Star Wars is back.
I didn’t believe it at first. Yes, the bombastic Star Wars theme blasted, the scrolling text rolled. It looked like Star Wars, it sounded like Star Wars, but it didn’t feel like Star Wars.
The Force Awakens begins 30 years (approximately) after Return of the Jedi, with a brand new set of characters. It’s got a darker, edgier look, achieved by lower lighting and stylistic camera choices. A lot of director J.J. Abrams’ visual trademarks are in full form here (lots of moving/gliding camera, lens flares here and there) and it almost feels more like Star Trek than Star Wars.
No time is wasted setting up the new ensemble consisting of Finn, a troubled, rogue Stormtrooper who has more ambition than anyone in the entire galaxy; Poe, an experienced fighter pilot with quick wit; BB-8, a droid easily as adorable as R2-D2; and Rey, a brilliant young woman who is as equally feisty and as rugged. She has survived the harsh nature of poverty on the desert planet Jakku, which bares a strong resemblance to the original trilogy’s Tatooine. Immediately, all these characters are ones you can like and more importantly, believe. Gone is the contrived, unnatural dialogue that plagued the prequels. The dialogue here is stronger than ever, but Abrams also knows when to let the characters shut up and let the silence do the talking.
An entire cast of villains stands opposite our beloved heroes. General Hux is an authoritative, intimidating man who pulls the same rank as Sith-wannabe Kylo Ren, a powerful user of the Force who models himself after the legendary Darth Vader, but doesn’t quite have the maturity or power to match his role model. Ren seeks to complete his training under the guidance of the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke. This trio, along with what remains of the Empire, are hell-bent on squashing the Resistance, led by our band of heroes.
The new protagonists are all rather inexperienced and they need some help from some veterans. Enter Han Solo, whose return to the screen is nothing short of glorious. Every character who was featured in one of the previous films is given a grandiose introduction. Abrams knows how and when to milk the nostalgia, perhaps a bit too much at times in the plot, but it’s extremely comforting to see so many beloved characters return from the great trilogy that started it all.
And this is when Star Wars starts to feel a little more like Star Wars. While The Force Awakens functions exactly like any other Star Wars film, it is just missing that George Lucas touch – which even the inconsistent prequels carried – unless its original characters are being used.
The most noticeable difference between this and the rest of the saga, stylistically, is the score. I’m not really sure what happened here, but gone are the soaring, orchestral scores that swelled with unfathomable emotion. The score only really stands out when it reuses familiar themes.
The best thing about The Force Awakens, overall, is also the worst thing about it: it only functions as well as its predecessors when it’s utilizing old characters or showing us old creatures from this world we’ve grown to know and love.
Still, while Abram’s style feels a little more like his and less like Lucas’, this may very well be the most visually stunning Star Wars since A New Hope. The sweeping camera movements and the blend of practical effects and CGI (used sparingly, which is a breath of fresh air compared to the prequels) all come together in grand fashion here.
The production design also has to be noted; the designs for so many of the creatures feel so much closer to the original trilogy than the prequel trilogy, which was sometimes bland in that regard. Half the fun of Star Wars in its quieter moments is seeing strange alien creatures walking, crawling or flying around and Abrams certainly got that right.
It’s hard to analyze The Force Awakens much more than that without giving much away, so I’ll stop there. After all, half the fun is solving the mystery of where the story is going, another thing the prequels suffered from because we knew how it was going to end. There are still two more films to come and who knows how that will impact our perspectives on The Force Awakens in the long run? There is still plenty of uncertainty on what the story may hold, but rest assured; the story and entertainment value in this one are solid.
My gripes with the new Star Wars are small and rather insignificant in perspective to the plot, which is less cluttered than I thought it might be and sets the stage for the most action in the series besides Revenge of the Sith. There is perhaps one too many dogfights to keep the audience totally engaged and some recycled plot devices feel less like fun nostalgia and more like blatantly ripping off its own material. However, it’s easily better than Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, mostly better than Revenge of the Sith and at the very least on par with Return of the Jedi, which is no small feat. It is well thought-out, a great introduction to new heroes, a tremendous send-off to old ones and an amazing step into a new era of Star Wars.