose motives are part of the overall mystery presented. Driver conveys an unpredictable nature to his character that keeps the audience on edge throughout. While the First Order are clearly the remnants of the Empire in design and intention, the subtle tweaks to the stormtrooper and vehicle aesthetic make this version of the Dark Side more compelling than ever.
‘The Force Awakens’ is meticulously crafted and choreographed, creating an audience interactive dynamic that begs to be seen on the big screen. In stark contrast to the prequels, this film returns to the tactile feel of a fully fleshed-out, lived-in universe. The creature designs are truly inspired, the sets and John Williams score inviting and nostalgic, and the screenplay, assisted by Abrams and returning ‘Empire Strikes Back’ writer Lawrence Kasdan after an initial pass by Michael Arndt, who similarly juggled emotion and nostalgia on ‘Toy Story 3’, is nimble, moving quickly, creating laughter one minute, goose-bumps the next, all adding up to an epic new adventure and the best time at the theater in a long, long while . . .
Directed By: J.J. Abrams
Written By: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, & Michael Arndt
Running Time: 135 min
* * * * (out of 4 stars) -OR- A