Special Guest Review by Andrew Helmer
There are few moments quite like the dizzying anticipation that comes in the few brief seconds between “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” and the cacophony of joy that comes with the eruption of a new Star Wars title card. In these quiet moments, a galaxy of possibilities sprawls out, provided you’ve completed the Herculean task of staying spoiler free, and it is easy to find oneself slipping back to a childlike state. J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens manages to take that giddy feeling and spread it over the next 135 minutes with a surprising rate of return. If you go into it looking for flaws, you’ll find them for sure. Yes, we’ve seen it all before. Yes, it does mimic a lot of the story beats from A New Hope. The script does sometimes heavily rely on coincidence (though most can be explained away pretty easily). And yeah, not all of the “winking” nostalgia moments work. But to go in looking for nitpicks is to miss out on the tremendous sense of fun the movie carries with it. It is a true adventure story, start to finish, and thankfully, unlike the prequels before it, one that does not take itself as seriously.
Will this movie play to non-fans? That’s a hard question for me, since I’ve never been in that position when it comes to this saga. But I like to think it plays pretty sturdily as a blockbuster adventure film. While the film does coast a little too often on smirking callbacks to previous films, I think there’s enough new here to bring in a new generation. For starters, the new characters are fantastic. Early on we’re introduced to our new trio as the story skips somewhat ambitiously between character points of view in the first act, giving us time to get to know them in various degrees. First we meet Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac), a daring pilot who’s just as quick with sarcasm as with an X-Wing. Through him we meet Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper suffering from a moral crisis. And finally we meet the new saga’s true hero Rey (Daisy Ridley), one of the loneliest and most capable heroines to grace the franchise. Through her we’re given an emotional anchor and it’s her journey that feels the most complete once the credits roll. Her strong role is one of the most refreshing things about the film as time and time again tropes are subverted, making it clear that Rey is someone that’s here to do the rescuing, not to be rescued. Poe and Finn don’t go through quite as much, with the former disappearing for a large portion of the film and the latter used quite effectively as surprisingly dorky comic relief. The newcomers are rounded out by Adam Driver’s villainous Kylo Ren, one of the series’ more developed and sinister villains as well as Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata, a mysterious cantina owner brought to life by some of the most realistic CGI put to film. Beyond them, the film is full of new villains and characters in big and small roles, many of them teasing larger appearances to come. All of them visually distinct and sure to spawn an action figure.
All of this, of course, leads to the Original Trilogy’s trio of characters, all back in the middle of the action. Its Harrison Ford’s Han Solo that sees the most development, as he quickly becomes the heart of the story. Picking up with the roguish hero in his senior years places him in a much different role than one would assume. I don’t think going in anyone would expect his character to be in the position in which we find him and it’s one of the films greatest pleasures. Ford is fantastic in the role, embracing a sense of humour and energy audiences haven’t seen from him in decades. Solo’s shared screen time with both the newcomers and the original cast is a joy to watch. Carrie Fisher’s return as Leia, now the leader of an impressive military force, adds more layers to a character that promises a larger role in the coming adventures. She brings with her the same ironic delivery that made the character such a fan favourite. And finally, Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, whose mysteries drive the film’s central plot, once again effortlessly stepping into an iconic Jedi Robe. The latter two might not enjoy the same expanded role as Han Solo, but both bring dramatic weight to their roles. Hamill’s first appearance alone caused the crowd to erupt in a lingering applause that barely subsided after a minute.
So where does this all leave The Force Awakens as a film? To be honest, a bit scattered at times. The film rushes a bit from location to location, spilling out exposition a bit too sparingly in the lead up to certain climactic events. It also juggles one too many action scenes, though most of them are exciting enough not to notice. The villains, with the exception of Driver’s Kylo Ren, are not given all that much screen time and their motivations remain a mystery likely (or hopefully) to be explored in greater detail as the new Saga continues. Those minor nitpicks aside (and admittedly, they may bother some more than others), I couldn’t help but think of the word “fun” over and over again when trying to describe the experience. However, the cast, old and new, are given plenty of time to shine and with the expanded cast, finally a Star Wars film successfully passes the Bechdel Test (a critical test anecdotally employed to call attention to gender inequality in fiction). Despite any small nitpicks, I can’t stress enough how engrossed in the movie I was the entire time. As the film came to its near perfect final scene, I knew that the worst thing about the experience was how much I was already anticipating Episode VIII. Luckily, this time audiences will only have to wait until May of 2017 before we continue with the adventure with our new expanded gang of heroes and villains.
Andrew Helmer is an avid film watcher who sporadically writes things too.