Star Wars The Force Awakens Review: Total Recall
- -Rewatchable, better than the prequels
- -Strong new cast and characters
- -Good storybuilding and direction
- -Harrison Ford
- -Probably not as good as the OT (time will tell)
- -Some unconvincing CGI characters
- -Overly familiar elements
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the movie that Star Wars fans have been waiting
16 32 years for. Fans waited 16 years for The Phantom Menace, only to be bitterly disappointed, and now 16 years after that, those same anxious fans and more are lining up outside theaters with high hopes for Star Wars nirvana. In the immortal words of C-3PO: here we go again!
For fans, it all really boils down to two questions. Is The Force Awakens better than the prequels? Yes. (Is the Dark Side stronger? I mean, come on.) Is it as good as the originals? Well, maybe not, but time will tell. Always in motion is the future.
But here’s the good news: you’ll actually want to see it again.
In many ways, 49-year-old director and co-writer J.J. Abrams made the most sense as the torchbearer for George Lucas’s grand space opera vision, and after seeing the movie, he still feels like the right choice. He understands the balance of character, action and humor that were important to the original trilogy.
But there’s another “force” at work here, and that’s the larger sense that Star Wars has passed from being the singular vision of one creator (for better and for much, much worse) to being the cog of a much larger machine, à la Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In some ways, the Disney universe approach offers some satisfying moments, and at other times, feels forced. To paraphrase one character in the film, “I feel like I’m being torn apart.” Some characters and plot devices seem like they’re passing through the movie, only to (presumably) reappear again in a later episode or perhaps in a “sidequel.” (The standalone Star Wars Anthology movie series is set to launch next year with Rogue One.) On the other hand, there’s a sense of mystery and unexplained backstory that permeates the plot and feels like it will be paid off at some point down the line.
For this, we have only to blame The Empire Strikes Back, still the high water mark for the series. Empire kickstarted the Star Wars template of a non-self-contained plot, even though it was originally panned for doing so. So if The Force Awakens borrows liberally from this story structure, then we have only success to blame.
The Force Awakens co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter of Empire and its sequel Return of the Jedi, is known for his affinity for the Han Solo character (and with son Jon Kasdan is co-writing the Han Solo origin movie set to be released in 2018). It’s no surprise then that Harrison Ford is top-billed in TFA and is a major part of the last two-thirds of the movie. Ford brings some of the playful glint we’d seen from his earlier Solo days, but there are moments of the 1990s “Get off my plane/find my wife” Ford that slip through. His performance is key to the story, but as this is still an action film, we still don’t quite get caught up with Solo the man. But perhaps that is the key to his mystique.
As for the original cast, Carrie Fisher seems to struggle to find the core of her original Princess Leia characterization, but she’s not given much to do and the role is small. As for Mark Hamill, well, you’ll just have to see the movie to find out how he does, but he doesn’t disappoint.
You can see where the filmmakers famously debated on the direction of the film—whether to go in a completely new direction or bring the old faces along for the ride. That conflict does make the character development a bit of a patchwork with so many more central characters. It’s also the rumored reason Michael Arndt, the original screenwriter (and credited associate producer), was replaced by Abrams and Kasdan.
The two new faces, young actors Daisy Ridley (Rey) and John Boyega (Finn), actually do breathe new life into the series. (Oscar Isaac is solid as pilot Poe Dameron, but it’s a small role.) They are front and center in the marketing campaign, and they do hold up their end of the bargain. The story gives them fresh new things to do in what feels at times like a series of callbacks to the original trilogy.
You will definitely have moments of head-scratching déjà vu from lines of dialogue and set pieces, as well as plot devices, major and minor characters, props and various minutiae that will probably take multiple viewings to uncover. The filmmakers also manage to squeeze in a note of surreal mysticism in the middle of the movie, just as Empire did in the middle of its story (the cave scene). Just when it feels like the fan service might be too much, Abrams and company do take the series in some interesting emotional directions, especially in the last third of the movie.
The Force Awakens opens strongly but surprisingly meanders in the middle. However, the spine of the story starts to appear in the last third, and the new emotional beats have a satisfying ring to them that will echo through at least two more installments. Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) is a major reason for this shift, and his performance is fascinating. The work that Abrams, Kasdan and Driver put into this aspect of the movie feels like the richest part of the whole enterprise.
There is more CGI in the movie than some fans might be expecting after pre-release hype suggested an almost apologetic turn away from the cartoonish prequels. The CGI is more organically integrated but at the same time, some key characters are clearly CGI in ways that do not feel satisfying, like say Gollum was in The Lord of the Rings series (although this movie’s involvement of Andy Serkis—Mr. Gollum himself—probably should’ve given that away).
Let’s not forget John Williams. The 83-year-old composing genius once again scored the music (listen to the soundtrack on Spotify), and while it doesn’t sound as inspired as his earlier work, Rey’s Theme and The Jedi Steps are notable additions to the Star Wars musical oeuvre.
The Force Awakens, though flawed and overly familiar at times, does set up the promise of a much grander story. It stands on solid legs with the new cast led by Daisy Ridley who convincingly balances fierceness with vulnerability and is ready to carry the baton (or lightsaber, if you will) for the next generation of Star Wars movies and its fans.