Star Wars: The Force Awakens Treads Familiar Territory

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Rating: 6.5/10

The Star Wars franchise is among the most beloved in cinema history. You’d be hard-pressed to find a person who hasn’t seen any of the six installments before The Force Awakens, and even the uninitiated are sure to know character names or famous lines simply from having been alive in the years following 1977. The omnipresent nature of the series makes each new entry difficult to evaluate in earnest; like so many others, I have my own specific and fond memories of watching the original trilogy. For me, it was popping in VHS versions of those movies with my dad and letting the space opera play out before my grade school eyes. I’ll always remember my early moments with Star Wars, and they are the chief reason why I wanted to see Episode VII in the first place.

It makes a whole lot of sense then that I really enjoyed experiencing The Force Awakens. I’m far from the first person to make this point, but the J.J. Abrams-helmed seventh episode does an unthinkably good job when it comes to embracing the feel of the original trilogy, the one that I loved decades ago. He encourages practical effects over CGI, uses irises and swipes to change scenes, and has no problem with his characters cracking wise even in dire situations. Even Han Solo and Princess General Leia are on hand, and these roles aren’t cheap, fan-service cameos. Ford in particular plays a completely fleshed-out role and falls easily into character.

Thing is, I’m not eight years old now. For that exact reason, there are key elements of The Force Awakens that bother me. They detracted from the excavation of my inner child, as my outer adult knows an unceremonious reboot when it sees one. The plot of The Force Awakens hews dangerously close to that of A New Hope, right down to the order of events and the nature of even its new characters. Sure, there are differences that prevent anyone from being able to rightfully call this a remake, but nothing that happens in The Force Awakens should come as even a remote surprise to those who have seen Episode IV.

The Force Awakens gives us a young hero who doesn’t know she is in touch with the force yet (Daisy Ridley as Rey), a storm-trooper-turned-hero-and-possible-love-interest (John Boyega as Finn), and a masked villain who initially appears insurmountable (Adam Driver as Kylo Ren). The Empire is now referred to as The First Order, and it has all but eliminated the good guys (here known as The Resistance). The only hope the universe has is for someone to get in touch with a pouting Luke Skywalker using a hidden map held by a pilot (Oscar Isaac) and his adorable little droid named BB8. Maybe then Skywalker could assist The Resistance in taking down an evil force once again!

The bulk of the movie is spent with our heroes trying to get BB8 to The Resistance’s base so that Skywalker can be found to save the day. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren and his evil henchmen are busy doing their damnedest to stop this from happening and gain knowledge of Luke’s position for themselves so that The Resistance can be snuffed out for good. This is part one of yet another trilogy, so don’t go in expecting much of anything to be resolved here. Then again, you already knew that even if you haven’t seen a movie that everyone has seen yet.

If you can’t tell yet, plotting is obviously my biggest issue with The Force Awakens. The deviations from the norm that Abrams chooses to make are among the movie’s best moments. I like nods to past entries in the series, but so much of this stuff is unnecessary and distracting. I don’t need or Harrison Ford repeating his previous lines verbatim, I don’t need Kylo Ren to say a character’s name when he senses the character is present, and I don’t need the First Order’s answer to be AN EVEN BIGGER DEATH STAR! Fairly early on, once the awe of seeing a new Star Wars movie with the feel of the originals passes, the constant callbacks become tiresome.

The acting in The Force Awakens is criminally good for a mega-hit series movie like this one, and it’s likely the finest cast-wide performance in the saga. Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are very likable and handle both the dramatic and comedic material dished in their direction. Adam Driver is both menacing (in the early going) and brooding as a wildly emotional Kylo Ren. Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is a fun everyman, and all of the returning original cast members hold their own. The casting decisions here were good across the board, and this goes a long way in covering up some of the damage done by lazy plotting.

So, yeah, I’m at war with myself writing about The Force Awakens, just as much so as when I was actually watching the film. Abrams does his level best to de-studiofy the thing, but I can’t help thinking it wasn’t his idea to fall back on a regurgitated plot and include countless cute robot scenes. Gotta sell those toys somehow! I still think this is a movie worth spending your time with. It looks and feels great, and not just in the way that anything with a budget like this would. The cast is terrific, the dialogue is often legitimately funny, and the attention to detail is top-notch. Just go in expecting an homage to something you loved as a kid instead of a wholly original blockbuster and you’ll be just fine.

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