Not only does The Force Awakens manage to stay afloat under its burden of expectations but it also manages to pull off the most important thing of all: to feel like a proper Star Wars movie.
There’s a lot riding on Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.
Let’s start with the obvious – it’s a Star Wars movie, which means it has to both live up to the legend of the original trilogy and dispel memories of the less-celebrated prequels.
It’s the first Star Wars film in ten years. Ten years! To put that in perspective, the last one came out three years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was more than a twinkle in Stan Lee’s eye.
It’s J.J. Abrams’s second shot at reviving a beloved classic science-fiction series after Star Trek, and it’s safe to say that those reboots have divided public opinion.
It’s also the first Star Wars film after Disney acquired Lucasfilm in a $4 billion deal and decided to scrap the Extended Universe and all the fiction that had built up outside of the six movies.
And finally, the biggest question that will be asked of The Force Awakens is this – is it worthy of the name? Can it be the seed of a new trilogy in the way that A New Hope was 38 years ago? Can it make Star Wars, a cultural phenomenon, relevant and new in a way that hasn’t been seen in far too long?
Short answer: yes, it can.
The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. After the collapse of the Empire, an organisation known as the First Order rose from its ashes and looks to have picked up where it left off – they’ve kept the uniforms and the fighters and the ships, but they’ve all received significant upgrades (as has their Doomsday weapon, because nobody takes you seriously unless you’ve got one of those). Meanwhile, the Rebellion has now become the Resistance, a force dedicated to combating the First Order’s machinations, backed by the New Republic that now governs the galaxy.
Luke Skywalker, hero of the Rebellion and erstwhile Jedi Knight, has gone missing and both sides are in a race to find him. Old companions Han Solo,
Princess General Leia Organa, Chewbacca and the Millennium Falcon join the hunt, while stalwarts such as C3PO and R2-D2 make appearances as well.
The focus, however, is on the new characters who will shape the forthcoming trilogy. We have Poe Dameron, who’s an important member of the Resistance and also happens to be fairly handy with an X-Wing. Then there’s Finn, a former employee of the First Order who’s fled the fold and is looking to move on to greener pastures. Rey’s a scavenger with hidden depths who lives on Jakku, a desert planet that serves as this movie’s Tatooine. And finally, Kylo Ren, as the chief enforcer of the First Order, steps into the humongous shoes and voice-distorting helmet of one Darth Vader. By any measure, Luke, Han and Leia are a tough act to follow, but this quartet does enough to keep you invested in the story this movie has to tell as well as the stories yet to come.
Without going into the specifics of the plot, here are three main takeaways from The Force Awakens.
It’s familiar. The Force Awakens bears a number of similarities to its predecessors, and to A New Hope in particular. George Lucas drew on decades of literary inspiration when writing the script for the original movie, and this apple stays pretty close to that tree. Given how successfully the public’s imagination has been captured by the Star Wars franchise, that’s no bad thing but it is noticeable. The other side of that coin, of course, is that The Force Awakens feels almost like a homecoming for Star Wars fans. Gone are the various wishy-washy plots of the prequels (although their legacy does live on in some fairly heavy-handed writing) – this is a return to the simpler, more direct storytelling that characterised the originals.
It leaves a lot unsaid. The Force Awakens doesn’t attempt to explain everything, which is both good and bad. It doesn’t try to hold the audience’s hand, which is great, but it does feel like a little more fleshing out of the progression of events could have gone a long way. At times, it feels like the movie’s on fast-forward – conversations jump around until you’re almost sure that you must’ve missed a line or two in the middle, and characters go from information to resolution with precious little time afforded to motivation. The Force Awakens also leaves a certain amount of narrative heavy-lifting to be done by Episodes VIII & IX, which will understandably not be to everyone’s taste. That said, it’s only fair to point out that A New Hope had its own fair share of throwaway references that would only be explained in later movies.
It’s very human. That seems a curious thing to say about a Star Wars movie, doesn’t it? However, The Force Awakens might just be the most humanised entry in the franchise yet. For a film that has to weave together a number of disparate plot threads, it is astonishing how much character and personality it manages to imbue its varying cast with. You need look no further than the ranks of the bad guys to bear this out – in just a few scenes of this movie, stormtroopers are given more of a personality than in the entire original trilogy. And Adam Driver delivers a spellbinding performance as Kylo Ren – brimming with resentment and lashing out with rage, Ren represents a rawer portrayal of what it means to follow the Dark Side than anything we’ve seen before. Love it or hate it, you simply can’t look away.
When the original Star Wars hit theatres in 1977, audiences were blown away. It wasn’t ground-breaking as a heroic story, nor was it a masterpiece of writing – but, somehow, all its components came together and resulted in something that wasn’t quite like anything they’d seen before.
Well, The Force Awakens won’t do that. From that glorious opening crawl to the minute the credits roll, this is a love letter to the original movies in a way that the prequels never quite managed to be. And yet it manages to tell a story of its own, while setting the stage for Episode VIII as well. Not only does The Force Awakens manage to stay afloat under its burden of expectations but it also manages to pull off the most important thing of all: to feel like a proper Star Wars movie. It’s not without its flaws and there’s a lot left to do, but this is Star Wars and it’s like it never went away.
Arjun Sukumaran is a writer, gamer and musician who just can’t wait for Episode VIII.