The Force Awakens...and so begins the endless debate by Star Wars fans over the quality of the latest outing to a galaxy far away. In short, the movie has some huge flaws, but still manages to get enough right to be worth the price of admission.
And just what redeems the film against huge lapses in logic, continuity, miscasting, bad dialogue and inept direction? For starters, a loyalty to the enduring legacy of the Star Wars films, and a whopping dose of nostalgia! Some returning faces add to the appeal, and a pair of wonderful new characters give a new hope that the proverbial lightsaber-torch will survive for generations to come. A great new action scene or two keeps the heart pumping--both that of the series, and that of the audience--and an Oscar-nominated score by the great John Williams breathes new life into the series.
The Force Awakens also updates the Star Wars idiom to a more contemporary sensibility, adding a female lead and a multicultural cast. The addition is a welcome one: for a galaxy so vast and filled with alien species, the original trilogy is nearly devoid of people of color! The mass appeal of Star Wars demands a wide array of faces and body types, and in that regard, The Force Awakens makes fine progress. What the movie "gets right" makes it a great deal of fun, despite the frequent stumble.
11 A Family Affair
At its heart, Star Wars has always told the story of a family--the Skywalkers--rife with dysfunction, passion and potential. The characters of Anakin and Luke mirror each other throughout the original six movies, which focus on key choices that affect the outcome of their destinies. The Force Awakens continues that trend in both known—and unknown—veins. More on that in a moment.
The corruption of Adam Driver’s Ben Solo cuts even deeper when viewed in light of his ancestry. He’s an Anakin Skywalker redux: arrogant and entitled, powerful with the Force, seduced by notions of power and grandeur, wracked with guilt over his life choices. His turn to the dark side also adds a new dimension to Luke himself, who now broods on his failure to protect his nephew from the same influences that corrupted Darth Vader, and almost corrupted Luke as well. No doubt the rescue and redemption of Kylo Ren will become a storyline in the forthcoming movies, likely by yet another member of the Skywalker clan.
10 BB-8: Scene Stealer
In 1977, droids C3P0, and in particular R2D2, became the breakout stars of Star Wars owing their fame in part to their bickering like an old married couple, but most of all for their remarkable charm. C3P0 came off like some kind of butler or nanny with the personality of an English twit, more Mrs. Doubtfire than HAL 9000. R2D2 found the perfect note between childlike innocence and the loyalty of a pet, fearlessly charging into battle with Luke, Han and the rest of the gang.
BB-8 continues that tradition.
The “soccer ball” or “hamster” droid as fans dubbed him actually emerged as the best developed, most well-rounded (no pun intended) character of The Force Awakens. He manages to emulate R2’s humor and spunk while still managing to come off cute and child like. The movie strays by abandoning BB-8 in the final act. Had he remained vital to the action, the movie would have remained more consistent. For the first two thirds of the film, BB-8 carries the movie.
9 Han & Chewie
Han Solo and his faithful Wookie, Chewbacca, are synonymous with best buds, and one of the real treats of The Force Awakens is seeing the pair on screen in a major adventure again. Quite simply, the film gets both characters and their relationship absolutely right, and affords opportunity to see them again at their best: Chewie piloting the Millennium Falcon, Han slouching through an alien bar, the two of them sniping back and forth at one another with witty banter and unintelligible growls.
Han’s death at the hands of Kylo Ren may have been inevitable. Actor Harrison Ford spent 30 years griping about how he wished Han had died in a heroic blaze of glory. The character doesn’t exactly get a heroic death so much as a noble offing in The Force Awakens. Still, his death helps the characters grow, and if he did have to die, at least fans get to see him in his element one last time.
8 A Great Lightsaber Duel
Lightsabers have become the most alluring part of the Star Wars films, and throughout the saga, the combat styles have evolved to new levels of flash and suspense. The Force Awakens delivers on that legacy, offering a thrilling duel between Kylo Ren and Rey. While they don’t display the incredible Force abilities as the Jedi and Sith of the Prequel series, that’s ok - neither have the experience or training of those characters.
What the movie provides instead is two characters overcome with fear and anger that clash in a desperate, reckless battle. While Rey’s knack for using the Force and wielding a saber need some real explanation—her sudden use of the Force seems to violate all parts of existing Jedi canon—the thrilling duel provides one of the film’s highlights.
7 John Williams
The day the world loses John Williams, flags should fly at half mast the world over. He, and his music, are international treasures. The strains of his scores will play until the end of time alongside the work of Bernstein, Mozart, Bizet and the other greats. While his score for The Force Awakens doesn't rank alongside those of ET, Harry Potter or even the Star Wars prequels, it does deliver the requisite thrills and heart swells. Most of the score to The Force Awakens consists of reuse of familiar themes from the previous films (though the excellent themes of the prequel films are notably absent).
Of the new score, "Rey's Theme" proves the most stirring. It strikes a balance between the familiar seven note tones of "Hedwig's Theme" from the Harry Potter films, and that of Luke from the original Star Wars. Williams earned his 50th Academy Award nomination for his work on the film!
6 Admiral Ackbar
Ackbar became an unlikely fan favorite, courtesy of his famous quip "IT'S A TRAP!" The humanoid squid, for lack of a better descriptor, returns in The Force Awakens in a key scene, and once again commands the screen. Yet Ackbar's return embodies one of the great joys of The Force Awakens - catching up with returning characters. Besides Han, Chewie, Luke and Leia, the audience gets to reacquaint itself with returning favorites like Admiral Ackbar, Nien Nunb (now promoted to X-Wing pilot), the mouse droid, and of course, C3P0 and R2D2.
The return of Ackbar and his ilk also signals a new opportunity to explore the characters. Once relegated to the background of the films, the strange aliens and creatures realized through exotic make-up or state of the art (for 1983, anyway) animatronic technology, the advent of computer animation, plus thirty-some-odd years of advances in puppetry provide a chance for the characters to emote and participate in the story in whole new ways.
5 Classic Saber
Lightsabers have become a cornerstone of Star Wars lore...and merchandising, of course. In 1977, who would have guessed that a random prop constructed out of bits of junk in the prop warehouse would turn into one of the most iconic and sought-after pieces of movie memorabilia ever?
Since then, of course, lightsabers have evolved from looking like a flash gun with windshield wipers glued to the sides to more ornate, embellished and sleek designs. The original has a charm of its own, of course, and seeing the familiar shape of Anakin/Luke's repurposed flash gun evokes a feeling of warm nostalgia. It also offers a contrast to the over-designed, malfunctioning layout of Kylo Ren's saber. While the movie drops the proverbial ball by not explaining that Ren's saber doesn't work properly (according to the canonical visual dictionary, he cracked the focus crystal during assembly, hence the two side prongs), it does make a subtle statement about Ren, his recklessness, and a more civilized age gone by.
4 Nostalgic Production Design
The Force Awakens relies heavily on nostalgia to please audiences, and for middle-aged adolescents, it succeeds. Much of that comes from the production design by Rick Carter and Darren Gilford, which evokes happy memories of the sleek interiors of the 1977 film and its immediate sequels. Carter and Guilford emulate original designer Norman Reynolds's work by including lots of smooth gray surfaces outfitted with slits of red and white light for the First Order, and the Resistance colored with earth tones and bulkier, haphazard technology. Little has changed in the Star Wars universe in 30 years, and while that may defy logic, it does please fans wary of any changes to their favorite stories.
3 The Plight of Finn
Finn's storyline of defecting stormtrooper actually does something new for the Star Wars universe: it humanizes the otherwise faceless enemy. Throughout the original trilogy, we never see a trooper without his helmet, or, for that matter, learn anything about their origins or day-to-day lives. Later, when the prequel trilogy elaborated on the origins of the troopers as clones, some fascist critics complained that they suddenly felt sorry for the stormtroopers! Said critics missed the point: providing the clone troopers with faces, much like adding Finn into the mix of heroes, serves as a reminder that under all that bleach-white armor, there is an actual person!
Finn's character takes this principle one step further providing a loose backstory for the troopers: taken from birth, they are brainwashed and trained to fight without empathy or emotion for the First Order. The revelation underlines the ruthlessness of the First Order, and hastens the mission of the Resistance to free the galaxy from oppression.
2 Multicultural Cast
One of the great, sticking frailties of the original trilogy was the lack of characters of color. While plenty of aliens and creatures populate the entire Star Wars series, few humans sport different ethnicities. The prequel trilogy rectified the problem to some degree with characters like Mace Windu, Jango Fett or Bail Organa, though they hardly constituted a lead role.
The Force Awakens actually subverts that trend. Of the new characters, only the villains are played by white men. The heroes are all a minority of some kind: a black man, a Latino, and a woman, all intelligent and poised. While the roles of John Boyega and Oscar Isaac could stand a bit more nuance, they've become integral to the saga, and no doubt, have set a precedent that a more diverse cast lays ahead.
1 A Great Heroine
And finally, on the subject of that female lead...Rey is, quite simply, a terrific Star Wars character, worthy of mention alongside the spitfire Princess Leia, the brooding Obi-Wan or the everyman Luke. Writer Michael Arndt had always intended a female as the new lead (originally named Kira, until a leak prompted J.J. Abrams to panic and change it during production, as if her name in any way spoiled the story!), and worked hard to develop her into a worthy successor to the original heroes. Actress Daisy Ridley, hereto unknown but for a handful of minor British TV roles delivers a credible embodiment of her character. She may or may not be a great actress, but in the same way Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher just seemed to be their characters, Ridley gives a masterful performance, and her character empowers females everywhere with a role model that can compete with any man, and who doesn't need one to feel validated!
The Force Awakens is far from a perfect film--for elaboration on that subject, please see my piece on all the gripes the movie deserves. It does, in fairness, get a lot right, enough to warrant the price of admission to a galaxy far, far away.