Old Dog, New Tricks: “The Force Awakens” Review

Star Wars is a worldwide phenomenon that has become bigger than itself. With an expansive multi-media empire (no pun intended) and nearly forty years as a staple in American pop-culture, the announcement and subsequent release of a new Stars Wars film calls to arms an audience seeking to relive the nostalgia that the original trilogy brought them. This may be in part why, with a focus on CGI and a more stereotypical Hollywood spectacle narrative, that the last trilogy was warmly received by both fans and critics but also why the reception for the announcement of the latest film, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, has been so great.

First and foremost, J.J. Abrams is helming the film. Abrams has made a name for himself in the modern science-fiction sphere with not only shows like Lost but also films like Cloverfield and most importantly, a reboot of the Star Trek series. In the latter, fans found a cinematic spirit in Abrams that perhaps showcased a genuine want to bring fresh life to Star Wars, and the news concerning production of the film only got better when it was announced that there would be less of a focus on CGI and a return to the more practical puppetry that the original trilogy used. Not only that, but plot-wise, the film would be moving forward from the last chronological film, Return of the Jedi, and thus, would feature original cast members, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill. Abrams and his crew had a lot of pressure riding on their shoulders, in order to live up to, to borrow a phrase from the late David Foster Wallace, the “miasma of hype” surrounding The Force Awakens, and to that extent, the way in which Abrams and co. have decided to tackle the film are with cinematic techniques that blends both the nostalgic spirit of the classic films with more modern elements that eschew traditional Hollywood tropes. It is in most part, for the better than, that The Force Awakens is successful in revitalizing the Star Wars franchise while also moving it forward.

Like its predecessors, The Force Awakens begins with the now recognizable scrolling text and accompanying classic John Williams score. It’s been thirty years since the end of Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last Jedi, has disappeared, and The First Order, who are the remnants of the Galactic Empire, hunt him down in hopes of vanquishing the last hope for the Republic. Leia (Carrie Fisher), once again leader of a resistance group, sends “her most daring pilot,” Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to the desert planet Jakku, after discovering that a hint towards Luke’s whereabouts can be found there.

As stated earlier, perhaps the biggest draw for old fans of Star Wars, is The Force Awakens’ roots in nostalgia. It’s not just a simple harkening back towards practical effects over CGI which recalls the older films but characters, plot, narrative, and setting as well.  The planet Jakku resembles Tatooine, the all-black and mask clad Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) resembles Vader, and finally, the star-killer base with its capability to destroy planets is no different than the death star. The list of parallels can go on but would require spoilers which will be avoided here. It can be argued that the prequel trilogies erred in their execution by moving too far from the spirit of the original films and so to rectify that, The Force Awakens finds proper footing in what made the Star Wars franchise so successful. The experience of watching The Force Awakens then, is once which is familiar, but at the cost of being familiar, plays it rather safe.

It’s not a matter of the cinematic elements of The Force Awakens being bad—the actors both old and new bring a fresh adventurous spirit to the franchise—but that the audience is treading the same ground that they did back in 1977. At times, The Force Awakens carries itself with a sense of meta-awareness, both of its own universe but also towards its acknowledgement of itself as a film in a much bigger franchise, with certain jokes in the film directing their punchlines towards the audience while simultaneously referencing the original films. For the better part, however, while treading that same ground, The Force Awakens also sets out to deconstruct certain stereotypes or tropes that bog down the originals and it does so in both minor and major ways. Once again, it’s difficult to discuss just how The Force Awakens subverts its own franchise without spoilers but one minor change that goes a long way is the more humanization of the Storm Troopers. It’s not only through the inclusion of Finn (John Boyega), who plays the role of a Storm Trooper gone AWOL but also the fact that in this film, Stormtroopers shoot and do hit their targets. A simple change such as this moves the film away from its comic-book influenced roots and more so towards a realm of probability and real. That may sound paradoxical yet good science-fiction—and this counts even more for film—will be able to transport audiences to a foreign world that will be made familiar not in a nostalgic sense but instead, through atmosphere, and The Force Awakens’ biggest strength, are the small but many moments littered throughout the film that give peeks into the inner intimacies of the characters at hand, both good and bad. Abrams has cited Terrence Malick as one of his influences when creating The Force Awakens and it shows.

The original Star Wars films are loud and fast and while The Force Awakens surely packs its own adrenaline rush, Abrams finds moments to quiet the narrative and does so through the use of long-takes for some of the more personal scenes that give hints towards who the characters are as people or work to further their characterization. Once such moment is when the group arrives at the ocean and forest covered planet Takodana and Ray (Daisy Ridley), having grown up on Jakku, exclaims in a whisper, “I never knew so much green existed in the galaxy.” The technique and execution on Ridley’s part are beautiful because they are moments in the narrative that are real and believable. It is in moments such as this one that a character like Ray moves away from the realm of fiction into our own world because she’s made into more than a construct to carry out the narrative of the film. In developing the characters through camera techniques, however, Abrams isn’t as patient as he could be, often removing the camera too quickly from scenes that would have greatly benefitted from just a few more seconds. It is no surprise then, that The Force Awakens’ best moment is a tense scene, where the struggle at hand is magnified by a long-take.

The Force Awakens is also about myths and legends, and the attempt to live up to the grandiose heights those same myths and legends set for future generations. In much the same way that hero mantle has been handed down to a new cast of characters, the same can be said for Star Wars as a franchise; it’s a film meant for modern audiences, although modern has a negative connotation that goes hand-in-hand with Hollywood practices, in this case, it’s not. It is these myths and legends about carrying on the work of its predecessors that The Force Awakens both embraces and destroys. The result is an old film given a new coat of paint but now that The Force Awakens has proven itself to be a worthy contender in continuing the Star Wars franchise, it is up to the sequels to be more than platforms for future films to launch from, a concept that Marvel films, another entity of Disney, have long been practicing. Films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe never truly end but segue into one another with sub-plots and after-credits scenes. With already a next film in sight being a prequel slated for 2016, Star Wars runs the risk of Marvel’s films, by oversaturating its own market.

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