First Impressions: The Force Awakens (*Spoiler-Free*) by Dom Nardi
I finally had a chance to see The Force Awakens! This review is intended to minimize the risk of spoilers for readers who have not had a chance to see the film yet. Later next week, I will write a more detailed review with spoilers to discuss some important moments in the film.
The Force Awakens feels very much like a representation of the transition currently underway in the Star Wars franchise. Disney and Lucasfilm realize they have to appeal to old fans of the Original Trilogy as well as attract new fans. One of the biggest obstacles the Prequel Trilogy faced was that it was too different from the core of what people loved about the original movies. Given the public backlash against the Prequels, it must have been tempting to simply rehash the original films in order to appease fan nostalgia. J.J. Abrams chose a different path, clearly harkening back to the old but using it to ease the transition into the new.
To be sure, The Force Awakens looks and feels very much like an amalgamation of the best parts of the Original Trilogy. In my review for The Phantom Menace, I expressed my concern that the production design for The Force Awakens looked a bit generic. Having seen the movie, I stand by what I wrote. The movie manages to build upon and even improve concepts from Original Trilogy concepts, such as X-Wings, Stormtroopers, etc., but it doesn’t really have any standout concepts of its own (with the exception of BB-8, the adorable soccer-ball droid). None of the new aliens, spaceships, or costumes made a strong impression. Say what you want about The Phantom Menace, Darth Mual and the planet Naboo felt new and exciting (even when the story wasn’t).
That said, I don’t think this is due to any lack of originality on the film’s part. In other words, The Force Awakens isn’t just wallowing in nostalgia. Instead, it comes across as a very deliberate effort to link different generations of Star Wars fans. The film reintroduced new characters, places, and concepts alongside familiar ones. Seeing an X-Wing or Stormtrooper immediately evokes certain emotional cues in a way that seeing Naboo starfighters Battle Droids in the Prequels never could. When Han refers to an event in A New Hope, we feel invited to share in the joke. If the early reaction online and in my theater is any indication, all this helped ease the transition to Episode VIII, which will probably focus to an even greater extent on the new elements.
It helps that the film is very self-aware. It doesn’t pretend to be original, but rather revels in the way it echoes what came before. The references feel clever rather than forced. Even the characters seem to be in on the joke. Just as we might compare ISIS to the Nazis, the characters explicitly compare situations in The Force Awakens to what they had encountered in the earlier films. After all, for those living in the Star Wars galaxy, the Original Trilogy is part of their history. The film even plays upon our expectations, often subverting them. There are several hilarious gags that rely upon viewers expecting Kylo Ren to behave like Darth Vader. I do wish The Force Awakens felt more original, but at least it uses its lack of originality cleverly.
An integral part of the transition from old to new is how the film incorporates iconic characters from the Original Trilogy. Han Solo and Chewbacca are easily the most important characters of the film, but they never feel like they’re crowding out the newer characters. Harrison Ford has a great chemistry with the younger actors, especially John Boyega (who plays Finn). More importantly, the film allows the older characters to age gracefully. Han and Leia are still as fun as ever, still have adventures, but they’ve changed. They’re not simply doing the same thing they did 30 years ago. They have to face adult issues that their carefree youths couldn’t have imagined. There’s something refreshing about seeing your childhood heroes grow up. It’s as if it reassures you that mortality is natural and should be embraced.
Perhaps more than any other Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back, The Force Awakens is serialized. As the beginning of a new era of Star Wars, it departs from the established storytelling structure of the series thus far. In the previous two trilogies, the first act introduced the main characters and showed them triumphing over evil. It’s probably a good idea to shake the formula up, but it makes The Force Awakens feel less “complete” than A New Hope or even The Phantom Menace. There are some big mysteries remaining by the time credits roll. Given that we know Episode VIII is slated to come out on May 26, 2017, I’m sure those points will be resolved soon enough, but it’s important to temper expectations. If you have yet to see The Force Awakens, I suggest going into it expecting a tasty appetizer of the new era of Star Wars rather than a meal in its own right.
And The Force Awakens is certainly fun. It’s a rollicking adventure without ever become mindless action. The movie is also surprisingly funny. The audience in my theater was roaring with laughter at the witty banter (this is easily the funniest Star Wars film since A New Hope). Even more impressive, the film manages this comedy without undermining the drama or emotional moments. Boyega has excellent comedic timing, but never devolves into slapstick (Jar Jar Binks, take note). Even Chewbacca has some hilarious lines (or at least I presume they were hilarious based on the responses from other characters). If Disney wanted to recapture the sense of fun in the original Star Wars, it succeeded.
Unfortunately, I never thought I’d say this about a John Williams soundtrack, but the music felt generic (somebody who saw the film with me called it “nonexistent”). Halfway through the movie, I became aware of the lack of music and made a conscious decision to try to listen for it. I identified a few scores Williams reused from the previous movies, particularly Han and Leia’s theme, but didn’t come away with a strong impression of any of the new music. There was certainly nothing as memorable as the “Duel of the Fates” film from The Phantom Menace. To be clear, it’s not a bad soundtrack, but it certainly doesn’t shape the film the way a John Williams score usually does.
I’ve only seen The Force Awakens once so there’s still a lot I have to absorb. As a piece of entertainment, it hits all the right spots. I don’t think many fans will find themselves disappointed. That said, I don’t think I can adequately judge the film as a piece of Star Wars lore until I’ve seen at least Episodes VIII and IX, as well as read some of the inevitable tie-in novels and comics that I’m sure will provide more context. As a transitional film, The Force Awakens can get away with its lack of originality, but I hope that the next installments in the series take more risks.
Dom Nardi is the Contributing Writer for Star Wars at Legendarium Media. He has worked as a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published articles about politics in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.