Movie Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Directed by J. J. Abrams

Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver and Harrison Ford

Originally posted January 28, 2016

I’ve never been a fan of J.J. Abrams. I did not take it lightly when he hawked a giant loogie in the face of loyal Star Trek fans, myself included, with his arrogantly apocryphal 2009 reboot of the legendary TV and movie franchise.

That film’s disregard of the most basic logic and its blasphemous plot twist, the destruction of two key planets in the Trek universe, effectively nullified much of the franchise’s 5 series, 700 + episode, 10 movie mythology. “It’s a reboot,” its defenders said, “an alternate timeline.” Oh yeah? Blow me.

Things got even worse with his colossally stupid follow up, Star Trek: Into Darkness.

But I held higher hopes upon hearing that Abrams would helm the long-awaited sequel to the original Star Wars trilogy. After all, Star Trek is science fiction. Star Wars is space opera. The Trek franchise, while no stranger to plot holes and illogic, at least feigned some semblance of scientific reality. If its science was sometimes questionable, at least there was an awareness that such a thing existed: One of Star Trek’s most famous scientific gadgets, the molecular transporter, relied on something called the Heisenberg compensator. Of course the show’s writers were clueless as to how it worked or if it was even possible, but they at least displayed a scientific knowledge of the necessity of overcoming the very real Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal in order for a transporter to exist.

Star Wars on the other hand has no such limitations. It’s pure fantasy, and as such, can create whatever reality it wants and still be in line with the corny, free spirit of the Old-Hollywood Saturday morning serials on which the original films were based. This provides perfect fodder for the high action, keep-your-brain-in-check silliness that is Abram’s specialty. But could he really pull it off, particularly in the wake of three hugely successful but generally maligned prequels that left fans hungering for the magic of the original three films?

Make no mistake: He could and he has. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the best Star Wars film to date, on nearly every level.

The visual effects obliterate those in films produced 40, 30, even 10 years ago. And the action sequences sizzle throughout. One expects these things to be ratcheted up with every new Star Wars episode. But surprisingly this film’s greatest strength is not technology, but the one quality the other entries in the series always found wanting: emotional resonance. This movie tempers its break-neck action with real heart.

To be sure, this is a darker Star Wars for a darker time. The night I saw this film, it was preceded by a dreary, bone-headed preview of the upcoming Batman vs. Superman. That trailer was infused with the joyless cynicism that permeates so much of today’s alleged escapist blockbuster fantasies. After that I was subjected to a preview for the sequel to Independence Day, arguably the stupidest big-budget epic in the history of American cinema. I was not hopeful.

The opening sequences of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, while visually stunning, seem as if they might follow the trend. Beginning with a brutal battle/massacre sequence, and extending through one or two high powered action sequences, most memorably involving the ruins of a junked Imperial Cruiser, things get off to an exciting, if not affecting start.

Similarly, the two new heroes, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) are interesting though not particularly compelling considering their dramatic stories. They do however, lend a certain PC credibility to the film. Rey is female, Finn is black. The original Star Wars drew heavy criticism from the Screen Actors Guild and others for not employing a single black performer. The first sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, attempted to pacify those critics in an obvious bit of tokenism by casting, or rather miscasting, Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian. Four decades later, the sex and race of these two lead characters is mercifully irrelevant. They’re a perfectly modern pair of heroes, yet they seamlessly fit in with the action-movie stereotypes that dominate the series.

But about 30 minutes in, the true magic begins. That magic is called Harrison Ford. Ford, as Han Solo, the character that made him famous, wears a face as weathered and leathery as the jacket on his back. His flip, reluctant hero remains fully intact. He’s the real life “Force” of this movie and this series.

His appearance, along with long-time companion (?) and “walking carpet,” Chewbacca, sets the stage for a dazzling chase sequence through the corridors of a run-down freighter ship as our four heroes are pursued by hilarious and terrifying monsters called Rathtars. Resembling giant, shark-toothed octopi, they rank among the most memorable CGI creatures ever created. The sequence has the same devil-may-care humor that made the original film so entertaining. But while the original’s action sequences winked at the audience as if to let us know there was never any real threat to the characters, this one left me breathless, my heart pounding. At this point, there was no doubt I cared about the fate of the new characters as much as the old. It was all uphill from there.

Much has been written about the fact that the plot here is little more than a retread of earlier films, and that its only truly emotional moments are based purely on nostalgia. I beg to differ. Yes, the plot is overly familiar: There’s a Death Star-like planet killer that’s much bigger and much scarier. There’s a bar scene with strange alien creatures that’s a thinly disguised do over of the Mos Eisley cantina sequence but with infinitely cooler creatures, notably Maz, a tiny goggle-eyed alien sage who guides Rey much as Yoda guided Luke Skywalker.

There’s even a re-quote of the original’s infamous, scientifically laughable line referring to a parsec as a measure of time, a wonderful wink to fans and a defiant reminder to critics that this is not science fiction.

And yes, it’s also true the film’s most moving moments involve the original cast members. But the emotions arise not from the nostalgia of seeing old friends again, but the dramatic effect that time has wrought on them. Ford wears Solo’s hard life on every square inch of his superbly expressive face. The wit and sarcasm of this beloved character remain, though blunted by the “whips and scorns of time.”

When Carrie Fischer’s Princess Lea appears, the shock is palpable, the plucky child with the headphone hair now replaced by a stern-faced old woman whose heartache cannot be disguised. You understand the sorrow of her life even before you know the details.

Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker appears only briefly and doesn’t say a word. Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark) build up to the moment very slowly, but when it arrives, it’s hard to imagine the blood of even the most casual Star Wars fan not being stirred.

The film’s villains are perhaps the best in the series. It seems unlikely that Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren will achieve the same iconic status as Darth Vader. He’s a bit of a wimp, lacking confidence and barely able to resist the temptation of the Force’s good side. But that complexity makes him vastly more interesting than the one dimensional Vader.

His boss, the sinister Supreme Leader Snoke, an enormous, Gollum-like hologram, towers over his minions with chilling authority. He makes Emperor Palpatine look like the zit-faced pussy-whip we all know he was.

As for Abrams, he conducts his cinematic symphony with a sure and steady hand. Unencumbered by logic, he tells his story with confidence and ease. What a shame he’s not slated to direct the next installment. Star Wars may be his true calling.

The original Star Wars was a throwback. Coming on the heels of American cinema’s last golden age, the late 60’s and 70’s, a period in which filmmakers like Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Sam Peckinpah abandoned traditional storytelling clichés in favor of a gritty realism that broke long held taboos on sexual content, violence and profanity, it enchanted audiences and critics alike with child-like appeal and guileless charm aided in no small measure by one of the most memorable scores in film history.

Those were gentler times. It’s not realistic to expect a post 911 Star Wars to have the same sweet nature as the original. The film works hard to recapture that charm but it can’t help but be darker.  In an era when the internet has rendered logic irrelevant, and right wing fear-mongering and Trumpist fascism seem poised to topple cherished democratic principles, this may be the best we can hope for. But unlike so much of the mean-spirited garbage that passes for entertainment these days, Star Wars: The Force Awakens provides genuine and cathartic escapism, redeeming a tired franchise with a wild and deeply satisfying ride. For that, Mr. Abrams, I thank you.

Score: 87/100