All art should more or less be assessed in a vacuum, but that’s not always easy. Personal preferences or past experiences are going to shape our opinions. This is especially true with a film series. Every movie is going to be compared to the ones that came before it, even if there are decades between installments.
No film series is more popular than “Star Wars.” While the original trilogy is widely-beloved, the prequel trilogy was maligned for draining the series of its soul. Episodes I-III were all blockbuster successes, but that had more to do with the “Star Wars” name than them actually being quality.
When it was announced that Disney had gained ownership of “Star Wars” and was releasing a new film, there was excitement and speculation abound. George Lucas was no longer at the helm, replaced instead by popular blockbuster director J.J. Abrams. The cast would be more diverse, with newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega and there would be less CGI. Perhaps most noteworthy was the return of legendary original trilogy characters Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker, played by their original actors.
The new film, “The Force Awakens” shattered box office records immediately and became the all-time highest-grossing film in North America, with $936 million in total. While not the greatest film of all-time, or even the best film in the “Star Wars” series, “The Force Awakens” is entertaining and helped “Star Wars” regain the spirit it’d been missing.
One of the biggest improvements that “The Force Awakens” made over the prequels was character development. “The Phantom Menace” introduced characters like a young Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker and Queen Amidala, but gave little to no motivation for their actions. By the time these characters’ journeys ended in “Revenge of the Sith,” there was hardly any sense of development outside of being explicitly told what they were feeling. By contrast, “The Force Awakens” introduces multiple prominent characters and gives them all a degree of depth. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a scavenger on the planet Jakku who becomes entangled with the Resistance and its fight against the First Order, a new political faction formed from the ashes of the Galactic Empire. Alongside Rey is Finn (John Boyega) a former First Order stormtrooper who defected after becoming disillusioned. While the First Order introduces several antagonists, the most prominent is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), an oft-masked villain with a familial chip on his shoulder.
Abrams and his screenwriting team give each of these characters strong introductions. In an attack on a village, Kylo Ren is introduced as callous and unfeeling. Struggling to get by on her planet, Rey is introduced as sympathetic but downtrodden. Shaken by all the death and destruction at the hands of the First Order, Finn is introduced as conscientious. These aren’t the most complex characters, but their actions and motivations are understandable.
The reintroduction of familiar characters can be a hindrance for movies like this. Thankfully, when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca emerge upon the re-discovery of another original trilogy castmember, spaceship the Millennium Falcon, it feels organic and avoids the pitfalls of fan service. The familial drama involved with Solo and estranged wife Leia (Carrie Fisher) also adds a sense of human grounding in this world of lasers and lightsabers.
On a creative level, “The Force Awakens” seems to serve two purposes: further the “Star Wars” mythology and correct the errors of the prequel trilogy. As a result, there’s much less CGI, characters are livelier and there’s an absence of dry political dialogue. While this feels unlike the prequels, it does feel quite a bit like the original trilogy, particularly the very first installment, “A New Hope.” The structure of the film mirrors the first “Star Wars” very closely, to the point that it doesn’t seem accidental. While “A New Hope” told a fairly conventional hero’s journey story, it had the advantage of being the first.
Not all characters register as strongly as the aforementioned ones. Pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is an appealing, charismatic presence, but his screentime is too limited to make an impression. Armitage Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) feels too much like a retread of Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing). Finally, mysterious First Order leader, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) feels more puzzling than imposing. The film might’ve been better off limiting prominent villains.
Still, the film is briskly paced and balances tones well. It feels like a “Star Wars” film both for longtime fans and those completely new to the series. While it’s not perfect, it has a soul and creates a world that feels real even if it’s full of sci-fi and fantasy. When the credits roll, you find yourself ready for the next installment immediately. Fear not, “The Last Jedi” will be released later this year. Until then, may the force be with us.