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It has been a long wait for Star Wars to come back to the big screen – it has been 10 years since the last live-action “Revenge of the Sith” and 32 years since the end of the original trilogy. Now the seventh entry in the series is out, one of the most hyped ever and expectations are just as high. So the question is: does it succeed?
Thirty Years after the events of “Return of the Jedi”, Luke Skywalker has disappeared and The First Order has risen in place of the Empire and the Sith. But when there is information that could lead to finding General Luke, Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) of the Resistance sends her best pilot (Oscar Isaac) to the desert planet of Jakku to retrieve it.
On Jakku are Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who abandons his regiment after they commit a massacre, and Rey (Daisy Ridley), an impoverished scavenger who makes a living off of fallen Empire war machines. Both come across a droid that has crucial information regarding Luke’s whereabouts and they need to take it to the Resistance before the First Order can get a hold of it.
Star Wars is always going to be a big seller – they could show a blank screen for two hours and call it Star Wars and it would sell. But fans are also nervous because of how the prequel trilogy turned out and Disney wanted to start their continuation on a strong footing. Fortunately J.J. Abrams, Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt and producer Kathleen Kennedy play it safe, following the template “A New Hope” had set out, a template that is a cinematic bedrock and a popular example to be used in screenwriting books. “A New Hope” and “The Force Awakens” follows what Joseph Campbell laid out in Hero with a Thousand Faces, an ordinary character (two in the case of “The Force Awakens”) from a quiet outpost being thrust into circumstances that are much bigger than them and finding out they have an important destiny.
The problems the prequel trilogy suffered were George Lucas becoming too interested in the politics and economics of The Republic, trying to add some overt political commentary and an over-reliance on CGI. His mind clearly melted after “Return of the Jedi”. Abrams and his team took a wise decision of making a very character focus movie with Finn and Rey as the audience surrogates and seeing how they grow over the course of the movie. There is hardly a look at the politics of the Star Wars, giving us what we want – strong characters and fantastical adventure.
Abrams focuses on using more practical effects than in the prequel trilogy. The prequel trilogy became notorious for its overuse of green screen and CGI backgrounds – by “Revenge of the Sith” it had as much physical weight as a Frank Miller adaptation. Abrams made a point of filming “The Force Awakens” on real locations and physically built sets on sound stages. Early on in the movie there is an alien bird in the foreground, which was a real model and not a CGI creation and there are plenty of aliens that were physical costumes and not CGI. This is the modern age of filmmaking and CGI was used, from using it for the space battles to motion capture work; but it is of the highest order and incorporated with the real sets and locations. For British fans Abrams opens the movie with a message about how important the UK has been for the series.
Abrams is an accomplished action director and he succeeds in creating some excellent action sequences. There are plenty of rocket ship chases, dog-fights, big laser battles – the big lightsaber fight is more of a brawl than the highly choreographed fights in the prequels. Abrams even holds back on using his beloved lens flair.
However Abrams and his team do play it too safe, too ready to reuse shots and plot-points from the original trilogy. “The Force Awakens” starts the same as “A New Hope” where a leading figure from the Dark Side launches an assault, captures an important resistance character – while a droid with important information escapes. Jakku may as well have been called Tatooine II since it is a very similar planet: there was a bar scene that was similar to the one on Tatooine, the First Order developing a devastating weapon and the climax being like “A New Hope’s”. Isaac’s role of the hot-shot pilot Po is like Han Solo, someone who is confident and jokes while Han Solo himself partly inhabits the Obi-Wan Kenobi role. Abrams and the writers also borrow some scenes from “The Empire Strikes Back”. Though it is fun when one character describes the Force and conveniently forgets about midi-clorians.
Due to the Star Wars brand, “The Force Awakens” was able to take a lot of risks with casting. The two leads are relative unknown; Ridley had one off roles on British television, and Boyega is best known for his role in Attack the Block. Both exhibit plenty of personality and were brilliant together as they have to accept their destinies. Rey is a woman with fighting skills and an excellent technical mind, but also a sense of wanting, and like Luke, had to live on broken down machinery – while Finn is a man trying to do the right thing. They have as much chemistry as Han Solo and Princess Leia did in the original trilogy. It is a massive improvement to the wooden performances and characterization in the prequels.
Ridley and Boyega were surrounded by a cast of emerging talent, having Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac in major supporting roles. Driver is the most prominent as the villain Kylo Ren, a fine addition to the series as a more overt internal dilemma and suffering from bouts of anger. He was an imposing presence with his tall lanky finger and is at least on the same level as Darth Maul as an iconic villain. Gleeson does get to perform a scenery chewing speech. However Andy Serkis only appears in a minor role and he is clearly just introduced to set up his character for the sequels, similar to what happened to him in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Gwendoline Christie’s (Game of Thrones) character of Captain Phasma was very underwhelming.
“The Force Awakens” is a slightly darker take on the Star Wars series with Abrams emphasis on the “wars” part of the title. There is a focus on innocent people being killed during the opening massacre, there is more blood on screen, and lightsabers go through Stormtroopers. “The Force Awakens” is more violent than previous Star Wars movies and it is the second movie in the franchise to earn a PG-13 rating. But if you are fearing “The Force Awakens” is a dark, depressing Christopher Nolan version of Star Wars, then those worries are unfounded because there still is plenty of humor in “The Force Awakens” due to its character interactions. The spherical droid BB-8 shows how a child friendly character should be made, a character that was funny yet also had sweet, heartfelt moments.
“The Force Awakens” succeeds with recapturing the style and tone of “A New Hope”, but it is too reliant on re-using ideas from “A New Hope”. The ground has now been done so future Star Wars movies should be willing and able to take more creative risks – there is a whole galaxy of characters, planets and stories available at Disney’s disposal.