And May It Be With You
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
To say that Star Wars made a splash on American screens in 1977 would be a massive understatement. A sci-fi movie that had a barely recovering 20th Century FOX in jitters became the greatest cinematic phenomenon of all time. Star Wars garnered a hold not just on the box office but the core of American pop culture and it has stayed in that state of relevance ever since. The original trilogy ended with the underwhelming Return of the Jedi in 1983 and sixteen years would pass before a new trilogy would arise. Expectations were sky-high and The Phantom Menace dashed a vast majority of them by being an average film at best that featured little to be lauded. Two more sequels would follow to similarly tepid responses, with audiences slightly warmer to Revenge of the Sith by its virtue of simply being better than its predecessors. The magic of Star Wars on the big screen had in many senses been drowned out by wooden dialogue, actors who weren’t directed, and a plethora of CGI that drowned out the visuals in a tepid and uninspiring fashion. Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrives not just as the seventh episode in a franchise, it arrives with the most heightened expectations of any film this year. Jurassic World and Terminator: Genisys were returns to franchises of old, but outside of generally being quite terrible, their hold on the imagination is frankly negligible in comparison to being in a galaxy far, far away. Even the marketing for the massive Hunger Games finale was swallowed by the galactic juggernaut. Each tidbit, promo, trailer, and conference was designed by Disney and Lucasfilm with the idea of drawing in not just diehard Star Wars fans, but also those who had abandoned the franchise after three substandard installments and those who had never experienced Star Wars before and thus needed to feel what the originals made their audience feel. The promise of a grand homecoming was hammered home again and again and again and it is a pleasure to report that The Force Awakens delivers.
Nostalgia is the most prevalent atmosphere in the film. Its script is riddled with homages to the originals, down to the dialogue and jokes about how many parsecs the Millennium Falcon can outrun. The settings are drawn straight from each of the original trilogy, with Jakku as the new desert planet in place of Tatooine (albeit with a singular sun and not two). Maz Kanata’s stronghold is evocative of the Messassi Temples of Yavin IV in A New Hope, the wintry forests where the climactic showdown between Rey and Kylo Ren occurs is a neat twist on the forest moon of Endor, and the home of the cheekily named Starkiller Base is the Hoth of the modern age (until it gets inevitably destroyed in the film’s climax). A new cantina graces the galaxy and even if the song isn’t as catchy as the original, it’s a welcome sight. Less warm but just as nostalgic are the interiors of Starkiller Base that feel like a chromed version of the original Death Star landscapes, as if inspired in part by the underutilized Captain Phasma. J. J. Abrams’s camera captures shots evocative of some of the most iconic Star Wars imagery, most notably Rey’s Binary Sunset moment and the catwalk that broke so many fans’s hearts with a single push of the lightsaber. There’s little that is cheap on the nostalgia, however, despite its prevalence. Almost everything is done with the deftest of touches, admiration, and a pervasive desire to reignite the same emotions the originals evoked all those years ago. The Force Awakens in that vein feels like a greatest hits album, with a few singles from their lesser-received singles (Rey’s hairstyle is a nod to Queen Amidala’s styling during the Battle of Naboo, for example). But it crucially needed to be more than a love letter. The film needed to tell its own story and outside of one glaring error it manages to do just that and a little bit more.
The glaring error is Starkiller Base. Named after the original last name for the Skywalker clan, the base is the third Death Star-like machination that serves as the greatest galactic threat in seven installments. There’s a cheeky meta joke where the size of the original Death Star is compared to Starkiller Base, complete with a vulnerable point in its edifice. Outside of self-referential humor, however, the remembrances become repetition. In the film’s third act, the battle over the base creates a bit of a drag despite its truncated running time and thrilling camerawork. Return of the Jedi by virtue of being the final volume in a trilogy created expectations of an epic showdown between the Rebellion and the Empire. Having a second, unfinished Death Star there felt like a desperate move to recreate the original climactic fight when there were plenty of other story opportunities to explore. The grand potential of the epic felt squandered, not helped whatsoever by the fight on Endor against the Emperor’s supposedly best troops. Here that feeling is similar but in a sense even more frustrating. Being the first installment in a new trilogy, I didn’t expect a grand climactic showdown (which I do for Episode IX, already in the works for a 2019 release). The Force Awakens had literally an entire galaxy to explore for the final act to close out its running time and that it went back to that original well felt a bit disappointing. Respect for the original material went a long way in endearing the film to a legion of loyal Star Wars fans, but the big bad being another giant machine was disappointing. It was also fairly illogical and while no one has ever expected this space fantasy franchise to be scientifically accurate, it was jarring enough to take away from an otherwise great film.
The immediate win of The Force Awakens are the new characters crafted to take this story forward. Daisy Ridley is a superstar as Rey, the first female to take the helm of being the main protagonist. She’s tough, smart, fearful, and someone who steps up at the moment when she knows what’s at stake. A scavenger who takes apart deserted ships to earn food, there’s a tough, rugged quality to her character that sets her distinctly apart from the Luke who set his own foot forth on his journey out of the moisture farms. John Boyega’s Finn is an awakened stormtroopers with a heart of gold and a mouth of wit, who at one moment is fleeing the fight but his conscience brings him back. Boyega is imminently charming in the role, his fearlessness and loyalty towards the people he’s grown to care about, a similar fan favorite to Oscar Isaac’s charming scoundrel of a pilot in Poe Dameron. In terms of the film’s main antagonists, the results are slightly less rewarding, but nevertheless brimming with promise. Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma has a phenomenal presence about her, made even more so if one remembers Christie’s performance as Brienne of Tarth on HBO’s Game of Thrones. It is unfortunate then that Captain Phasma then overall doesn’t get nearly enough to do. Adam Driver is perfection as the unstable dark side user Kylo Ren and Domnhall Gleeson does a solid job as General Hux, who looks like he made a leap into the galaxy right out of Triumph of the Will. And yes, BB-8 is indeed the cutest character in essentially all of cinematic history (his butane torch moment is incredible). The appearances of the original cast don’t feel forced either, arriving right when the narrative requirs them to do so, even if the plot around them was slightly forced or suffered from coincidental plotting. Seeing Han and Chewie battle smugglers before they board the Millennium Falcon brought a broad smile to my face whose vestiges refuse to leave. General Leia leading the Resistance was a sight to behold and I hope we get to see more of her role as a military leader in future installments. And no, I can’t finish this review without mentioning Luke on that island, his impressive beard floating in the wind as he looks upon the future of the Jedi Order in Rey.
The Force Awakens is starkly a Star Wars installment that is set to take the franchise into a new era while retaining the best of its past. The Force Awakens greatly improves diversity within the franchise and that approach does not limit itself to its protagonists. A common refrain in Hollywood is “we’ll do better” but it’s rare to see that actually occur, evidenced by casting controversies in Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, Scarlett Johansson as the lead in the new Ghost in the Shell adaptation, and the white leads in the catastrophic-looking Gods of Egypt. Diversity in film is not, was its detractors like to claim, a “politically correct” issue. The backlash against Boyega’s casting as Finn proved that. It’s a matter of proper representation and the opportunity for fans to find characters to whom they can connect on a deeper level. It’s a chance for fans to feel more truly ingrained and a part of worlds and universes they love so much. The three protagonists of the new film alone represent a great leap forward (no historical connotations connected) for the future of Star Wars but the ethnic and gender diversity is spread throughout the film. Women are in command positions throughout the First Order and the Resistance and the ethnic diversity is notable throughout from the first village on Jakku where the First Order attacks to the X-wing crew in the climactic battle. There’s certainly room for improvement, yet it’s hard not to cheer when a female Asian X-wing pilot (Jessica Henwyck, Game of Thrones), a black pilot, and Poe Dameron are leading an attack on Starkiller Base. It’s hard not to raise a storm of thunderous joy when Ray grasps the lightsaber in her hand and begins her journey towards becoming a Jedi. There’s a gorgeously shot moment of light emanating from Rey and Finn towards the tragic, poignant catwalk, a light that promises great hope ahead of the darkness that seemed so ubiquitous. In a way, it’s the film itself in a nutshell, pulling the Force out of the nadir and towards a path of the cinematic zenith it had attained all those years ago. The Force Awakens is thrilling, hilarious, poignant, frustrating, and brilliant, cloaked in breathtaking cinematography and bathing in a thundering nostalgia. As Han notes to a Chewie using some incredible anti-aging cream, it feels good to be home. May the Force Be With You.
Title: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Directed by: J. J. Abrams
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, J. J. Abrams, Bryan Burk
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams, Michael Arndt
Based on: Characters by George Lucas
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow
Music by: John Williams
Cinematography: Dan Mindel
Edited by: Mary Jo Markey, Maryann Brandon
Production Company(s): Lucasfilm Ltd., Bad Robot Productions
Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Running Time: 135 minutes
Release Dates: December 14, 2015 (Los Angeles premiere), December 18, 2015 (United States)
Image Courtesy: EW