The good news is that I was wrong. In the days and weeks leading up to the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I'd confidently proclaimed my expectation that the film would prove to be a "technically marvelous suckfest." After all, I considered it inconceivable that Disney would forego the usual awards season push for The Force Awakens if, in fact, it was an awardworthy film. Don't get me wrong. I'm fully aware that the mouse house was emphasizing box-office over critical praise, and doing so masterfully with a marketing campaign second to none, but it still struck me as unfathomable that if the potential existed for both that they wouldn't at least allow the film to be seen my the nation's critic's groups hashing out their year-end awards. While Disney did, in the 48 hours prior to the film's expected huge opening, did finally relent a do a few screenings in major markets, the simple truth, I think, is that they knew what they had on their hands - a good film that will most definitely please the vast majority of Star Wars fans worldwide eagerly anticipating the film but not a great film headed for Oscar glory in anything beyond technical categories.
So, there you have it. I was wrong. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not a "technically marvelous suckfest." In fact, I'm even kind of hesitant to call it "technically marvelous" and I'm even more hesitant to call it a "suckfest." Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a good film, but it's nowhere near the masterpiece that we'd hoped it might be.
You could almost hear the packed house at Indy's IMAX Theatre in downtown Indy breathe a collective sigh of relief a few minutes into the film when it became apparent that the Star Wars universe was in good hands, albeit incredibly safe hands, with director J.J. Abrams, a self-proclaimed lifelong fan of the series who'd also breathed life into the Star Trek series with similar success.
Abrams, with tremendous cinematic insight, seems to have understood almost exactly what Star Wars fans have loved throughout the years but, maybe more importantly, he also understands where the series steered wrong. Now then, if I have a beef with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and I do, it's that Abrams at times treats the material with such a sense of reverence that it feels like we spend most of the film watching Abrams' pseudo-interpretation of Star Wars: A New Hope.
This isn't necessarily a horrible decision. While much of The Force Awakens feels familiar, it's a familiarity in the absolutely best way as Abrams truly does bring the best of the Star Wars history to this film while leaving the worst of it behind. He also wonderfully weaves together past and present in the film, something that is most certainly not a spoiler and shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention.
From the film's opening moments, complete with a familiar yet fresh original score from John Williams, it becomes apparent that J.J. Abrams is determined to do more than simply put people in the seats. He wants to win back the hearts and minds of adults and children alike who've immersed themselves in the Star Wars universe since the original film in 1977. While The Force Awakens will be hard-pressed to win legions of new fans, old fans can relax.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is good.
The film opens with news that Luke Skywalker has been missing and a new empire, The First Order, is rapidly gaining control of the universe largely on the strength of Kylo Ren's (Adam Driver) mastery of the force and the larger than life Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). There is a resistance movement, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), who has tasked their finest pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), with finding Luke and convincing him to devote his Jedi mastery to support the rebellion.
To know anything else is not only unnecessary but, in all honesty, it would dilute what is at its heart a genuinely entertaining popcorn flick with a script by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt that never takes itself too seriously. As Rey, a scavenger who sort of stumbles into the resistance, Daisy Ridley is a relative newcomer to American audiences who is destined to become a household name. Ridley's Rey is spirited, plucky, vulnerable and a whole lotta fun. If there's a true break-out performance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it is Ridley's as she ably carries the spirit of Han Solo. The film picks up immensely, especially after an opening few minutes that had me more than a little concerned, when Rey crosses paths with Finn (John Boyega, another relative newcomer), a soldier who is more than a little unsure about this whole soldiering thing. Boyega brings an authenticity to Finn that provides The Force Awakens with a refreshing emotional core. Harrison Ford may be a whole lot older than the last time we saw him as Han Solo, but the minute he pops onto the screen it feels as if Han Solo never left.
I have a feeling that Star Wars: The Force Awakens will resonate most deeply with those who will understand and appreciate Abrams' little flourishes and nods throughout the film from familiar characters to simple story devices to set design to just about everything else. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o is unrecognizable as Maz Kanata, owner of an awfully familiar looking cantina similar to the memorable Mos Eisely cantina scene. R2-D2 and C-3PO are here, though they certainly have some competition in the adorable department from BB-8, a sort of cross between Wall-E and Wilson the volleyball. Adam Driver is for the most part effective as Kylo Ren, though I found myself in disagreement with a couple of obviously intentional character choices that lessened his effectiveness for me.
If there's a true pleasant surprise from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it would likely be just how entertaining it is and how frequently I laughed at the film's gentle yet effective witticisms. While Star Wars: The Force Awakens isn't quite the masterpiece some had hoped for, it's an entertaining and spirited film that proves, once again, that the force is still with J.J. Abrams and there's simply no resisting it.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic