A long time ago, in 1977 to be exact, George Lucas transported millions of young Americans to a galaxy far, far away. Among them was an 11-year-old named Jeffrey Jacob Abrams, who was utterly blown away, calling it “an incredibly powerful experience”. Now, almost forty years later, it is Abrams’ turn to introduce a new generation of fans to that same far, far away galaxy, and to recreate the glory of the original Star Wars. And while The Force Awakens, simply by dint of being a sequel, isn’t nearly as earth-shattering as the original, it is certainly a worthy addition to the quintessential galactic epic.
Picking up the baton from The Return of the Jedi (1983), The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after the death of the Empire. A new Republic has gained control of the galaxy, and yet, it does not rule unopposed: from the Empire’s ashes, the First Order now rises and threatens to take back the galaxy. With the support of the Republic, only the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), stands in their way. Tragically, the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is mysteriously missing, and is desperately sought by both sides. The First Order seeks to destroy the Jedi once and for all, while Leia not only wishes to be reunited with her brother, but more importantly, also needs his help to restore balance to the galaxy.
Similarly, The Force Awakens strikes a difficult balance between making itself a clear continuation of the original trilogy and marking the beginning of a new story. Its homage was not unwelcome. In particular, audience members at our showing cheered and squealed as Han Solo struts onto the iconic Millenium Falcon. At the same time, Abrams introduces new stars who will surely one day be just as beloved as the original ensemble, and appropriately, these new characters are really the main focus of the saga’s latest instalment. The Luke-like protagonist Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a parentless scavenger from the desert planet Jakku who teams up with Finn (John Boyega), a former storm trooper, to help the Resistance. We even get a new droid, BB-8, whose role and entertaining noises are similar to R2-D2’s from the original trilogy. Adam Driver plays the new villain, the masked Darth Vader fanboy Kylo Ren, who desperately wants to live up to the legacy of his wheezing predecessor.
However, unlike Vader (who only really develops as a character in the last five minutes of his life) Kylo Ren is a villain in his formative stage. His training’s incomplete; his lightsaber looks jagged and uncontrolled, suggesting he never learned how to build it properly, and he seems evenly matched with the inexperienced Rey. All of these things make him more compelling. An undefeatable, all-powerful villain who knows exactly what to do all the time is less interesting than a villain who is unsure of himself—one who struggles just as much as the hero. Fights are more gripping when they are close. Thus, Ren is a more intriguing villain than Vader, if a little less threatening. It helps that we see Ren’s face more frequently too, humanizing him and giving Driver a chance to actually act. For the most part the acting doesn’t stand out, for good or for worse, but one scene with Driver and Ford is so masterfully done that it brought tears to members of the audience at our showing.
And yet, while we appreciate all the throwbacks to the original saga—they make us laugh and feel at home in this faraway galaxy—we also realize that’s just about all there is to The Force Awakens. Finn fills a partially novel role as a former storm trooper, which is certainly worth watching. But the dynamic framed by Finn, Rey, and BB-8 feels a bit rehashed, like a more condensed (and diverse) version of the classic dynamic of Luke, Han, Leia, Chewy, C-3PO, and R2-D2. The First Order, too, is essentially a reincarnation of the Empire, and its technology has barely changed in the thirty years since the latter collapsed.
In some ways, rehashing the original trilogy is not all bad. After all, who didn’t love it? The characters are not that fresh and neither is the plot, but the original characters and plotlines in their present incarnations are still fun to watch. Even the original trilogy wasn’t exactly original. What made it so successful was its resetting of the classic hero archetype in a fresh fictional galaxy; George Lucas’ major themes can be found in myriad stories that follow the same hero archetype. What Force takes from the originals it shows with wonderful blending of modern special effects and practical effects as well as beautiful scenery, which is a pleasure to see in IMAX 3D. Abrams’ use of practical effects is more than welcome (after the despised overuse of CGI in Lucas’ prequels), and really makes the film feel like one of the originals. John Williams’ score certainly sounds like Star Wars music, and even occasionally revisits some old themes, but it does not really create any memorable new ones.
The Force Awakens draws heavily on the original trilogy to create a gripping yet familiar story that had the audience at our showing clapping by its end. To successfully resurrect a franchise dormant for at least a decade and have it nearly universally applauded (or at least accepted) by fans is no easy task, but it is one Abrams has accomplished here far better than in his much-maligned Star Trek revival. Yes, the plot is unoriginal, but the plot is never what made Star Wars great. Star Wars is beloved for its fantastic yet real alien worlds, as well as for its intriguing characters, and Abrams’ sequel brings them all back. So we can’t wait for episode eight.