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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
4 Nostalgic Production Design
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!
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.
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.
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