Every Star Wars fan has a moment from the original trilogy when the series transcended filmdom to something personal. For me, it was the scene from episode IV, when Luke, just after arguing with his uncle, steps outside of the house and stares at the sand dunes with the twin suns of Tattoine in the horizon, furstrated and contemplating on whether his life would amount to anything more than just being a mere farm boy. At that moment, as a conflicted teenager myself, I identified strongly with Luke, and the image of him staring at the twin suns got seared into my head forever. In subsequent years, whenever I faced any moment of personal conflict, when big decisions had to be made, I would retreat to that mental image of the binary sunset, and would always come up with satisfactory answers to the problem at hand.
Considering how much Star Wars meant to me, when I walked into The Force Awakens, it was with a huge sense of anticipation, and with lots of trepidation. Would I cheer the way I cheered when Han returned to help Luke take down the deathstar? Would I once again have a sleepless night like the one I had when Vader revealed to Luke the truth of his parentage? Would I shed a tear when ostensibly the greatest villain in sci-fi history choses his progeny over his master, and redeems himself? The original trilogy is peppered with moments that have become such pop culture icons, that JJ Abrams had his work cut out, especially with the extremely vocal fan community, yours truly included.
Two hours later, as I stepped out of the cinema, it was with mixed feelings. While definitely an emotional roller-coaster ride, it was not the awakening that I had hoped for. JJ Abrams has crafted what is possibly the most expensive fan film of all time, a true love letter to the original trilogy. This is also the biggest problem with episode VII, as the sense of over-familiarity gives one the impression that the meat of the story is saved for later episodes. Nevertheless, this is definitely the shot in the arm that the franchise needed, especially after the massive disappointment that was the prequel trilogy, and at least in terms of aesthetics, Abrams manages to integrate it organically with the original trilogy. Episodes I, II, III do not feel like Star Wars films, episode VII, with all its flaws, is most definitely one.
Structurally, the film has an excellent first act, but suffers from a rather middling second act, with a lot of contrived plot elements, and one coincidence too many that are way too convenient for its own good; very similar to Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise. There is great payoff in the third act however, and the emotional beats work like gangbusters. Abrams and Larry Kasdan also succeed in ensuring that the movie does not turn into a Star Wars reunion for the big three, by creating genuinely interesting new characters in Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron, and BB-8; all great additions to the universe, and who live up to the underlying theme of seeing ‘the same eyes in new faces.’ The breakout character in my opinion was Kylo Ren, who could have easily been a Darth Vader pastiche, but instead is a layered villain, and is portrayed in a nuanced way by Adam Driver. The older cast lend able support to the new gang, particularly Harrison Ford, who feels like a mature version of Han Solo, and is not a grumpy version of himself unlike what one saw in Indiana Jones and the kingdom of the crystal skull. Abrams also manages to surprise the audience by showing a hithertho unknown facet of Solo’s character in one of the most profound scenes in the entire saga. On a technical front, the crew does a good job of balancing practical effects and CGI, though admittedly many set pieces have a been-there-done-that quality to them. Abrams manages to suprise the audience in the lightsaber duels however, which have a raw, savage quality to them, abandoning the over-choreographed moves of the prequel trilogy, and the gravitas of the OT, and meshes well with the theme of the story. John Williams is in charge of composing duties again, but much of his newer themes felt a little too generic for my taste, while his re-interperations of the older ones, especially in the final moments of the film, is sure to bring a tear or two in the eyes of the fans.
The Force Awakens is far from a perfect film. It’s under plotted, has too much of fan service, over familiar, under utilises many peripheral characters (at least for now), and relies on you, the audience, to overlook its deficiencies by channeling the nostalgia you have for the franchise. Truth be said, and if one did not sound too blasphemous, these are more or less the same problems in episode IV as well, and that film gets a pass thanks to the events of episodes V and VI. Probably, the Force Awakens cannot be looked in isolation (as is quite evident through some of the plot details), but via its contribution to the overall arc in the new trilogy. Nevertheless, as a Star Wars fan, the final shot of the film captures poetically what one feels at the end of the day; that the baton has well and truly passed on to the next generation, and to paraphrase Han, ‘We are indeed home’.