[Mostly spoiler-free] Review: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Okay, no sweat. Review the first new Star Wars movie in ten years, first one in a trilogy that we’ve been waiting for for thirty-two years. [1] Possibly the most anticipated film of the decade. Oh, and no matter how you think, some portion of the Internet will tear you several dozen new orifices. Nothing to fear, right?


Yeah, nothing to fear. This level of hype is hard to live up to. It’s kind of ridiculous that Star Wars Episode VII does.

There is a danger when it comes to beloved nostalgic properties’ revivals of over-reverence, of a pandering to the fans of the original to the detriment of the work. On the other hand, one can run the risk of going too far and alienating fans. It’s a difficult balance: Do you put out a Greatest Hits album that’s familiar but maybe a bit stale, or plumb uncharted waters, which can be creatively rewarding but off-putting to your lifers? The Force Awakens attempts to strike the balance and by and large succeeds.

On the one hand, this is all a bit familiar. We have a desert planet on the fringes of the galaxy. The major motivation of the villains is a search for a droid with valuable information. There is a superweapon capable of destroying a planet. There is a black-clad villain in a helmet and mask who communicates with his superior by hologram. People have a bad feeling about something. There is a cantina scene, in which our protagonists attempt to book passage out. There are lightsabers, boy howdy are there lightsabers. Old friends return—Han! Chewbacca! Leia! Admiral Ackbar! The Millennium Falcon! C-3P0! R2-D2! And when the opening scene begins with a Star Destroyer heaving into screen and segues into the villain interrogating a good guy over the whereabouts of the valuable information while flanked by Stormtroopers—well, we’ve been here before.

And yet it’s not quite a retread of the original trilogy. The Rebel Alliance and Galactic Empire are no more, the Rebels having gone straight and the Empire having gone the way of the dinosaur. In their place we have the Resistance, a scrappy band of good guys, and the First Order, a sleek-looking pack of fascists. Kylo Ren, the villain, isn’t Darth Vader Take Two; nor do Poe, Finn, and Rey map to Leia, Han, and Luke. The best way to put it, I suppose, is that The Force Awakens riffs on the ideas and concepts of the original trilogy and the now departed Expanded Universe. We do not see any planet featured in the original trilogy or the prequels—we’re quite literally treading new ground. To say any more would be to spoil.

It’s an interesting experiment—strange word to use when discussing a billion-dollar tentpole—if only because Star Wars up to now has been a franchise dominated by the directorial and authorial voice of George Lucas. To their credit, J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, Kathleen Kennedy, and Michael Arndt do an excellent job distinguishing this movie—and presumably this trilogy —from what’s come before not just narratively but cinematically. It’s a hard thing to explain exactly what Abrams et al. do to distinguish Episode VII from Episodes I through VI; the easiest way is to say Abrams…Abramsed the shit out of it and roped the guy who wrote Empire Strikes Back in to make sure it was still Star Wars. The camera moves, swoops around, in marked contrast to the more sedate, documentarian camera work of the original trilogy. Characters enter the frame in interesting ways; Abrams is particularly fond of having someone or something pop up from the bottom of the screen. The script crackles with wit and zip; it’s a refreshing change from Lucas’ “you can type this shit but you can’t read it” style. It moves quickly; I was legitimately surprised when the credits rolled.

The leads are terrific—not just the old cast, though damn is it good to see Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher snarking at one another. The new kids will do just fine. They’re all so darn likable; you want to see more of them. I’m especially fond of Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, but most of the praise I’ve seen was for Daisy Ridley’s Rey and John Boyega’s Finn, and I’ll freely admit that my love for Poe has more to do with my crush on Isaac than anything in the movie itself.

It looks great, if only because we seem to have a director and cinematographer whose visual imagination is synchronous with the effects work possible and who aren’t treating the work as a glorified tech demo. That sense of zip I mentioned above is reinforced by the level of motion—all these spaceships and droids zooming about. Abrams doesn’t rely principally on digital or practical effects, instead using whatever works for a given shot. I have to single out the lightsabers: Where the original trilogy used extremely fragile wooden blades painted white that Industrial Light and Magic then rotoscoped the glows over and the prequels created the blades digitally, here they’re actual props, lighted from within—minimal post-work or possibly none at all. They glow, they crackle, they—and this is a wonder—actually affect the shots, reflecting off the actors’ faces—you know, like a sword made of pure light actually would, if such a thing were plausible.

It’s hard to discuss Star Wars Episode VII without spoiling. A lot—like, the majority—of my impressions have to do with very specific moments in the movie, and I can’t talk about those without a good portion of the Internet swearing vengeance upon me and all my descendants. I’ll close with Han Solo’s signature line this time around: “Chewie, we’re home.” It turns out, you can go home again. Sure, it’s got a new coat of paint and the back deck’s been renovated and they tore down that weird little add-on that was supposed to be a rec room and then your little brother’s bedroom but didn’t get used for anything other than an ad hoc storage closet and the kitchen’s all-new, but you what? It’s still home. And when the fanfare blasts and the logo zooms in, big as God and twice as wondrous, it’s like stepping back into the foyer after a prolonged absence and feeling those old sensations—the smell of damp wool, the creak-click of the door shutting behind you. It’ll always be here; it’ll always be home. Star Wars, like the Force, will be with us—always.

After a prolonged period of soul-searching and several missteps, the Star Wars franchise returns to form in its seventh theatrical installment. The Force Awakens is a wonderful piece of cinema, taut, well-made, funny. Five stars, out of a possible five.

__________
[1] This is kind of a footnote-light review, for which I apologize; I can’t discuss anything that interested me on any level below the most general, lest I be accused of summing the dread Spoilerteufeln, who live in paper trays and servers and attack good pure-hearted Internet folk unless guarded against with the proper defences, such as spoiler tags, not discussing a hotly anticipated work in any but the most general terms, a dispensation from an appropriate authority (the Pope, the President of the United States, or Joss Whedon, in roughly that order), or in the most extreme cases, fire. On the other hand, there aren’t a lot of glaring questions or issues (as with The Avengers: Age of Ultron and its dire lack of the Falcon), and although Star Wars has its problems, I didn’t notice them in-theatre. I’ll try and get it all out in one go as compensation.

What’s interesting about Star Wars Episode VII on a meta level is the correspondences between it and the original. I’m not just talking about how it echoes and refs the movie in-movie; it’s a long, kind of scribbly thing.

Mark Twain once said (or maybe it was Winston Churchill), “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” And it’s interesting how 2015 rhymes with 1977. Not exactly, of course—but it does seem as though genre films and sci-fi films specifically are mired in a similar murk of dystopia and pessimism. We seem to be seeing a backlash against that movement. First we had Tomorrowland, which I personally enjoyed, although I’m in the minority on that front and in any case it was kind of a flop. Then The Martian did significantly better—never underestimate the power of America’s love for Matt Damon and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Now Star Wars swoops in, as it did then. But as much as these two moments rhyme, one’s not a perfect match for the other. 2015 has been a year of nostalgic properties getting new life breathed into them—more than normal, I mean—and the natural response has been to consider Star Wars as part of that, which it certainly is. But that wasn’t necessarily a Thing in the ’70s. Oh, nostalgia certainly existed and certainly had a grip on the popular psyche—we’re talking about a decade whose biggest hit sitcoms included Happy Days and M*A*S*H, and let’s not forget a fellow named George Lucas who came to widespread fame and success with an early ’60s period piece called American Graffiti. But it wasn’t necessarily for specific brands, as it is now. I don’t know. This is getting long and I’ve got a Robotech boxed set on my desk that’s just begging me to watch it.

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About docmagnus

I write things and draw things. Sometimes I do both at the same time. Sometimes I put what I wrote and drew on the Internet for people to see.

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