When George Lucas came out with his space-opera-fantasy (named simply Star Wars back in simpler times) in the summer of 1977, it took the world by storm and launched something that transcended a movie to become a cultural milestone. Is it possible to recreate an event so significant that has the same overpowering effect on the global population? With how far along we’ve come in terms of cinematic imagination and special effects, and the million stories that came after that follow The Hero’s Journey (read: Harry Potter, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings), the answer would be a resounding NO. However, it is indeed possible to create a film that mirrors the same journey and continues the epic tale of the struggle between the dark side and the light, between the Empire – now the First Order – and the Resistance: a story that can rekindle the flames lost in the prequels for the old fans and at the same time bring a whole new generation under its fandom. That movie is Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
I really dislike Christmas releases. If only Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released in India the same time as the international premiere, I would have gotten this review out earlier. For the past week, the internet has been filled almost exclusively with spoilers for this movie that I can only thank my lucky stars that I did not accidentally stumble across anything more than what we saw in the trailers. To ensure that everyone else yet to watch the new film gets to have the same experience I did, this review will be spoiler-free, and the full-blown discussion review will come later. Perhaps the most universally anticipated movie in the history of cinema since The Phantom Menace, JJ Abrams’ continuation of the saga of the galaxy far, far away ran the risk of being a colossal waste or a total win. The pressure on JJ Abrams from the very moment he was announced at the helm of Episode VII has been Atlas-like, and I would have to say that he has delivered. Despite all of its flaws, The Force Awakens succeeds in telling a story of galaxies, alien races, space battles, lightsabres and mythical religions but accompanied with something that makes it truly Star Wars: heart.
One the major criticisms I have heard from audiences after watching Episode VII has been how it is nothing more than a cover song of the original. But if you were to look at the mythos of Star Wars closely, you will see that the story has always been about haunting similarities in the journeys of its heroes, and how the past, present and future always rhyme the same tunes. More than the story of Anakin in the prequels mirroring that of Luke in the original trilogy, this is because the universe was built on the blueprint of The Hero’s Journey, a story-telling concept laid down by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The first act of the Hero’s Journey follows this pattern: the call to adventure, the refusal of the call, supernatural aid, crossing the threshold and the belly of the whale. It was around this that George Lucas constructed Star Wars back in ’77 and it is now the same blueprint used by JJ Abrams, the ultimate fan of the series. While it definitely deserves points knocked off for lack of creativity (Star Killer base? More like third Death Star), it definitely does not compromise the film that it has mirrors to the original, as it successfully launches a new arc and characters while being faithful to the old ones, and bridging the both.
The characters are at the heart of the new-old story, and it is the characters – both old and new – that ultimately win us over and get us excited for the new trilogy. We live in a century of sequels and throwbacks, and if Terminator: Genisys has taught us anything, it is that stories can get lost in the wave of nostalgia, riddled with references to garner cheap applause. It is this onslaught of movies being slapped with titles of pre-2000 hits playing cash registers to production houses that makes me appreciate what JJ Abrams has done for fans – new and old – worldwide with his contribution to the galactic opera. The new characters of Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren are all very much fully realized, complex characters each struggling with a conflict personal to them. We get new ideas in these characters, as well as different perspectives on old ones, as The Force Awakens plays to its modern audience with strikingly more number of relatable characters than the old movies. In fact, the mastery of Episode VII can be described no better than in that one shot from the trailers of a lightsabre being handed over: it is a passing of the torch, and one that pours over its new faces with attention, while carrying over and paying a fitting tribute to the few familiar ones.
One thing The Force Awakens does better than the original Star Wars is the detail given to its characters to make them more complex than shades of white and black. While many – including myself – consider Darth Vader to be one of the most menacing villains in cinematic history, the 1977 movie never really established him as more than an evil dictator. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), on the other hand, is a morally grey character who has as many moments of inner turmoil as Rey (Daisy Ripley) or Finn (John Boyega) does. Finn and Rey are the main protagonists of this film, and they react to the strange adventure unfolding around them as any normal person would do: in shrieks and excitement. It is easy for the audience to instantly get behind them and root for their struggle, as they more or less represent the reaction of fans to being able to witness a new Star Wars movie that really earns its title. The two of them have only heard about the Resistance, and the stories of the original trilogy told to them as myths, blowing their minds all the more once they get to know the truth. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is perhaps the least fleshed out main character, but he is so bright a presence on screen that I cannot wait to get more of him in the upcoming movies, especially his bromance with Finn. As I said before, The Force Awakens does not only create new heroes and villains, but also pays respect to the old ones, not reducing them to shadows of their past like in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. Harrison Ford is finally given a return to franchise that he deserves in Han Solo, who has matured the right amount over the years, bringing a rightful mix of weary war hero and the ‘stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy looking Nerf herder’ that we can fall in love with all over again. JJ Abrams has created an emotional story that with its very different and conflicted characters, takes the audience on a journey that makes them laugh, cry and scream at the right moments, and it is indeed a stellar effort.
When you’re talking space fantasy with battles, aliens and strange planets galore, something as important as the characters are the cinematography and sound – the way the movie breathes. This is one element on which The Force Awakens delivers on all counts, the visual experience ranking among the best of all time, and easily matching the level of Mad Max: Fury Road. What JJ Abrams along with his cinematographer Daniel Mindel has created is an exciting open world where every design and image is as epoch-making today as those in Star Wars were at the time. The space battles are gloriously fast-paced and full of action, and the ground warfare is no slugger, with the use of practical effects clearly showing the attention and love with which they were realised. Perhaps even more gorgeous in imagination and design are the many creatures that populate this galaxy far, far away – from the scavengers on Jakku to the patrons at Maz Kanata’s watering hole – each created uniquely and all fitting perfectly into the world of Star Wars that we know and love. The biggest buzz around the movie (apart from the story speculation, of course) was the announcement that they would be using practical effects wherever possible, and it shows. It is a visual treat to get lost in, with the world, its inhabitants and machines all so life-like that you find yourself suspecting whether JJ has actually discovered alien life for the sake of Star Wars. Perhaps the only disappointing image in the entire movie is that of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), a motion capture character appearing on a hologram, who will perhaps look better once he is introduced in person. If the feast of images wasn’t enough, it is accompanied by an incredible new soundtrack by John Williams who does an incredible job of blending the nostalgia of the old (most of which is carried by the opening theme itself) with the distinct tones of the new.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is no perfect movie, but it carries the heart of the series that launched the biggest fandom in cinematic history. It has its flaws in a distinct lacking of new ideas, but it serves its purpose faithfully: to put us right back in the space opera we haven’t truly experienced since 1983. Besides, Star Wars was never about a perfect story (it always showed weak spots on closer inspection, not unlike the Death Star); it was always about the experience. JJ Abrams introduces us to new characters finding their place in the overarching story, old characters like we haven’t seen them before, and induces the intrigue of what’s yet to come in this first act of what looks to be a very promising new saga. It is a tightly wound story that makes our heart beat with its characters (even the villain), gets our hearts racing at the battles and our tears rolling at the losses, and bringing with it enough unanswered questions for the fans to talk about for the next two years, at the very least. And if that isn’t Star Wars, I don’t know what is.