“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (A-)

Directed by: J.J. Abramstar-wars-force-awakens-official-posters
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt
Starring: John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford
IMDb

Grade: A-

It’s been far too long that the cinema has been bereft of a great sci-fi/fantasy series. After I walked out of my early morning screening of the latest Star Wars film, I was immediately discussing lore and tossing around theories with my friends, completely immersed in what I’d just seen and feeling like I did when I was just a boy in the midst of The Lord of the Rings. I was enveloped in wonder, enchantment, excitement, and the unquenchable thirst for more from this distant universe. On these merits alone, The Force Awakens is an indisputable triumph, showcasing the storytelling power of cinema to sweep people off their feet and whisk them away to parts unknown.

The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after Return of the Jedi, where a new tyrannical faction, The First Order, has risen from the ashes of the Empire and begun to terrorise the galaxy. A pair of unlikely new heroes now must band together to aid the resistance and help find the missing Luke Skywalker before Kylo Ren, a powerful and dangerous wielder of the Force.

The writers on The Force Awakens have eschewed the droll space politics (which made sequences of the prequel trilogy feel like galactic C-SPAN) in favour of a more pure-form adventure vibe. Enough information is given in the dialogue to understand the nature of the film’s conflict, but as much is told visually. The First Order borrow much from the old Empire in weapon and soldier design while mixing in some fascist, Nazi Germany imagery to differentiate and express their distinct nature, and Supreme Leader Snoke’s massive hologram looms over his commanders like the statue of Zeus, conveying his perhaps deific stature and control while shrouding him in mystery. These forces are derivative of their predecessors yet leagues more menacing. Moreover, the film is fun and free-spirited, never taking itself too seriously and just as excited as the viewer to show you its next new scene, new planet, new battle, and new twist.

A blend of new and old is the name of the game here, an effort to invoke the spirit of the original trilogy while helping the series to move forward. Old characters like Han Solo and Chewbacca return to the warm greetings of fans, while new characters are immediately lovable and welcomed into the fold. The two biggest finds here are John Boyega as the runaway stormtrooper “Finn” and Daisy Ridley as a young scrap scavenger called “Rey.” The characters are full of uniquely adolescent confidence and lack of assurance, and their chemistry is impeccable. Rey and Finn’s friendship is natural and unforced, and the audience feels invited into the bond. My favourite newcomer, though (besides the adorable BB-8 droid), is Kylo Ren, the new villain. His powerful control over the Force giving him the ability to read minds and stop lasers in midair while performing interrogations makes him uniquely terrifying, but his unpredictable fits of anger and fear of not living up to the example of the Sith Lords before him give him exciting new ground for character development that runs parallel to the film’s heroes.

I’m particularly impressed with J.J. Abrams direction. Amongst my friends, I’ve been somewhat vocal of my disillusionment with him after watching Star Trek and Super 8, and I expected him to simply mimic the style of the original trilogy here. Instead, while he’s certainly remained faithful to the series’ roots with those rolling opening credits, flashes of sparks from blaster shots and lightsabre swipes, and wipe cuts galore, Abrams has also brought a deeply personal touch to the table. Not the quasi-Spielbergian nonsense of his previous films, but something more thoughtful, playful, controlled, and mature. The right blend of CGI and practical effects, well-timed jokes that don’t intrude on the film’s more serious moments, and a flair for creative presentation both strikingly contemporary and deeply reverent. It’s clear that this project was a labour of love for Abrams, and it’s resulted in what is far and away his best work yet.

Of course, the film isn’t perfect. It pretty blatantly retreads a lot of ground and themes already covered in the original films, especially Star Wars (I refuse to use the “Episode IV” mumbo-jumbo), with some adjustments, of course, in an obvious effort to tap into the nostalgia well. But, even so, The Force Awakens is such a sincere olive branch that you find yourself capable only of enthusiastically accepting it. Not even the most cynical bone in my body can be anything but exuberant.

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