[some minor, very minor spoilers]
When I first began this site on Christmas Eve of 2009 I had to thank the excitement I had for event films after seeing and experiencing James Cameron’s Avatar. It was an experience I hadn’t felt since the days of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and, even earlier than that, the original Star Wars trilogy. These were films that fired up one’s imagination, appreciation and love for film as entertainment and art. Some of these films would linger on longer in one’s mind than others, but that first viewing in their initial release would always imprint their effect on each viewer.
When George Lucas announced that he would be returning to that galaxy, far, far away with a trilogy of prequels almost 15 years since the world last saw Return of the Jedi premiere first the first time, the Star Wars fandom were giddy, excited and hyped beyond belief. The Star Wars films and the many spin-offs (novels, comic books, video games, etc.) which came about because of it only whetted the appetites of long-time Star Wars fans for more films detailing the adventures in the scifi universe created by George Lucas.
Yet, the prequels’ effect on these long-time fans would be the direct opposite of the effect the original trilogy had on the fandom. These three prequels (all directed and written by George Lucas himself) would do more than disappoint the fandom. It would create a schism between those who saw the original trilogy as the gateway to their fandom and those younger generation who never saw the original trilogy and had the prequels become their gateway to the fandom. Even to this day there would be some of the younger generation who truly believe that the prequels trump the original three films which began the franchise.
When news came down that Disney had bought Lucasfilm and everything which George Lucas had built and cultivated there was no chance in hell that there wouldn’t be another series of Star Wars despite the disaster which were the prequels. Lo and behold, it didn’t take long for Disney to greenlight the sequel to Return of the Jedi and have it set decades after the events of that film.
So, it is with Star Wars: The Force Awakens that the Star Wars fandom get to see whether their continued faith in the franchise was worth it or if they have been Charlie Brown’d once again and had the ball taken away at the very last second. It’s easy to say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was great or it was awful. The true answer to whether this film succeeded in what it intended do was a bit more complicated.
Yet, if one was to look for an easy and simple answer then I’m happy to say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was great. It had it’s moments of logic gap and plot holes, but as an overall finished product the film succeeded in course-correcting the franchise from the nadir it was at with the culmination of the prequels. It wouldn’t have taken much to surpass the very low bar set by those prequels, but The Force Awakens leapfrogged that bar and went even higher.
The film does begin thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi and we find out with the now familiar episode intro crawl that Luke Skywalker has disappeared since those events and the galaxy has remained in turmoil with his absence. The Galactic Empire has been defeated, but in its place a new danger in the form of the genocidal First Order has arisen from the Empire’s remains. Opposing the First Order is a sort of galactic force supported in secret by the New Republic and led by General (not Princess) Leia Organa calling themselves the Resistance. It’s the conflict between these two factions and the search for Luke that forms the narrative base for The Force Awakens.
The film doesn’t linger too long in explaining the events which occurred in that 30-year gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. It doesn’t need it as we’re quickly introduced to the series’ new characters in the form of Poe Dameron, the best pilot in the galaxy, who has been sent on a secret mission by Leia to find the clues as to her brother’s whereabouts. Next in line was Kylo Ren who becomes this film’s analogue to the Darth Vader figure of the original trilogy. Yet, the bulk of the film was told through the eyes of Finn and Rey. The former is First Order stormtrooper who has seen first-hand what the First Order truly stands for and not for the betterment of the galaxy. The latter is a young woman living life on the desert planet Jakku scavenging the graveyard of starship wreckage from a battle thirty year’s prior.
It’s through Rey and Finn that the audience learns through their adventures upon meeting up with each other on Jakku what has transpired since the Rebellion destroyed the second Death Star and killed Emperor Palpatine. To these two characters, the events from the original trilogy seem to have passed beyond the realm of history and become more like legends and myths to the younger generation. Through a combination of fear and awe, Ren and Finn get introduced to some of the original trilogies main characters (Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca and even Admiral Ackbar). These are the stories they’ve been told of growing up come to life right in front of their eyes and their reaction mirrors those of the audience who haven’t seen these characters in anything new and relevant since the end of Return of the Jedi. The reaction alone to seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca alone seemed like the fandom’s collective cheer for the good that has been missing with the franchise for over 30 years now.
The Force Awakens is not a perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Like mentioned earlier, the film does suffer from some gaps in story logic and plot holes. As with most J.J. Abrams directed films he had a hand in writing the script and one could see where he sacrificed coherent storytelling beats for something that just pushed the story along the path he wanted the film to take. For those who have been steeped in Star Wars lore and backstory, this would be easily explained as the Force nudging, guiding and, if all else fails, pushing the characters onto the right path, but for the casual viewers it would come off as story beats of convenience.
As a story to bring back the faithful and lure in those still uninitiated to the franchise The Force Awakens straddles the line between nostalgia and trying to bring in something new to the proceedings.
Let’s begin with the former and just say it now that The Force Awakens does follow some major story beats directly from A New Hope (to a smaller effect from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi). One could almost say that this film was a sort of soft reboot of the original trilogy with how it lifted ideas from them and through some writing and directing recombination come up with something new, but still very familiar for hardcore and non-fans alike.
Does this decision to lean heavily on the original trilogy for ideas hurt the film? For some it might be a bit too distracting to recognize too many callbacks to those earlier films, but for most it’s a reminder of what the prequels lacked and that’s the sense of adventure and fun. There was never anything fun about the prequels. The Force Awakens brings it all back and for most viewers this is the course-correction the series has needed since the last images from Revenge of the Sith faded away from the silver-screen.
Even the new characters introduced in this latest film were an amalgamation of the main characters from the original trilogy. Where Abrams and Kasdan changed this up a bit was to go beyond just creating new analogues for the classic characters of Leia, Han, Luke, Chewie and R2D2. They opted to take all the qualities fans loved about those characters and mixed them all up to be used in the roles of Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren and BB8.
As the standout character in the film, Rey (played by find of the year Daisy Ridley) would bring back memories of not just the young and hopeful Luke from the original trilogy, but also some personal traits of Leia and Han. The same goes for Finn who at times reminded us of Han’s roguish charm to Luke’s naivete of his role in the larger world he has finally witnessed for the very first time. For the half-empty crowd this might look as lazy character development, but those who see the film with the half-full mindset would easily latch onto these new characters. Characters who now take on the responsibility of moving the franchise beyond the nostalgia of the original trilogy and erasure of the disappointment of the prequels to new adventures with the next two films.
So, is Star Wars: The Force Awakens worth returning back to the franchise after the prequels or is it too much of a rehash of the original three films? The answer to that is a definite yes despite some of it’s flaws. For some the very flaws some have pointed out (too many callbacks, sort of a reboot, etc.) was what made the film a fun time to be had. It’s a return to the comfort zone the fandom missed with the prequels.
Will the next two films in this new trilogy follow suit and just rely too much on nostalgia to continue trying to satisfy it’s massive audience? Or will Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow (director of Episode VIII and Episode IX, respectively) move into new territory with minimal callbacks to those earlier films? We as an audience will have to wait til 2017 and 2019 to find out. Until then enjoy what Abrams and Lucasfilm has accomplished with The Force Awakens. A film which has reinvigorated a film franchise that has seem some major lows, but one which also happens to be one hell of a fun ride from start to finish on it’s own merits.
P.S.: Some controversy has arisen since the film’s release concerning the character played by Daisy Ridley. Some have been very vocal about calling her Rey character as a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the accusation that the Star Wars films have lacked for a strong female lead. An argument that’s as misguided and misinformed as that of the films being whitewashed. The films in the franchise have always had strong female characters. The accusation that Rey as a character in The Force Awakens is such a “Mary Sue” (a female character written and created to be the best at everything, no flaws) ignore the details in the character’s development.
What’s sadder is that some of the very people (film critics and writers) who in the past have complained that major films (especially blockbusters) have been lacking in very strong female characters have been the very same who see Rey as a negative and a character too good. This despite the character following in the very same footsteps in how her predecessors have been written (Luke, Han, Anakin). It’s an argument that is sure to bring heated debate among fans and detractors, but one that takes away from the performance of Daisy Ridley who should be one of the many breakout stars to come out of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.