With a crowd-rousing ferocity, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has arrived to the masses hopeful for its potential after a prequel trilogy has diminished the reputation of the long-beloved franchise, wanting to forget how creator George Lucas has driven his namesake into the ground. By the end of Awakens, that betrayal feels felt anew due to all that director JJ Abrams and his screenwriting crew of Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt have done to successfully right the ship, and also bucking disheartening trends in populist entertainment. If you’ve heard that this one is great, you haven’t been misled.
Bursting with spirit and emphasis on character, Awakens is remarkably satisfying entertainment – to those waiting for those massive crowds to die down: you simply must see this with a crowd. Enough to stir conversation in even the most typically ambivalent audience, we have here a crowd-pleaser aiming more for our hearts than our heartrates, and becomes all the more thrilling for its ability to invest us in its particulars. In an age where character and stakes take a further backseat to increasingly absurd, conxtext-free bombast (for which the Star Wars prequels take massive flak, with current examples like Jurassic World even more guilty than those lackluster films), Abrams’ film feels almost subversive in its steadfast focus on character to get us cheering. For a director often teased for his forcing his aesthetic unnecessarily, here he is sharply attuned to the needs of the narrative – unquestionably, his best work.
The film also has more respect to visual context and scale than any recent genre actioner, save maybe Gareth Edward’s Godzilla. How can we feel the grandeur of space without the intimacy of a hero’s loneliness? What makes us root for an underdog if a film’s worth of closeups and medium shots never make them feel weak to begin with? How can action be exciting if we don’t know what the hell we’re seeing? It’s not just that Abrams is trying to do right by a beloved series, but he’s trying to do right by a genre that’s fallen into bad habits.
Now, by now you’ve heard some complaints, and they’re mostly accurate. Villains are in the background, never stirring much fear in the audience, particularly the monolithic (and monolithically dumb) Supreme Leader Snoke. The films falls under the weight of not just heavy nostalgia and outright carbon copying of the originals, particularly in setting up surprises that fall flat. While some characters feel like composites of what we loved about a few fan favorites, some are narratively set up to embody the same legendary plot beats that moments become garrishly predictable. Abrams hand is still heavy, and that sense to do right by the originals and the fan base is the downfall of nearly every clunker in the film. However, it’s easier to reconcile that reverence given the prequels’ outright indignance and cynicism towards what created the Star Wars culutral phenomenon.
A world is created in Awakens, without the overt hanging plot threads that have fueled series filmmaking of late. Smartly casting a thrilling ensemble of natural, engaging talents fills the galaxy far, far away with enough charisma to fill in the gaps of somewhat thinly motivated characters – again, compared to the prequels and the current slate of endless superheros, can you complain? Yes, our old favorites are back and clearly having a ball, but it’s the fresh faces (save Domhnall Gleeson’s out of sync performance as the barking General Hux) that sing the finest. Oscar Isaac makes good on his bonafide marquee star potential, and John Boyega gives a fabulously fresh levity for a sometimes dead serious franchise. Make no mistakes, volleyball robot BB-8 is the belle of the ball, winning as many laughs, cheers, and gasps as any human present (even if he is lovingly ripping off the most charming of all robots, Wall-E).
An honest-to-God star is born in Daisy Ridley. Disney has kept from you that she is not just the true lead of the film, but she’s also the hero. Vulnerable, connected, and intelligent, Ridley’s scavenger orphan has landed on the masses hungry for an exciting, original hero – and she delivers upon that hunger in spades. Not just exciting for the fact that she is a woman leading the pack in a genre reticent to allow a woman to be the cause of (also unsexually motivated) cheers, but especially for the fact that she’s fully realized and unburdened by stereotype. As she claimed her rightful title of champion, I welled with emotion I’ve not experienced at a mass entertainment for longer than I can recall.
It’s that commitment to diversity that helps The Force Awakens stand above the pack of the increasingly dull and systemically barren wasteland of popular entertainment. We need something of our own world to make our imaginations soar to the heights that the Star Wars saga has given generations. Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy have shown keen intelligence to use a world not populated of 95% white males (you know, like our own) like the rest of their contemporaries, and it’s unfortunate that it feels as fresh as it does – we should be past this kind of retrograde thinking where we have to consciously cast diversively to be contrarian to bigoted perceptions of heroism.
All in, The Force Awakens is a satisfying (and then some) genre exercise for its ability to stand aside the crowd for its currently uncommon inclusivity and filmmaking chutzpah. Let’s hope the series is truly back on track and can influence stronger efforts delivered to the masses.