The gospel of Star Wars according to JJ Abrams.
George Lucas was a bit of a false prophet with his prequels at the turn of the century and a generation of millennials have been wandering on the dark side with Jar Jar Binks and they needed to see the light. Individuals like myself haven’t really seen the light and have no emotional engagement in the Star Wars lore. But JJ Abrams is the messenger who comes to deliver us all.
It is very important to note I came into The Force Awakens with no investment in this film franchise but as the Lucas Film logo popped up, I could feel goose bumps surface. As we rolled through the first few frames, John Williams’ score overwhelmed. There were tears, genuine gasps and hearty cheers on my part as the film progressed and again I note, I have no emotional investment in Star Wars lore. Surely a large number of true Star Wars fanatics found salvation here and died of pure bliss as The Force Awakens linked up with the heart and soul of its three predecessors.
The unofficial Star Wars Episode IV comes on the back of spoiler fears which have caused a lot of critics to toe a plot detail tightrope which, on the face of it seems unreasonable. However upon seeing what passes as the first act and you realise the film comes at us with a sense of urgency that renders all the critics’ actions reasonable. I will try to do same. JJ Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan are working with a script with virtually no chaff. They mean business. It takes virtually no time for the main characters to be established once they make their appearance.
I believe we become aware of John Boyega as Finn first, a storm trooper. There is an early onslaught by The Empire 2.0, aka The First Order, on a small group tied to The Resistance. We also meet Vader 2.0, aka Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who leads the storm troopers and sanctions the execution of innocent prisoners following their raid – a note Finn is not down with. We realise Finn is different when he conspicuously drops to the aid of a downed fellow stormtrooper.
The iron masked Kylo Ren, however, offers us no immediate surprises but he is the character with the most depth and intrigue as the film unravels. There is a shot early on of these two staring at each other and we get a sense of the good versus evil battle that lies ahead. This film is almost like a western. The lines of morality are clear. Finn is an embodiment of good and a beacon of humanity whilst Kylo Ren will descend to depths that may shock audiences.
We move to the orphaned Rey (Daisy Ridley), a resourceful and feisty junk scavenger on the junkyard planet of Jakku. She and a host of others have to exchange valuable machine parts for food rations. She goes on to spend a chunk of the film with Finn (who has by now evolved to black Peter Quill) following their fortuitous meeting. They find themselves tangled in a tussle between the First Order and the Resistance by virtue of key information they become privy to. And oh, they run into Han Solo and Chewie courtesy of the Millennium Falcon – one of the many nods JJ Abrams makes to the original trilogy along with familiar personas, aesthetics, weapons and machinery.
The First Order really cuts an ominous entity. The film never stops to expose on their agenda but we sense it. They bear an eerily resemblance to some of the ominous scourges of humanity – I’m looking at you Nazi’s. They appear intent on establishing some fascist-type world order and their rank and file, with Domnahl Gleeson’s General Hux barking orders, reminds us of our German friends making them easy to despise. Like Hitler then, it isn’t all rhetoric for the First Order. They are the conduits of some utterly harrowing acts that again tap into some of humanities worst moments.
I can’t go into details as far as Ren is concerned but Abrams establishes him as a quite complex persona. He isn’t as old as Vader was and it shows in the limit to his authority and amusing tantrums which are the source of darkly comic moments. He is also probably one of the few remaining individuals with mastery over the force. Driver projects an impressive level of physicality and he is an imposing presence. This translates positively to the light saber action sequences which come off as more practical, loud, forceful and visceral, nothing like we’ve seen before. The lightsaber suddenly really feels like a proper instrument of death here.
There is also a thematic tie into the original trilogy that lies at the crux of Kylo Ren’s character. We get a hint of this in his fixation with Darth Vader, who he probably regards as his father on a spiritual dark side spectrum. He only appears to have Vader’s worn down helmet in his possession and he appears to seek guidance from it. Driver is terrific as Ren giving a compelling nuanced showing and his character and performance are key to giving us something to look forward to as this Saga hopefully unravels. There is a moving emotional base to Ren and you will be forgiven for rooting for him. Spoilers keep me from saying more.
The attempts to dance around plot details are ultimately a good thing because it aligned me with the non-narrative features of this film and tremendous details JJ Abrams infuses. There is a western motif that goes with the alluring desert landscape of Jakku. The morality play and the black and white dynamic between the Resistance and the First Order also lends itself to some vintage western tenets. The western has always had a tie in with samurai traditions and vice versa and JJ Abrams draws on this. We have a pivotal fight sequence in a snowy woodland that is inspired some classic Japanese settings. Indeed Ren’s apparel has the look of a samurai.
The comic beats in the script also impress. The film conveys its comedy without really winking at audiences or settling for in-house gags. It is simply sprinkled with the kind of authentic humour and comic talent actual comedy films dream of. The chemistry between Boyega and Ridley is a strong source of this humour as these two British actors remain buoyantly likeable bouncing lines of each other. Harrison Ford shows up later on to lend his now gruff and cynical charm. He made me feel good.
Our director remains commendably practical amidst this CGIexploitation era. He settles for the simple option and falls on more hands-on constructions for a great deal of the aesthetics we lay eyes on and alien races we encounter. This simplicity also lends itself to the direction which is largely pushed on with visuals especially early on. There are a lot of bilingual exchange that never becomes a problem as he effectively harnesses the physicality of his performers. JJ Abrams is Chef Curry here expertly navigating through varying tones and transitions through opposing emotional beats seamlessly. He is thoughtfully a step ahead of audiences especially preceding the more momentous reveals.
The most important thing he does is trust his audience. There is minimal exposition and he provides a solid enough link to the originals before putting his original stamp on this film. Lest we forget this is an original story and imaginative world building. People forget the original Star Wars film was a product of the golden age of cinema. It is tagged as the genesis of the blockbuster cinematic culture and that’s true but never forget it was born of something pure, much like JJ Abrams’ work here.
Abrams has dished out but a taste of cinematic salvation. I yearn for what it is yet to come. The biggest compliment I can give this film is, it makes me want to rewatch all its predecessors – even the illegitimate ones. The Force Awakens packs a healthy dose of sentimentality but it is a very fun and thoughtful adventure romp bubbling with poignancy, action and warmth.