A long time ago, in a childhood far, far away a new cinematic galaxy was birthed on the big screen. No one knew if it would survive, let alone gain a rabid cult following (among whom, I like to include myself). Despite some storytelling issues, Episodes IV, V, & VI felt new, organic, and offered fans lots of heart.
The release of Episode I in the 90’s was as excitedly anticipated as anything could be before the advent of Social Media. I never questioned the quality of what would come. “It’s Lucas, it’s Star Wars! It’s going to be awesome!”
I found it very telling that, while waiting at the concession stand for Episode VII this week, I heard whole groups of fans expressing a tempered caution that (we now know) should have been present for the preceding three movies. “I just hope there’s no Jar-Jar…or anything like a Jar-Jar…I want something that isn’t just stupid.” That was my favorite.
And it’s true, with Episodes I, II, & III not only did we get Jar-Jar, boring trade negotiations, and enough derogatory ethnic Earth-bound stereotypes to offend the better part of THIS planet…we lost the novelty of the story (fans already knew the big reveal from Empire), the organic & tangible quality of the first three (the answer to EVERYTHING was, “let’s make it CGI!”), and most sadly of all…Star Wars lost its heart.
Without direction, quality actors (like Ewan McGregor) tried in vain to make us feel something while regurgitating Lucas’ dreadful dialogue. How could I feel any chemistry for the near pedophiliac relationship of Padmé and Anakin? Or feel anything at all for Anakin, with his incessant brooding and whining (which Hayden Christensen interpreted in the most annoying fashion ever). But, enough of that. I could write a treatise on how those three movies took a whiz on my childhood.
Now, here we are in December of 2015! I know J.J. Abrams is a very capable director. And, as a self-admitted fan-boy, I felt certain he’d return the heart to Star Wars. Previews of the production team working with real sets and models gave me hope that we’d get that same organic feel found in Episodes IV, V, & VI. But, despite all of the good vibes, I remained skeptical. I would not let this franchise hurt me again. My blaster shield was up!
Without spoilers, I honestly and happily share that my hope and trust was not misplaced. It was a joy to see actors working with tangible props & set pieces! (There is CGI too. But, much like the sides of the Force, it’s balanced.) And, best of all, there was real acting! The incredible difference good direction can make is evident in this film. Daisy Ridley (Rey) is a stronger actor than anyone we’ve seen before in the franchise (including Sir Alec Guinness.) Her performance is mesmerizing to watch, and she’s clearly not someone to be trifled with.
With The Force Awakens, Abrams has lovingly folded the old in with the new, giving each the respect and attention they need and deserve. Of course there are the obligatory nods to the older films, but almost every instance is well poised for the reference, as opposed to jammed into dialogue where it would be clunky or inappropriate.
Much as we do now with A New Hope, thirty years from now we’ll probably be discussing Episode VII’s primitive special effects. But, for now, the special effects and sound design are awesome to experience. BB-8 (who fans initially dismissed as having to be CGI) is both real and brilliantly utilized, even if he wasn’t fully functioning at the time of shooting. He will be this generation’s R2-D2 (heck, I’ve even become a big fan.) Despite the frenetic energy of battle scenes, I was easily able to keep my bearings and follow along. And, pacing (in general) is well managed throughout, with quieter moments allowing fans time to feel without it being cliché or losing pace altogether.
This is not to say The Force Awakens is perfect. It regularly feels like a redux of IV, V, & VI. Some rather large items are left on the table without any real explanation, and (I’m sorry to report) Carrie Fisher is the weakest link. Her face nearly frozen, with dialogue offered almost monotone and lacking in any kind of inflection or emotion. Lastly, if you hire an actor (famous for voicing CGI characters) to voice a brand new one, how about not making that new character look almost exactly like one of his old characters? Just a thought.
Although, for me, none of the above detracted from what is a Star Wars movie that finally feels like a Star Wars movie, and gets right what made the franchise so beloved. It’s new (in a different way), it’s organic, and it most definitely has heart. I took a few notes during my viewings. The last note in my book was “what it feels like to feel again.” Having felt only contempt while watching Episodes I, II, and III, I believe the first spoken line in Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a promise to fans everywhere, “This should begin to make things right.”. And I think it has. I hope to see you at Episodes VIII & IX, but until then, “May the Force be with you…always.”