Nostalgia is a powerful feeling.
It can stir up incredible emotions and experiences of the past and can even sweeten the present as a result. It’s an operative concept that plays heavily into Hollywood’s choosing of properties to pursue as entertainment ventures, because investors want “sure things”. When it comes to “sure things”, few things are ever as sure as Star Wars. Disney knew what they were doing when they purchased Lucasfilm from George Lucas. The man who wisely kept the merchandising rights to his film series had made a mint by utilizing his brand on almost every product one can imagine for decades, whether there was a film to be released or not. With the public wrapped up in his saga, lines would stack up around the block for screenings, whether it be the original releases or the prequel trilogy he later made. People loved Star Wars and all that came with it: yes, they loved the stories, characters, and settings, but they also loved it because of how important it was to their lives. Watching them (and buying the plethora of merchandise) stirred up memories of family, fun, and joy, and few properties can compare to such a thing.
In 2005, the world was convinced that George Lucas would stop making Star Wars films. With the story of how Darth Vader came to be complete with Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Lucas effectively related that his plans at films were complete. Sure, the Clone Wars animated series would fill in the gaps between Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III and, at that time, there was even to be a live-action series down the line; still, the films were done. To comfort that fact, ardent fans turned to the incredible number of books that told continuing tales of the Skywalker family, set decades after the conclusion of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. It was up to imagination (and nostalgia) to keep the legacy alive and allow continuing generations to pick up on the magic of that galaxy far, far away.
On October 30, 2012, Disney changed all of that. Their purchase of Lucasfilm was about more than looking back; it was a chance to look forward for possibility of stories told within the Star Wars universe. With announcement, Kathleen Kennedy, a veteran producer in Hollywood, was announced as president of Lucasfilm and shepherd of the film efforts moving forward. New hands involved in crafting the saga, for sure, but able ones at that. Much more controversially, Disney laid out plans for new continuity, essentially nullifying the stories that many had written over over decades but still printing them under the banner of “Legends”. Word was also known that Lucas‘ original plans for later Skywalker adventures wouldn’t be utilized. While this was particularly devastating to many, it allowed any potential filmmakers to truly carry on the imaginative vein of storytelling that Star Wars had began in the first place. These filmmakers were to be fans first, those who loved the stories they would be telling, and the idea of that was refreshing to many, myself included. Their memories and love of the franchise would be fuel used to create stories that create new fans; nostalgia was the key.
Fast forward to late December 2015 to the focus of this review: those familiar lines were back for The Force Awakens (Episode VII of the saga for those keeping count)! Cinemas were stacked with fans, young and old, all of whom were ready to see characters they hadn’t seen in years. They were ready to catch up with Luke, Leia, & Han; they wanted to hear Chewbacca growl and see the metallic shine and bickering of C-3PO and R2-D2. While some of those characters got more screentime than others, The Force Awakens delivered exactly what it needed to deliver: a familiar point (and plot) to restart the saga from. Alongside these characters, we meet many new faces:
- Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young woman surviving alone and scraping by on the hopeless desert planet of Jakku.
- Finn or FN-2187 (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper of the First Order who deserts his post after a crisis of conscience.
- Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), an operative of the Rebellion who has obtained an incomplete map leading to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker.
- Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a young student of the Dark Side, desperately seeking to complete what Darth Vader started.
- Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), a mysterious, scarred creature that leads the First Order from afar and is training Kylo Ren to be all that he can be.
- BB-8, a small droid caught up in a huge struggle as he holds the key to finding the Jedi, Luke Skywalker, who is in hiding.
In addition, we have characters like General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), Captain Phasma (Gwendolyn Christie), and Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), so there was a new saga to begin here in addition to extending the old stories. I try to keep story details secure in my reviews, so I won’t give away much, even as I review this film two years after release. The big revelations are known now and heavily meme’d, but I reserve those things to the audience in watching them. What I will say is that nostalgia helps this movie and hurts it.
Without relaying the plot, I will say that many took issue with this film almost retelling the original 1977 film, Episode IV: A New Hope, beat-for-beat with little twists. Apparently, this was entirely the intention of the director, J.J. Abrams. Knowing that in hindsight doesn’t do much to change it all, but we must know that this film was meant to do some important things in the overall saga, the most important being: to re-establish moviegoers with the original feel of the films before the prequels. Please don’t bash me for that, because I am a lover of all things Star Wars, prequels included. Yet, after incessant fanboy bashing and the very real distinctions that exist between the more mythic tales of the Original Trilogy and the political machinations of the Prequel Trilogy, this film was meant as a reset and a revisiting. Love it or hate it, it is what it is.
And we get exactly that: J.J. Abrams does make it all feel like Star Wars. That’s quite an accomplishment. From the cantina scene and creature effects, the grimy set designs, the starship battles, the familiar sounds of lightsabers, it is a revisit to what we love about it all in a new way. There is a simplicity and single-mindedness to the storytelling that evokes the original films; the prequels were as much about how the Emperor and Empire came to be, as they were about Anakin Skywalker’s descent. Those complexities did indeed make them feel different with their storytelling. Seeing Han Solo (Harrison Ford) at the forefront again was so refreshing to me. I have loved that character my entire life and I have written about him and his impact on me. When Han and Chewie come on the scene in this film, it’s one of those moments that hit you deep as a fan. There are many, many of those moments here, and it is such a special feeling. Throughout the film, we have humor, adventure, explosions, mystery, and all the reasons we love these films in the first place. Seeing the Millenium Falcon soaring again makes you want to cheer. The greatest strength is that it all feels like Star Wars, and due to that nostalgia, it makes fans feel it all the more.
Now, discussing my issues with the film without laying out the entire plot is difficult, but they are issues, nonetheless. This film leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions (which I won’t fully explore for sake of spoilers), and, of course, I know this is Star Wars which will do that. Still, these plot threads seem more essential to the story than any we’ve seen before (and will likely be addressed by books/games/products that are likely for sale or will be at some point). My main point of contention is we never really get much time on-screen to understand the First Order or the Republic they strike out against (and the Resistance they incite). We see Starkiller Base and that they use it. Audience investment in this new struggle is less than it needs to be, because we don’t understand it, really at all. Other issues left unresolved are theory-fodder that many sites can give you, but the core issue for me with The Force Awakens is that we need more to be invested in. Nostalgia can only take us so far. In that original movie, we invest more into the struggle because it’s the Empire and Rebels. We pick up on it all and understand it. Here, we have the Resistance actually pulling away from the Republic, as a reaction to the emerging First Order, but really that’s all we know. That backdrop could have been handled better to invest audiences more, as this is the starting point for us all. Still, the seeds are there for films like Episode VIII: The Last Jedi to really go wild with.
The new cast members are all greatly played. Ridley, Boyega, & Isaac are all intensely likable in their roles, and Driver, despite criticisms from many, makes Kylo Ren an incredibly interesting character coming to grips with his power and legacy he is trying to live up to. Serkis is only given a few scenes as Snoke, but he ably commands the screen. A particular favorite of mine is Nyong’o as Maz Kanata; in a few short scenes, she provides humor and fun, but also, she reminds audiences that there is a larger tale being told here. I hope to see her in sequels. Gleeson and Christie were underwhelming to me, but it is due to them having less importance than I anticipated they would. Maybe their roles will be expanded in later films, but here, it just isn’t much. Leia (Carrie Fisher) returns as a General now, and her leadership will likely be invaluable in The Last Jedi; still, here, it amounts to just a few lines. With most of the gang back together from the older films, including Peter Mayhew and Anthony Daniels (with the exception of Luke (Mark Hamill), who gets the most powerful scene of the film, in my opinion), this does feel like the beginning of a torch being passed down to a new set of heroes and villains. I am fully on-board with that, and I look forward to the tales that will be told as a result of this film.
Content-wise, with the exception of some mild cursing that felt unneeded, this is a film I say families should have no problem seeing. While boys have always gravitated towards the tales, now with Rey as a lead, my daughter is completely engaged in this saga and can’t wait to follow it further. That’s a powerful thing for the films moving forward and a huge positive for many little girls out there looking for entertainment. There are parallels one can make between the inner struggles with power and doing what is right that Christians will inevitably make here, but all in all, I think this film is just a fun time at the movies. No harm is in that.
All in all, this is a film that is a fun “remix”, if you will, of what we love about Star Wars. It’s an investor’s dream in that it doubles down on what works and safely doesn’t reinvent the wheel. That may cause many to hate it, but you can’t please everyone. It was a fun time for me, and in the countless times I’ve already rewatched it, it’s remained fun for me. I recommend watching it, for the simple reason that it is a launchpad for more of my favorite film series to flourish and continue for years to come. Nostalgia continues, because now, the Star Wars saga does as well. Word is that its sequel, directed by Rian Johnson, is going to be incredible, and I can’t wait to review it soon and let you know my thoughts of it. May the Force be with you all, and thanks for reading!