The audience vibe was more electric than any I’d experience in some time time when I finally caught Star Wars – The Force Awakens (two days after opening because we thought we’d be avoiding the crowds – ha!). You could feel the optimism buzzing in the crowd. By now we had heard that the film was strong, and nothing of the garish prequel trilogy that had eviscerated so much good will in passionate and casual fans alike. On that first weekend, most fans were polite in keeping spoilers avoidable, an act of kindness true to the film’s elusive marketing. Even those who might know significant details couldn’t have one of the franchise’s key elements spoiled until now: the visual experience.
One of the (many) key mistakes of the prequels is its pedestrian visual style. You can’t simply blame an overabundance of CGI on a lack of context or character insight – those films just have little interest in action depth than a standard contemporary blockbuster. Sure, we already know the fate of Anakin Skywalker, but why forget that visual mythbuilding is part of what inspired our imaginations in the first place.
Director J.J. Abrams and cinematographer Daniel Mindel haven’t forgotten. The long-running marketing blitz for the film made a talking point of the kind of care that Abrams and his team were giving the film, specifically to character and the aesthetics. While the film has its share of CGI, the surroundings are often tactile, true to the grubby and worn look of the original. And, what do you know, you can describe any given character by more than their physical appearance.
In the age of IMAX, Abrams and Mindel want to make the most of these huge canvas compositions. These images are meant to be seen on a massive screen, but even a laptop viewing can’t diminish its somersaulting wooziness. It’s easy to complain that our franchise films don’t develop character the way that Awakens does, but they also don’t shoot action sequences like this either. The Millennium Falcon rushes away from oncoming threat in several long takes, the camera barely keeping up with its flips and turns as the First Order attacks from all sides. The First Order fleet imposes on the limits of the frame as they march toward domination. The climactic lightsaber battle gives us the iconography we crave without stooping to phony posturing or hacking our eyeballs to bits with indecipherable action. The threat is visceral and imposing with the battles equally intimate and expansive.
The thrills get to breathe, both in the frame and in the editing. How can you root for Rey if the shot composition muddies what is happening to her?
However, it’s the mythbuilding that the film most excels at visually. Like Luke staring off into the double sunset, we know that Rey and Finn long for more and are destined for something important. The same sense of scale that makes the flight sequences a rush is also present in quieter character moments to emphasize their modest standing. Rey may be a fateful hero eventually, but for now she’s just a small piece in a large galaxy.
The choice of Best Shot for The Force Awakens is all about payoff.
Rey wasn’t explicitly foretold to be the hero by the film’s marketing, which allows a classically cinematic moment like this to really sing. Here she is as powerful as any of those starships previously dominating the frame. The film has been building to this moment with Rey all along: a modest beginning, strength gained and lost, and ultimately standing on her own as a strong woman. The frame is straightforward, but that brings with it a clarity of vision. Gender politics contribute to what makes this such a heart-leaping, rousing moment – we cheer for the character to take her rightful place, but we also cheer to finally have a woman do the same in an action franchise. This is how you make us root for a hero.
More of Hit Me With Your Best Shot!