Sometimes a film series can reinvent itself with a remake or a sequel decades after the fact, and recapture that magic all over again. Sometimes that film series is better left dead and buried, with fans wondering what could have been. Sometimes a company shells out four billion dollars to the creator of a franchise, and by God, they’re going to get their money back. To be fair, Disney could have put out just about anything resembling Star Wars, and the first film out the gate would have done well. Disney, though, decided to scrap the outline George Lucas gave them, and went their own route.
Seeing how well Paramount did with the alternate universe reboot of Star Trek, Disney was looking to cash in on the nostalgia of the original Star Wars trilogy, while still giving themselves plenty of leeway to go beyond that with new characters. You can see their attachment to the original trilogy already with the television show Star Wars Rebels, which is set just before A New Hope. What Lucasfilms and Disney has managed to do, though, with The Force Awakens, is not only rekindle that Star Wars magic and stoke the fires by tapping into that nostalgia, but they’ve opened up the universe again to go their own way, and it’s going to be a fun ride.
Bringing in J.J. Abrams to kickstart the films was probably one of the smartest things Disney could have done. Abrams brings a very “Spielbergian” touch to the film, but at the same time he’s very much discarded his usual shooting style to go more for the longer and more stable shots of the previous films. There is still a flair for the fantastic with his action sequences that lend themselves to several of the battles, and the Millenium Falcon chase sequence we get snippets of in the trailers. This isn’t a J.J. Abrams film in the traditional sense, this is a Star Wars film with some of Abrams better action staples. And let’s face it, Abrams is very good at coming in and revitalizing, or even just starting, a new franchise. Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, as well as Lost come to mind.
The other extremely smart thing Disney did was bringing in John Williams to handle the score. While I am disappointed there wasn’t time to schedule with the London Symphony like the other films, this ends up still having a great score. Granted the score CD release is lacking several cues, and not nearly all the music from the film itself, but within the actual film we get a great spread that goes along with the action. Rey’s scavenger theme is something different we’ve not gotten with Star Wars before but really fits. Snoke’s theme is reminiscent of a theme we got in Revenge of the Sith, which has people guessing as to his identity, and Scherzo for X-Wings is a great bombastic piece that just works for the Resistance fighter pilots. We get some changed but familiar themes with Han and Leia as well as what’s known as the Homestead theme for Luke from A New Hope at key moments. Then there’s the Huttese bar song from Hamilton star and writer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who collaborated on the cantina song with Abrams. It fits the scene it pops up in brilliantly.
The film and story itself revolves around the First Order, a faction of the Empire that split off from the rest when they signed a treaty with the New Republic after the defeat at Jakku, a year after Return of the Jedi saw the Emperor and Darth Vader’s deaths at the hands of the Alliance, now known as the Republic. Leia didn’t quite trust all of the Empire as it disarmed and fought to keep a standing fleet of ships for the Republic, but when that fell through, Leia went on her own with a Resistance force to keep an eye on the First Order and the systems they occupied while trying to keep them from regaining power.
Thirty years after the Battle of Endor, and the First Order seems closer than ever to finding the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker, who’s gone missing. Leia sends the best pilot of the Resistance, Poe Dameron, out to find a clue on Jakku of Luke’s whereabouts. Poe ends up getting captured by Kylo Ren, the new force-using leader of the First Order, but not before dropping the clue to Luke in his BB-8 droid, who takes off into the desert of Jakku. From there we meet Rey, a lone scavenger who’s making her way on Jakku. She ends up finding BB-8 who basically charms his way into her care. Poe ends up escaping with a rogue Stormtrooper who he dubs Finn, and the two head to Jakku to pick up his droid and the map to Luke Skywalker. After crashing on the planet, Finn is left on his own and meets up with Rey and BB-8 and the two have to make a hasty escape to keep BB-8 out of the First Order’s hands, and that’s where their adventure begins.
I can’t really go into too much more without it becoming some serious spoilers, so I won’t. The main plot line feels a bit derivative overall of A New Hope, however the characters and the main details are different enough that it doesn’t feel like a complete retread. This isn’t a story about Luke, Han and Leia anymore. It’s very much Poe, Finn and Rey, and while some things are similar in the larger arc, the smaller character moments are extremely different. The new hero characters are fun. They have some great motivations and depth, and their on-screen chemistry is exciting and a blast to watch. BB-8 manages to be charming without being annoying and has some great moments. Our new lead villains, Kylo, Hux and Phasma, well they get far less on-screen development. Phasma feels a bit underwhelming at this point, but I’m hoping they do far more with her in future films. Hux and Kylo are at odds, but in a way that harkens back to what I imagine a younger Tarkin and Vader interacting would be like.
What about the returning characters? Well, Leia and Han get the most screen time. Chewbacca is a blast, and C-3P0 is still C-3P0. Harrison Ford manages to deliver one of my favorite performances from him in the last decade. He brings this weight to the charm Han’s trying to put on throughout the film that just works. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Issac were great choices for our new leads. Adam Driver as Kylo Ren works amazingly well as he turns Kylo into the ball of rage, fury, and angst we were really expecting out of Anakin in the prequel trilogy, but never really got. While it was great to see Carrie Fisher return as Leia, she feels a bit under-used here, but she does adds an emotional weight to every scene she’s in.
I’ve actually see this twice in theaters. I might go again if my bank account allows it, but it won’t be for another week or two at that. I haven’t been back to see a film twice in theaters in a long time. Honestly, I think it has been since Avatar, so it’s been six years. Yes, this very much holds up on a second viewing. You catch a few more of the warts the film has, but overall it holds up extremely well, even heading back in to pay theater prices to see it.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the Star Wars film that manages to be that bridge film that people are always trying to make, but never succeed. That passing of the torch from one cast to another that always feels tired, overdone, and off. It plucks at all the nostalgia strings while managing to be very much its own thing, and while there are some similarities in plot points, this is that fun romp that A New Hope and the other Original Trilogy films were out of the gate. The characters feel alive and so does the world. This is the Star Wars I remember, the Star Wars that Star Wars Rebels and The Clone Wars captured where the prequel trilogy never quite got. It’s a little paint by numbers and you can see the beats coming a little earlier than you’d like, but it’s well worth heading out of your home to take in while it’s rampaging across the big screen.