Review: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

dfn-star-war-force-awakens-300A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars felt like a triumphant entry point into popular culture for those of us who were devoted to science fiction.

Sure, it was ‘space opera,’ a junky action vehicle that harkened back to the 1920s and 1930s, but it was by far the best space opera that had ever been realized on the big screen, at least to my teenage eyes. And its success promised to open up the mainstream to the glories of science fiction, which had been my predominant reading material for years, yet was remaindered in the sidelines for the public at large.

More than 38 years later, I am no longer a teenager and there is no possible way that Star War: The Force Awakens was ever going to come close to matching the original film’s emotional impact on me. But it plays well as the seventh installment in a series that now promises to stretch to the end of time.

The movie is beholden to the knowledge that the mainstream now has about the previous films, especially the original trilogy. For those who are extremely familiar with those films, especially the first two, it’s rather surprising to watch The Force Awakens play like a greatest hits collection of the best moments, reconfigured and rejiggered as it has been by writers J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan. (Michael Arndt, who reportedly wrote a partially-completed script that was subsequently not used, is also credited for the screenplay.)

As he has done before with Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek, director Abrams is faithful to the franchise universe. He has not reinvented the wheel here; it’s more like he has followed the blueprints drawn up by George Lucas more than three decades ago and then made them better and more relatable for modern audiences.

Once nostalgic lenses have been removed, it must be acknowledged that Lucas’ 1977 film was weak in comparison to its sequel, which is also when Kasdan entered the picture, rewriting a script that was begun by the legendary Leigh Brackett. Irvin Kershner’s direction of Kasdan’s screenplay for The Empire Strikes back lifted it beyond space opera and into high-quality melodrama, punctuated by action scenes that helped define the characters, both good and bad.

The same proves true in The Force Awakens. Characters are established based on a combination of what they say and what they do, not simply by their appearance. That allows new characters to be introduced along with familiar ones, and for them all to believably exist in the same cohesive universe. For all the odd names, advanced technology and flights between galaxies, the Star Wars universe remains grounded in our own world. Human behavior — and that of droids and other intelligent machines — remains remarkably familiar.

That’s one reason the series has proven to be so popular; everyone could relate to at least one of the characters. What helps The Force Awakens considerably in comparison to the original Star Wars is that the lead actors are quite a bit more accomplished. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford may be beloved now, but in 1977 they were still unpolished actors delivering stilted dialogue written by a director who didn’t like to work with actors. Whatever his other deficiencies, J.J. Abrams has cast his film marvelously.

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega emerge as strong, fully-formed characters whose motivations are gradually revealed over the course of the film. They may be young, but they are more than capable; Boyega had already show his potential in Attack the Block, so he’s not as much of a surprise as Ridley, an unknown who proves to be quite appealing in her role.

The film has its share of surprises, so rather than a faithful remake, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is better described as a reboot, one that is respectful of its origins, even as it sets a course for a somewhat different destination. The movie’s energy never flags; it’s a wonderful melodramatic space opera that exceeded my admittedly lowered expectations.

Star War: The Force Awakens opens throughout the known universe, including Dallas, Friday, December 18, with advance screenings on December 17. May the force be with you as you seek to obtain tickets.