A lot of Star Wars fans were very afraid when Disney bought the rights to the franchise. Added to that was the fact that they hired J.J. Abrams, who had recently filmed the reboot of the rival Star Trek films. How can one director maintain the integrity of two such different universes?
With The Force Awakens we are for the first time introduced to a female lead character in the series. Granted, both Leia and Amidala were strong characters, but Rey is more than ever before in the franchise dominating the screen. Next to that, Finn is the first non-white human to get a lot of screen time (Samuel L. Jackson as Windu really didn’t get that much attention). With this more emancipatory approach Star Wars sets a good tone of change in its previously very white and masculine universe.
Both Rey and Finn give us potentially interesting personas. ‘Potentially’ because throughout the movie there are quite a lot of loose ends or suggested background elements, but we don’t find out that much about them in the actual movie. We’ll likely find out more about Rey’s family background and about why Finn as storm trooper is able to show emotion in the next two episodes, but The Force Awakens could have done with a bit more depth to both characters.
The biggest strength however comes with Kylo Ren, the new villain, who is the most ambiguous villain we’ve seen to date in a Star Wars movie. And yes, that includes Darth Vader. Though the similarities with Darth Vader are very clear, Adam Driver as Ren shows us an emotional struggle in a much more convincing way than Hayden Christensen’s Darth Vader was able to do.
Plot wise, The Force Awakens is not interesting. The story line is very predictable and holds no surprises whatsoever. Abrams seems to have a tradition in that, with Super 8 for example he also didn’t bring much new to the screen, but rather delivered a tribute to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. He seems to have done the same with the latest Star Wars: it’s a tribute to the original series.
For most elements of the plot, parallels with older Star Wars movies can easily be found, and while I normally would be very disappointed about this, the actual filming and build-up was so well done that it wasn’t the case. Some claim this was due to Abrams being worried about it becoming a flop, and had rather seen him take a risk like George Lucas did with the prequels, and while I can follow the reasoning, in the end, I’m happy that The Force Awakens was a great cinematic experience rather than a risk-taking flop. And big surprise, Abrams was able to leave his trademark overload of lens-flares behind: he stayed true to the gritty and not-so-perfect universe that Lucas created in the first trilogy.
The Force of the Movie
The movie is fast-paced and thrilling throughout. The action sequences, including the lightsabre battles, are some of the best in the whole franchise, but without comprimising the Star Wars character. With the prequels Lucas went out of balance by having a too dramatic Anakin Skywalker (with no sense of humour) to a ridiculous Jar Jar Binks. By contrast, The Force Awakens succeeds amazingly at restoring the balance of the original trilogy: an epic story with great action and a healthy portion of self-relativising humour.
The Force Awakens leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions and a rather uncreative plot, but at the same time compensates well for this by it’s great filming, dialogue, and action scenes. I can’t wait for the Star Wars VIII.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens – J.J. Abrams (Disney, 2015)