From the beginning, it’s clear how desperately The Force Awakens wants to prove to you that it’s bursting at the seams with the same magic the films whose shoulders it stands on did, at times to its detriment, others to its benefit; but after the sugar high wears off, you’re left wondering if you’ve watched a Star Wars film, or Star Wars.
Yes, what you’ve heard is true. The Force Awakens is essentially A New Hope given a new wardrobe, a polish job and $200 million of the best special and practical effects you can buy. And not unlike countless other derivative sequels, no amount of window dressing can alter the lack of originality at its admittedly well-intentioned heart.
Speaking just on craft, though, it is a brilliant remake; ebullient, sparkling and rife with that scintillating movement that immortalized the first one nearly four decades ago. In fact, this movie’s so well done on a technical scale that had it been the very first of the series, it might very well have been considered an untouchable classic of cinema (though it’s hard to say; trying to project modern cinema without Star Wars is like trying to project what Earth would look like if that asteroid hadn’t wiped out the dinosaurs).
The new cast flourishes. Boyega commands the screen, and Ridley, while wooden at times, shines when needed most. Their characters, Finn and Rey, represent a refreshing attempt at making the world of Star Wars look much like our own, and their arcs, while not perfect, are satisfying enough to make me interested in Episode VIII. Oscar Isaac’s typical rogueish charm flairs up in the form of hot-headed pilot Poe Dameron, a sure-to-be favorite of the new protagonists. And while he’s not technically human, the humans remote-controlling the new droid, BB-8, deserve praise; he more than fills the considerable shoes of R2-D2.
By far the most intriguing of all the new characters, though, is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. He is this film’s Vader analog, and one whose near-fourth-wall-breaking awareness of that role drives his entire narrative. While he is undoubtedly a villain, he has a magnetic vulnerability that makes him unlike any other Star Wars baddie we’ve seen.
Harrison Ford makes a pleasantly surprising turn as Han Solo, who, unlike many of the venerable actor’s recent roles, actually appears on screen rather than the man playing him. Fisher’s solid return as the now General Leia rounds out the old cast, as Mark Hamill barely has time to get his pants on before the film is over.
And that is one of the cracks in this loving homage’s armor: the story. Without trying to spoil too much, Hamill’s Luke Skywalker acts as the driving force of the movie, a human MacGuffin who remains mostly in the shadows. Sounds interesting, right? Did to me. So, what’s the issue?
Well, imagine Dorothy getting to the Emerald City, opening the Wizard’s chamber doors — and thats it. The screen cuts to black. Other story flaws include the film going out of its own way and defying its own internal logic to remain a near-carbon copy of A New Hope in its second half, a move that distracts from the engrossing propulsive force that drove its first hour. You’ll understand my frustration at missed opportunities that could have made a solid film into a good if not nigh-great one. Major, story-buttressing questions are left unanswered, and in that, this go-around does not succeed on the same level as its original predecessors, which managed to both present self-contained tales and be seamless parts of a larger whole.
It doesn’t help that, in what I cannot deny is a stirring climax, internal logic is discarded in favor of catharsis. The Force Awakens is not the first to commit this sin, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was an easy mistake to fix, and one that will only become more glaring once the afterglow of the movie’s feverishly-hyped release fades.
Fear not, though: the pulpy spectacle, as usual, is here in full force. As is the series’ unmistakable brand of self-effacing comedy. John Williams crafts a suitably Star Wars-y score, and JJ Abrams’ pure, simplistic direction jives well with the franchise’s past.
So, will you like it? If you want to safely and comfortably return to a galaxy far, far away simply to see hot shot pilots shoot bad guys out of the sky and red and blue lightsabers clash, without regards to originality, The Force Awakens might be your favorite movie of the year. If you want to see a new Star Wars movie thats, well, new . . . you might have to wait for Rian Johnson’s crack at it come 2017.