Review: The Force Awakens

Review: The Force Awakens

Aidan Backus, Editor-in-Chief

“Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” is the movie that will remind jaded viewers why “Star Wars” is a tradition in Western culture.  Like Christmas or Shakespeare, the epic space opera franchise will never die.  It is too profitable, but beyond that, it is a tale of how the light will always triumph no matter how dark the Galaxy’s woes and how even the worst among us can be redeemed, all set to brilliantly choreographed lightsaber duels and symphonies by one of the greatest composers of our time.

“The Force Awakens,” like “The Phantom Menace” and “A New Hope,” begins with the Galaxy in turmoil, thirty years after the Empire was defeated at the end of “Return of the Jedi.”  The Republic’s forces, known as the Resistance and led by General Leia Organa, are fighting off the threat of an Imperial remnant called the First Order and commanded by an angsty Vader-like figure named Kylo Ren.  Leia has sent her best pilot, Poe Dameron, to find the missing the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker, who most people now believe is just a myth, but Kylo’s Stormtroopers are also pursuing him and defeat Poe on the third-world planet of Jakku.

Fortunately for Poe, a Stormtrooper, later named Finn, awakens from his conditioning and betrays the First Order. Together with the cheeky-as-ever Han Solo and a Force-sensitive scavenger from Jakku named Rey, they work together to strike back against the First Order, uncover the mystery of Kylo Ren’s identity, and find the last Jedi.

And fortunately for the viewer and Disney’s coffers, “The Force Awakens” makes few of the mistakes of the prequels, a concern raised by many fans when they learned that yet another “Star Wars” movie was being produced.  The bad exposition info-dumps, bad CGI, bad romance and bad Jar Jar are all gone.  The movie has the right balance of CGI and practical effects that all the aliens, armies, and flying ships seem to be real organisms and machines traveling through the Universe, rather than false images that we’ve all grown accustomed to from watching too much low-budget modern movies.

Watching the First Order generals give a speech to their forces feels like watching Hitler speak at a Nazi rally with thousands and thousands of very real Stormtroopers ready to annihilate his enemies.  The cast seems to have good chemistry, or at least Rey and Finn are real people and not soulless killing machines.  I dare not call Anakin and Padmé robots, because C-3PO and R2-D2 had heart, and so does the new droid, an adorable ball-like mech, BB-8.  Poe’s character isn’t expanded upon much, but viewers can look forward to his blossoming bromance with Finn.

The “Harry Potter”-like impact of the cast’s relationship is just one reason why both “Star Wars” veterans and newcomers will find the movie incredibly joyful.  There is really no other way to describe the reunion of Han and Leia, or even that of C-3PO and R2-D2.  The audience applauded and cheered when Rey, on the brink of death, stood up and made her final stand against Kylo Ren — and maybe that’s the point of “Star Wars,” to remind puny Earthlings that no matter how much they are suffering, their problems are nowhere near as bad as the Galaxy’s — and in the Galaxy, good will always eventually triumph over the Dark Side.

But speaking of Kylo, he’s one of the movie’s two weaknesses.  He is played by Adam Driver, surely a much better actor than Hayden Christensen of “Attack of the Clones” notoriety.  However, he suffers from the same problem as Anakin: he is insufferable.  At least initially, comes off as a teenager who thinks “gritty” is cool (he explicitly mentions wanting to be just like Darth Vader), but doesn’t actually have the guts to do evil.  And like Vader (and every angsty villain ever written; Sephiroth and Hamlet come to mind) he also has serious familial issues.

It appears that J. J. Abrams knew that Vader is irreplaceable, because Kylo’s role in “The Force Awakens” is almost identical to Vader’s in “A New Hope.”  He’ll probably turn out to be Rey’s father in “Episode VIII” and then betray his Emperor in “Episode IX.”  Therein lies “The Force Awakens”’ other weakness.  Savvy fans can probably already predict the movie’s big twist, just from reading this, because so much of it is just a remake of “A New Hope,” from the hero’s origin story to the location and purpose of the final battle.  Has “Star Wars” become strictly formula, as algorithmic and repetitive as “James Bond”?

But even so,  “The Force Awakens” is certainly the best “Star Wars” product since “Return of the Jedi” in 1983, and it might even surpass that.  It captures the feeling of wonder and joy that “A New Hope” evoked, updated with a new cast and new visuals fit for the twenty-first century.  Let’s just hope Disney is ambitious enough to innovate more in the future movies, or my prediction that “Star Wars” will last forever will fall flat.