‘Force Awakens’ reinvigorates beloved franchise

Nostalgia is a powerful thing.

Even as I sat anxiously in the theater Thursday night, sitting through the barrage of trailers and ads preceding my first viewing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I couldn’t help but think back to a decade ago, when I skipped school to see Revenge of the Sith. Quality-wise, there’s little comparison between the two to be had – two screenings later, I can already confirm that The Force Awakens is the best Star Wars movie since 1983 – but that kind of history can cloud even the most astute critic’s judgement. Star Wars occupies a crucial space in the hearts, minds, and imaginations of many, myself included, which constitutes a serious threat to objectivity when viewing this latest film through a critical lens. Nostalgia is powerful, but to be truly great, art needs to stand on its own two legs. Star Wars: The Force Awakens does that, at least mostly.

Disney didn’t have to do much for this film to be a success. The first new Star Wars movie in a decade, no matter if it’s good or bad, will make more money than God. That much is more or less certain. But the aim is not to suck in as much cash as possible in one go – Disney has its eyes on a franchise. As such, the pressure on J.J. Abrams and co. to put out a product with staying power was astronomical. Fortunately, this movie has staying power in spades.

The new leads bring a level of vitality and charm not seen since Hamill, Ford, and Fisher first graced the screen in 1977. The new adventures of Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron make for some of the most fun and engaging moviegoing in years. Adam Driver turns in Darth Vader’s quiet menace for Kylo Ren’s brash, untethered rage in a way that horrifies and fascinates. The beloved heroes of the original trilogy return in new and exciting ways that neither diminish the new or fetishize the old. Simply put, the performances in this film are impeccable.

Visually, The Force Awakens maintains an engrossing blend between the traditional and the cutting-edge. The dizzying shots of ships dogfighting overhead and laser fire burning through the sky are CGI, but they are done so elegantly and immersively that one scarcely senses the disconnect. The all-CGI characters, such as Lupita N’yongo’s Maz Kanata or Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke, lean far more towards reality than, say, Jar-Jar Binks. Additionally, there are enough real sets, practical effects, and regular old guy-in-a-suit aliens that The Force Awakens feels more authentic and organic than any sequence found in the previous three films.

As easy as it is to be blinded by the spectacle that is a new Star Wars movie, there are undeniable flaws in Abrams’ vision that deserve mentioning. Fanservice and contrived nostalgia run rampant through certain parts of The Force Awakens, be it a lingering shot of some Easter egg put in for the fans or a lazily-written quip that calls back to the original trilogy. There are moments and plot elements that come off as scenes ripped straight from earlier films, rehashed and repackaged to please longtime fans at the cost of any real innovative risk-taking. Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan played it as safe as possible, it seems, to avoid the kind of harsh criticism the films of the prequel trilogy face. In contrasts, compounding these moments that feel too Star Wars-y are segments that seem wholly unrepresentative of the franchise, leading to a sort of confusion about what precisely The Force Awakens set out to accomplish.

Whether through a fear of backlash or an outright lack of inhibition, parts of The Force Awakens feel like a rose-tinted jaunt through Star Wars history. This past June, Jurassic World sought to do the same thing, but ended up a soulless, uninspired rehash of a beloved film. For all its missteps, The Force Awakens has managed to avoid that fate. The stellar leads, amazing visuals, and undeniable sense of reverence for the franchise as a whole make this seventh installment of the cherished sci-fi saga one of the year’s best genre pictures. The Force is strong with this one.

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