Awaken, indeed. However close you are to the Star Wars franchise, an immersed diehard or casual observer, and however a fan you are, be it a willful follower or a hardened skeptic, there is no combating the surge of emotion and excitement that comes with the new entry into the behemoth series.
The first thirty minutes is a whirlwind; how much of that is exhilaration and nerves will vary viewer to viewer. Some may struggle to keep everything in front of them when the John Williams score blasts, and the familiar yellow crawls appears before us only to fade into space.
Thankfully, the (spoiler-free) plot is simple enough, and particularly needed in this case. A BB-8 droid with valuable intelligence to aid the resistance against a new threat (the First Order, led in part by a Darth Vader masked admirer with a temper named Kylo Ren) is on the move, and those that cross its path, including a turncoat stormtrooper and an orphan scavenger, become entangled in a galactic adventure.
This sequel – technically the beginning of a third trilogy in the Star Wars universe, the immediate predecessor of the original three – was always going to be a careful navigation between new and old, between nostalgia and novelty. Pay tribute to the past while telling something fresh, hit all the checkmarks (Millennium Falcon, Darth Vader, Death Star, et cetera) and set up some real, raw emotion that isn’t completely influence by past experience.
It works; it wonderfully does. Sage fanboy and talented director J.J. Abrams, who earned this honour in part by showing how smartly he reinvigorated the Star Trek universe back into our cinematic consciousness, expertly meshes what are ostensibly two stories: that of the past and that of the future. The Force Awakens in fact has one straightforward tale – but for the audience, reliving experiences with Han Solo, yes the Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) are just as important as getting to know the veteran fighter pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) ,and the aforementioned desert dweller Rey (Daisy Ridley), and the former First Order employee Finn (John Boyega). One syllable will suit everyone just fine, by the way.
The parallel between this entry and A New Hope is readily available and apparent: a droid with information; a desert planet where a loner looks to the skies; a selfish soldier who doubles as a love interest; a massive planet-killing weapon; a star fight race against time. Then of course there is good versus evil, light versus dark, and more standard stuff that makes up the bulk of the earned emotion here.
It’s those simplicities that have helped make Star Wars potent and relatable. Here, sometimes these dueling fates manifest themselves between friends, lovers, and family. Wisdom versus brashness, reservation versus recklessness. Sometimes they are an internal struggle: love versus hate, courage versus cowardice. There are father figures and orphans, wayward youth and sage bystanders; they fight on both sides of the war, and sometimes are pushed and pulled in between.
And none of this is familiar – and nor should it be. The goal of Star Wars isn’t to be cunning. It’s to embrace the modest innocence of life, the common struggle of so many looking for purpose, tempted by evil, compelled to do that which is right but simultaneously, always hard, fighting for freedom against oppression. They’re all flawed, but working on it.
I suppose though we don’t need to get too serious. It’s a wild, lively, beautiful journey across the universe, desert expansive, snow-covered planets, Imperial Star Destroyers and all. And with these settings and characters, there are memories and affection, and in these films there is exhilaration and joy; there is laughter, tears, shock, and awe.
That The Force Awakens is hardly perfect makes it no more remarkable than most; where it is beyond exceptional, and unique, is its ability to channel the affection for the past and the anticipation for the present into something viscerally satisfying that will also punch you in the stomach. Of possible criticism – a rushed finale, perhaps, a weird monster tangent – it’s anything but a letdown. Chewie and Han return, as does Leia, and they are not just there to hand over the keys to the franchise. The newcomers (and Isaac), which pretty soon we will no longer be referred to as that, are worthy, and however their traits may and do resemble a young Luke or Han, they are infused with rugged individuality, and in fact traits from the all three of original trinity of heroes. And let’s enjoy a moment where a franchise that features a universe of species commingling has a woman and a black man as its two leads – and both you better believe get to wield an iconic light saber.
Abrams above all practices restraint, avoiding both what recent additions to the franchise have over done and what he himself has often employed. It’s not an excess of unnecessary CGI like the 2000s trilogy, which substituted empty spectacle for storytelling. Also absent are some signature Abrams filmmaking techniques: where you lens flare and snap zoom? Importantly, despite a story that spans planets and space, we’re constantly rooted in the intimate and personal.
That’s because he, and everyone else involved with this work know what Star Wars means and understands its importance. It doesn’t abuse the love of the franchise nor does it ride solely on it. It’s a refreshingly entertaining 21st century blockbuster, serving greatly its characters and audience, giving, ahem, a new hope for movie lovers in general and Star Wars fans in specific about the power of filmmaking.