When Uncle George handed over the keys to the Star Wars universe to JJ Abrams, I actually had some hope. Despite the fact that Abrams had just directed Star Trek: Into Darkness, a flaming turd of a movie if there ever was one, I realized that he would be a much better choice to direct a Star Wars film because, like me, he was raised on the original trilogy back in the 1970s/early 80s. Abrams is a Star Wars kid who had a genuine affection for the series–unlike Star Trek, which he stated in interviews that he thought was “too philosophical”. (!!!) And, having now seen the latest Star Wars film (which was something I thought would not be possible for the longest time), I have to say that my initial hope in Abrams was well founded.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens takes place some thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi–and it’s the exact type of Star Wars story, a sequel, that I’ve wanted to see ever since walking out of the theater after seeing Jedi. The prequels, directed by Uncle George, were an interesting failure in that they tried to expand upon on the Star Wars universe by filling in the back story, but Uncle George chose the wrong things to explain about. The scene in The Phantom Menace where Liam Neeson explains how the Force works to baby Darth Vader (“it’s actually made up of little germs”) was soul-deadening to watch. Instead of expanding upon his universe, Uncle George seemed hell-bent on deconstructing it.
Uncle George also appeared to have forgotten something very important when making the prequels: that Star Wars is an epic myth, and when telling these stories, they should be treated as such. JJ Abrams gets this, which is why his The Force Awakens is so much better than any of the prequels. In creating young Rey (who’s very well played by the charming Daisy Ridley), we have a new archetype of the hero from the fabled myths that Joseph Campbell told of. Rey lives a humble existence on the desert planet of Jakku, where she earns a living scavenging from wrecked Star Destroyers left behind from a long-ago battle. But she meets up with BB-8, an impossibly cute droid that contains a map showing the location of the missing Luke Skywalker.
And we’re off! After meeting with Fin (John Boyega in another good performance), a Stormtrooper who’s gone AWOL, the trio take off from Jakku using an old freighter they find on the surface…a freighter that just happens to be the Millennium Falcon. What follows is basically a remake of A New Hope, with our heroes tangling with the First Order, the new group of baddies that arose from the ashes of the Empire, revealing some spiffy new Star Destroyers in their arsenal, along with another Death Star.
A death star…why’d it have to be another death star?
The death star this time is known as Starkiller Base, and it’s a hundred times larger than its brethren, with the surface covered with natural landscapes, which is a nice change of pace–but it’s still a frigging death star with a death ray, and its very presence gives The Force Awakens a heavy derivative feel. In what is an otherwise fun and enjoyable film, one that’s joyously pushing the series forward, the presence of the super duper death star feels like a step backward as it forces the plot in the latter half of the film to mimic A New Hope, straight down to scenes of General Leia anxiously awaiting the outcome of the battle back at the resistance base.
Still, despite the remake of A New Hope sprouting up right in the middle of the movie, Abrams keeps aiming high and manages to deliver a rollicking film for the fans and non-fans. He loads the film with many super cool moments that will resonate with the more hardcore fans of the Star Wars series. The humor is also exceptional–I laughed out loud several times during some funny bits–and the characters, both new and old, are sympathetic enough that you care what happens to them. And for once, the main character in a Star Wars film is finally a woman (thanks, JJ)!
Aside from a massive misstep thanks to reviving a plot device that really needed to stay dead, I still tremendously enjoyed The Force Awakens. It vividly recalls the dashing fun of the original trilogy while laying the foundation for another two films to come, both of which I can’t wait to see (just so long as there are no more death stars, please…pretty please?). –SF