It binds us. It connects us. It surrounds us. No, not the Force. No, not nostalgia either, but the non-stop, seemingly never-ending hype machine surrounding the J.J. Abrams-directed Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the first film in a planned trilogy (the less we talk about the prequels, the less we’ll have to hear poor, misguided apologists try to explain away their innumerable flaws). Arguably, studio-driven hype can get in the way in fairly judging or evaluating a film on its own merits (if any), but thankfully, that doesn’t apply to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Something of a minor miracle given the stratospherically high expectations of diehard and casual fans alike, not to mention disillusioned ex-fans turned cautious optimists venturing back into multiplexes after a decade, Star Wars: The Force Awakens all but erases the painful memories of the past (the aforementioned prequels), replacing them with the hope, some new, some not-so-new, associated with the original trilogy.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens essentially resets the Star Wars universe in soft reboot mode (everything old is new again and vice versa, a reflection of our remix-oriented, post-post-modern culture). It’s both a continuation of the original trilogy with the return of the series’ narrative-centered characters, albeit three-decades older (with all of the nostalgia-driven fan service that implies), and the introduction of a new, galaxy-spanning conflict between the First Order, the Empire’s direct successor, and the Resistance, not so much a successor of the New Republic (which still exists, albeit in passive, defensive mode apparently), but a loosely connected, unofficial militarized adjunct to the New Republic. The Emperor might be dead, but others, including the disappointedly CG-rendered Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, in mocap mode), the autocratic, fascistic General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the leader of the murkily introduced/defined Knights of Ren, a Sith-like organization dedicated to the Dark Side, have stepped in to fill the power vaccuum.
All this, of course, is backstory, most, if not all, introduced via the traditional opening crawl or for information-hungry fans, via ancillary products (e.g., books, comics), before leading us to Jakku, a Tatooine-inspired desert planet where the First Order makes its first appearance, torturing and killing the inhabitants of a small village for the information that will lead – or so they imagine – to the final defeat of the Jedi (unlikely, of course, given Star Wars’ never-ending, revenue-generating pop culture omnipresence). Like practically every major and minor plot point in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ren’s resemblance to Darth Vader isn’t accidental, it’s intentional. From the little we see onscreen, Kylo and the Knights of Ren worship the fallen Vader with religious fanaticism.
The parallels to the original trilogy, especially Star Wars: A New Hope, don’t stop with Jakku. Star Wars: The Force Awakens swaps out Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) for Rey (Daisy Ridley), a twenty-something scavenger/orphan who saves BB-8 (R2-D2 without C-3PO) from the scrap heap. BB-8 holds key info in its memory banks, making it extremely valuable to both the First Order and the Resistance. Rey reluctantly joins forces with an ex-stormtrooper masquerading as a Resistance fighter, Finn (John Boyega), while “the best pilot in the Resistance,” Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), rounds out a central trio that intentionally mirrors Luke, princess-turned-general Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Han Solo (Harrison Ford), minus, at least for now, the romance or biological connection. Thankfully, Rey, Finn, and Poe aren’t carbon copies of their predecessors, though Poe receives minimal screen time, something that might change in future installments.
Thematically, Star Wars: The Force Awakens goes where the original trilogy has gone before, repeatedly returning to inter-generational conflict, legacy-related burdens, and binary (some would argue reductive, others would argue ambiguous) political and moral viewpoints (left, of course, unresolved for the immediate future). Dramatically, Star Wars: The Force Awakens offers a familiar, if still welcome, (re)mix of action and humor, and character and spectacle, but also reflecting a more progressive viewpoint toward those characters and casting. While Poe’s screen time doesn’t include a recognizable character arc, Rey and Finn’s do. Their journey, first as reluctant allies, later as non-reluctant ones, gives Star Wars: The Force Awakens most of the emotional heft needed to elevate it above mere exploitation of intellectual property. A later plot development (left unspoiled here) underlines the real loss (as “real” as real gets where fictional characters are involved) that gave the original trilogy genuine emotional resonance.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens may just be J.J. Abrams’ (Star Trek, Star Trek into Darkness, Super 8, Mission: Impossible III) best directed film too. Granted, that might not be saying much, but Abrams, a director derisively known for a hyper-active visual style, elevates his filmmaking here, a function, perhaps, more of his collaborators and the original trilogy he frequently cites narratively and visually, but that doesn’t make it any less welcome. Fans of the original trilogy will also embrace Abrams’ decision to film on location rather than on a green screen inside a studio. Unfortunately, that doesn’t extend to the use of detailed miniatures over CGI (every ship, including the Millennium Falcon, sadly exists only in virtual form), giving the aerial battles the weightlessness and insubstantiality all too typical of CGI. Still, that shouldn’t anyone less thankful that Abrams and his co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasden (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi) semi-miraculously managed to avoid the near countless pitfalls that irreversibly doomed the prequel trilogy.