‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Review: Nostalgia Is a Good Thing
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a movie that’s difficult to review, since so much of what works about it is predicated on nostalgia, and the echo of good storytelling that came before. But, to put it simply, nostalgia is a good thing. Particularly when it leads to something as refreshing and exhilarating as this. Right off the bat, let me just say this is going to be a mostly spoiler-free review, touching on only the barest of story points. It’s best to go into this story blind, so I’m going to leave out major plot details. But I will give my overall impressions of the film, so just a heads up, on that front.
Ultimately, part of the reason I loved The Force Awakens was the film’s confidence in its own universe. Even with Disney obliterating the former Expanded Universe, the Star Wars Universe is still irreducibly complex. Yet The Force Awakens basically throws us into this world without explaining much of anything. Although the film explains it to us later, we don’t really need to be told the conditions by which Stormtroopers of the First Order are trained and indoctrinated. Similarly, we can piece together the barter system by which Rey (Daisy Ridley) survives. This is a world that feels lived in, in the same way the universe of A New Hope didn’t need overt explanation. The Star Wars Universe works best when we’re simply thrown into it, in media res, as George Lucas originally intended. The Force Awakens understands this, allowing us to deduce the complicated emotions surging through Finn (John Boyega) in the first ten minutes of the film, all without ever showing us his face. By the same token, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a character whose pathos is written into his body language, so that we don’t need to see his face to recognize the massive chip on his shoulder. Even a hotshot pilot/Han Solo surrogate like Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) feels like a character with a deeper backstory than we ever get to see. Part of it is Isaac’s performance, sure. But the scope of the script is the biggest contributor of all, because even while Poe immediately feels important, we’re also made to understand that this is a story that towers over him. It’s bigger than a guy like Poe, and that sense of scope recalls the similarly daunting expansiveness of A New Hope. This is a character study, but it’s also set within the context of a conflict that is impossibly big. The Resistance vs. The First Order is the type of classic good vs. evil tale that is easy to digest, but also urgently compelling. Hell, it’d be compelling even without such vividly realized characters.
Daisy Ridley’s Rey is going to be one of the great screen heroines of the modern era before this new trilogy is all said and done, and I’m equally optimistic about John Boyega’s Finn. In these two leads, we get characters whose internal struggles are every bit as compelling as the conflicts external to their personalities. Rey is dealing with residual family issues, while Finn is faced with guilt over his membership in a genocidal army. Both are confronting vital issues of identity that are not so far removed from the conflicts Luke Skywalker faced in A New Hope. It’s that classic Star Wars question, one that doesn’t even have to do with bloodlines most of the time: Who am I?
These are characters who must decide whether they’re the hero or the villain, whether they’re strong enough to confront danger, or whether they’d rather resist their destiny and find peace outside the conflict. And yet, it’s not just about their personal struggles, since the conflict itself still spans the entire galaxy. They’re one part of a larger story that has no guarantee of going in the good guys’ favor. And that’s exhilarating, because there’s a million different ways this story could go, with any number of lead characters surviving or perishing. Granted, I went into this movie knowing next to nothing about the story, so that probably altered my expectations a bit, since I didn’t really have expectations, per se, just theories. But for all the twists and turns, and all the exciting action sequences, this succeeds mostly because it’s a simple story that’s well-told. I make comparisons to A New Hope because this is more or less what this movie is: a straight forward fairy tale of good and evil, with some of the moral ambiguity of The Empire Strikes Back. It’s not a remake of A New Hope, by any means, but it touches on many of the same story beats as that film, calling to mind the nostalgia of flying in the Millennium Falcon for the first time with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), or seeing the heroes attempt a daring rescue mission from an imperial stronghold, all with the overarching theme of The Force’s resurgence remaining embedded in the narrative. Adam Driver is a tremendous villain as Kylo Ren, and I think he’s one of the unexpected highlights of the film, particularly since he ended up being the figure of pathos that the movie needed, far more so than either of its heroic leads. His is a story of constant anguish, because there’s no vagueness to what he’s enduring. There’s a clear source to all his pain, and he knows what he has to do to be rid of it, but our heroes are making that difficult for him. In a way, he’s almost sympathetic. If nothing else, Driver does a good job in preventing Kylo Ren from being as cut and dry as he might seem in the previews.
I guess I probably shouldn’t say anymore, other than to note that I absolutely loved the film. The cast did a tremendous job with the material, particularly Ridley, Boyega and Driver. While it was nice to see Ford, Mayhew, and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, this is a story that’s clearly about the new heroes, and how they fit into this world outside the context of what came before. This is a world that speaks of the events of the original trilogy in hushed tones, as myths that may or may not have happened. And it’s a brilliant choice, because it somewhat reflects the way the Star Wars fanbase has mythologized the series. And yet, those old stories aren’t held on so high a pedestal that the new heroes pale in comparison. If anything, I thought the new characters overshadowed the old crew — as well they should have. This was a story of old Star Wars passing the torch to a new generation. Sure, the movie basks in that glow of nostalgia for lightsabers, landspeeders, planetary junk dealers, The Force, and the Millennium Falcon, but this movie is a story of self-discovery that follows its own path, even while it takes its cue from what came before.
But what did you think of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens? Sound off in the comments!
And for more Star Wars news, check out the Bad Lip Reading video for the Original Trilogy! You can also watch the awesome clip of The Force Awakens cast performing an a cappella medley on The Tonight Show!