After more than ten years, cinema screens are displaying the familiar words in blue font and the yellow opening crawl on the black starfield. The Force has awakened from its decade-long slumber.
When the Star Wars prequel trilogy came to its conclusion with Revenge of the Sith in 2005, George Lucas had announced that this was the last film. Most of the fans had accepted it and considered the saga concluded, at least as far as cinemas were concerned. But things changed once Lucasfilm come under the patronage of Disney, and the sequel trilogy was announced. Especially because of the challenge to the old expanded universe canon, many fans received the news with mixed feelings. And of course there is always that fear: what if they mess it up forever? And is it worth awakening the beast? Now that we got the chance to see the first of the expected episodes, we can begin to try to answer that question.
I had the chance to attend a midnight premiere of the film, which was of course an atmospheric event by itself. However, it should be said that even in mundane circumstances, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has a lot of gas to create an impact on purely emotional level. When you start watching, there is, of course, the excitement of seeing the familiar words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” but it would be easy to stop just at that. The film starts rolling and keeps the momentum for a really long time – I am not sure when was the first time I could actually let myself to stop and reflect about what I was watching; maybe after twenty or thirty minutes. The film is immersive, it brings back all the familiar feelings and it gets a grip on you from the very start.
That is the first positive thing about the film: it takes us straight into action. We do not get first a half an hour explanation about what has been happening during the last thirty years, we remain focused on here and now, just in accordance with Master Qui-Gon Jinn’s ancient imperative. The background gets revealed slowly during the course of the film, and from the bits of pieces we can put together a decent puzzle of the reality thirty years after the Battle of Endor. But here and now is what matters for the film itself, from start until the end.
The story is not lacking in terms of Star Wars expectations. We encounter all the familiar tropes, but they are not shoved into our face. It is rather considerate. But you can think of everything possible that belongs to Star Wars and it is almost certain The Force Awakens has it – and one could really name anything from as wide range of topics as lightsaber duels, rebel command meetings, the importance of family theme or shady cantina patrons. There are also many, many references to the previous films, but once again, I believe they are not overdone. Indeed, a sort of “sober approach” would be one of the things I would praise about the film the most. We are quite far from the very unsubtle approach we could witness in other sci-fi and fantasy films of the recent years, and we are thankfully also spared the prequel trilogy’s goofy humor (no people stepping in ronto poo) – I recall only one particular case of something similar, but that was fairly mild and actually funny. On a similar note, the new BB-8 droid, who I feared might become intentionally too cute character up to the point that he becomes annoying, is actually just cute and nothing more. Again, congratulations to the makers for keeping it sober, because possible unsubtlety was one of my greatest fears.
When I started watching, it helped a lot that the main characters were instantly likeable, which is by no means commonplace in most films. The Force Awakens is actually very much about characters, I would say more so than the previous six films, and it is one of the things which feel significantly different from the older trilogies. Finn (John Boyega), Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) – the sort of three main representatives of the new generation – are all great and their actors do a really good job. The relationships between them are also wonderful and they define them a lot. None of them feels, at the same time, like a copy of one of the old characters. Finn’s story is that of a stormtrooper who has lost his purpose in life, Rey is perhaps the closest to a young Luke or Anakin in that she is a poor abandoned child from a desert planet, but that’s about where the similarities end. Poe Dameron, a Resistance ace pilot, is a bit less prominent than the others, but still a very nice and original character. The “old people” (and a Wookiee), who inevitably appear, are lovely and believable versions of their young selves, and their interactions with the young ones just uplift the film into a completely new level. As for the baddies, I felt that perhaps they are the ones somewhat lacking in terms of characterisation: if we take the trio represented by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), then Hux and Phasma perhaps get a bit too little space (which is understandable, however) and Kylo Ren, who gets a lot more space, is at times difficult to read, because he flip-flops a bit between experienced evil apprentice and an uncertain youth with anger issues. But each of the baddies gets their moments to shine, like for example right in the beginning Kylo Ren establishes a good menacing aura, and General Hux has a few moments where we can see his ambitious and ruthless personality. Captain Phasma is my personal favourite, but we can leave it at that.
But are there any more negatives? Well, yes – some. I bumped into a couple of technical problems or moments where something seemed a bit illogical, but fortunately these were fairly minor issues except for one moment, where I am actually still not entirely sure what happened (maybe I will understand better on rewatch though). One big important problem actually stems directly from the focus on characters, or so I believe. Star Wars has always been about story, but The Force Awakens is so much about characters that I would say it has overshadowed the plot itself. Sure, nothing wrong with that. But it just might be something an average fan is not used to. Take a typical Star Wars film – what does a fan expect? An epic story with a problem (posed by evil army, superweapon, or something like that), which is solved in a climactic battle in the end, preferably on several levels (space/ground/lightsabers). Not saying The Force Awakens betrays the classic scheme in any way – it stays true to it. But maybe these things, even though they have their place, actually serve only as a background and the main issue are the characters themselves. That is actually what I believe, and my personal explanation for how the plot felt somewhat strange to me. But feel free to judge it by yourselves.
I should mention only a couple more of other things, such as the film’s visuals. These were certainly a pleasant surprise. The creators really took to heart the lesson of George Lucas “overCGIng” the prequel trilogy, and we don’t see any abuse of special effects. Space and lightsaber battle sequences are fairly easy to follow. When we see alien lifeforms (mostly in the background, but enough to create the classic Star Wars atmosphere), they are mostly new and original – another set of bonus points, since it would have been easy to just dump in Twi’leks and Rodians and Jawas and say that we’re done. At the same time, all those new aliens feel very Star Wars-y and they all look like they could have been sitting in Mos Eisley Cantina – except they didn’t. In the whole film, there are only two important characters who are CGI, and they look decent, and are not crazily flailing appendages around or looking overcute. Otherwise landscapes, starships, the design of new uniforms and all kinds of minor details (Leia’s jewelry comes to mind, I remember studying it like three times) also deserve a praise. The menacing appearance of Kylo Ren’s shuttle, the huge abandoned space of the gigantic broken Star Destroyer we know already from the trailers, and one scene all in beautiful Jakku sunset orange come to mind as examples of some things which stunned me the most; but there was much more.
One more thing that cannot be left unmentioned is the music. The score is once again composed by John Williams, and what we get is indeed a genuine Star Wars musicscape. The only thing I missed was a “big” catchy theme, like the Imperial March from Episode V or the Duel of the Fates from Episode I. But the new music is good and I really like the probably most recurring new theme – Rey’s, perhaps? – which is strongly evocative of the traditional themes, powerful, yet sad. It fits well with the tone and atmosphere of the whole film.
All in all, if I return to my original question, for me, the answer is: yes, it was definitely worth it to awaken the Force once again. Even for someone who had the chance to see some of the previous films in cinema, it was great to do this again, and I can imagine it might be very nostalgic for many of those who remember the first films, especially with the original actors reappearing. And I can imagine it must be a true treasure for those who became fans only after 2005, or for all those too young to have had the chance in the first place. The Force Awakens is Star Wars, it is a space fairytale just like A New Hope was, and I am sure J.J. Abrams can consider his feat accomplished. There are some things amiss, yes, but when has a film ever been perfect? I am still hoping, besides, at least some of the puzzling technical details might get answered in the future films. And if these films will be at least as good as The Force Awakens, I am happy.