Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

Episode VII: The Force Awakens, the first of three new Star Wars films, offers new hope for a brand tarnished by George Lucas’s prequels by hewing close to the original trilogy.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force AwakensUSA
4*

Director:
J.J. Abrams

Screenwriters:
Lawrence Kasdan

J.J. Abrams
Michael Arndt
Director of Photography:
Dan Mindel

Running time: 135 minutes

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
– Star Wars / A New Hope (Episode IV)
– The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)

“Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed.

With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.

Leia has sent her most daring pilot on a secret mission to Jakku, where an old ally has discovered a clue to Luke’s whereabouts….”

“Luke Skywalker has vanished”, declares the first line of the opening crawl in the early moments of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The text that sets the scene follows the same pattern as in all previous instalments — we get full names, even if the characters are familiar to most of us, and the sentences are presented as three short paragraphs — but that is not where the similarities end.

In fact, in numerous respects, this latest episode was clearly made with the Star Wars fan in mind. Unlike the unmitigated disaster that was most of the “prequel trilogy” (episodes I through III, released 1999–2005 under the direction of series creator George Lucas), Episode VII is cut from the same cloth as the original trilogy, and not just because it uses wipes to transition between scenes. The events may be set decades into the future, and our friends have become old, but this is still the same galaxy, and even the narrative takes its blueprint from the first film, released in 1977 as Star Wars and subsequently titled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

In broad strokes, without revealing too much, the plot revolves around the quest to locate Luke, the last remaining Jedi in the galaxy. To this end, characters like Han Solo, Leia and Chewbacca make a return, which is no surprise, as they have featured prominently in the trailers. They join up with some novices, including a disillusioned Stormtrooper, FN-21871 or “Finn” (a mostly winsome but sometimes overly enthused John Boyega), and a young woman named Rey (an absolutely stunning turn by Daisy Ridley) who lives in solitude in the desert landscape of Jakku.

Their enemy is the force that has replaced the former Empire and calls itself First Order, led by a physically towering individual, at least from the looks of his hologram, titled Snoke (created by motion-capture performer Andy Serkis), who serves as the order’s supreme leader. His apprentice is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who with his black cloak and facemask resembles the man he adulates: the original trilogy’s villain, Darth Vader. Ren’s origin story is one of the film’s big twists, and its shock value almost rivals that of the narrative reveal in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, namely the relationship between Luke and Darth Vader.

The screenplay, co-written by director J.J. Abrams along with Episode V scribe Lawrence Kasdan and Little Miss Sunshine writer Michael Arndt, marks a pleasant departure from the Lucas tradition of bad sci-fi screenwriting. While the opening line of the series in Episode I was the detached and uninspiring “Captain … tell them we wish to board at once”, Episode VII gives us Max von Sydow as Lor San Tekka, an elder on Jakku who is helping the resistance. We meet him and the young pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in the middle of the night at a secret meeting where Tekka speaks the first words while handing Poe a small object: “This will begin to make things right.”

In a way, Tekka’s words are applicable to the entire film, which obviously sought to right the ship after Lucas had tarnished his own brand, and Episode VII’s determination to stay close to the original trilogy pays off handsomely. The desert planet of Jakku calls to mind Luke’s home planet of Tatooine; the inside of a bar on Takodana, a planet so verdant it leads Rey to exclaim she never knew there existed so much green in the entire galaxy, looks a lot like the notorious Mos Eisley cantina from Episode IV; and the First Order’s callous, indiscriminate annihilation of entire planets obviously references the Death Star’s destruction of Princess Leia’s Alderaan.

And speaking of Leia, who is now a general, actress Carrie Fischer’s scenes with Harrison Ford — who reprises his role as Han, the galactic cargo smuggler and proud pilot of the Millennium Falcon — have a breathtaking poignancy to them that nonetheless eschews easy sentimentality. Naturally, those who are familiar with the original trilogy will take away much more from these scenes than those who are not, but the honesty of the characters and their deep connection to each other make for some of the most powerful moments in the entire film.

The two other characters whose return is much anticipated are the two droids, C3PO and R2D2, although even diehard fans would be hard-pressed to ignore the loveable new addition, BB-8, which consists of an orange ball that rolls and acts as the “body”, with a small, mobile, domelike structure on top that functions as the head. It is an astonishing feat that we sometimes forget that this droid is merely a machine, and even though it does not have any facial expressions, its sounds and movements are enough to communicate exactly what it is “feeling”.

Whether the faces we see belong to humans, droids or other creatures we recognise from earlier instalments, the moments in which they are revealed are as striking as they should be. It is like a quick blow to the chest when you unexpectedly see an old friend again, and even the appearance of the Millennium Falcon will have this effect on the viewer who watches the film as a longtime fan.

In general, as Abrams did with his reboot of the Star Trek franchise, the action appears to zip along at a much more dynamic pace than was the case with the original films, admittedly made for a pre-MTV, non-ADHD generation. There is never a dull moment in this film, and even the rare examples of less-than-stellar dialogue or overacting, usually featuring Boyega, are kept to a minimum.

This episode is better than at least three (some might even say all four) of the episodes that Lucas directed, and it is a very robust work of entertainment, but newcomers might be a little nonplussed at all the fuss. It remains to be seen how the two subsequent episodes, scheduled for release in 2017 and 2019, will develop the setup that culminates here in an unforgettable cliffhanger.

Those who were mumbling “I have a bad feeling about this” had no reason to worry.

Leave a Reply