By Matthew Moorcroft
- Directed by J.J. Abrams
- Starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Harrison Ford
Welcome to Star Wars Wednesdays! Every Wednesday I’ll be talking about/looking at a new piece of Star Wars media, starting with the movies and going onwards into the shows, games, and maybe even comics and books if people are interested. These will work differently from my normal reviews as they will be also discussing the piece as it works within the canon of Star Wars as a whole.
When Top Gun: Maverick came out about two months ago, I briefly touched on the idea of legacy sequels and how so many people seem to misunderstand the meaning of them. Saying one is simply a legacy sequel cause it’s a sequel to something that came out 20 odd years ago isn’t exactly correct, even if the trend itself was started by films that were indeed legacy sequels on their own merit.
The Force Awakens, maybe the biggest and most widely known legacy sequel of all time, takes the idea of the legacy sequel so seriously that one would think it bows in reverence to it. Which makes sense – the original trilogy itself is a revered piece of cinema in a lot of circles and it’s omni-presence in pop culture is almost inescapable; it’s influence so far reaching that pretty much every piece of blockbuster media or sci-fi has been attempting to ape it’s success ever since. Only a select few ever have, and thus it’s always back to Star Wars to save the day. It always comes back.
What’s most interesting tonally and visually about The Force Awakens though, beyond it’s reverence, is how much it still forges it’s own identity. It’s a faster, leaner, meaner movie, and J.J. Abrams brings his trademark kinetic camera here to excellent effect as each shot swoops in and out. The 35mm cinematography is nothing short of gorgeous – this is simply one of the best looking blockbusters in recent memory and every single frame of this thing is dripping with detail, texture, and layers. More then Star Wars is referenced here – there are so many influences from a filmmaking standpoint, from the dusk sunsets of Apocalypse Now to Spielberg’s own backlit characters, this is a hodge podge of the work of the 70s and 80 that Star Wars originally came from.
Which is also why partly the reason The Force Awakens ends up being such a great Star Wars movie. The best Star Wars movies are, in essence, pop culture timecapsules, riding on numerous influences and classic genre conventions, and The Force Awakens is as classic as they come. The call to adventure! A spiritual guide! Hidden truths! They are tried and true but they are tried and true for a reason, and there is a real sense of adventure that permeates throughout all of the film Star Wars hasn’t felt in years. There has been some criticism that it apes too much from prior films in the series but I think it brings more then enough new things to justify itself – it’s structure is also completely different which aides in this. While the original film was more of a rescue film, this is a ticking clock movie where every second feels like it could be the end if one mistake happens. It’s a delicate balance that’s achieved magnificently well and both Abrams’ direction and Lawrence Kasdan’s incredible writing achieve.
And yeah, let’s talk about Kasdan and Abrams’ script for a second. When I said that it’s obsessed with it’s own nature as a legacy sequel I wasn’t kidding; legacy is ingrained into the text and subtext of the film. The entire premise of the film, which itself is simply “our heroes are missing and our new heroes need to find them”, is predicated on these characters being mythic in both our universe but also in the universe of Star Wars as presented. Rey herself is the perfect audience surrogate cause she herself is somebody who has grown up with these legends, and now is confronted with the idea that she herself could be a part of this legend should she want to be. Finn also works with this idea too, a soldier built on the tainted legacy of a fascist regime who instead of being indoctrinated is instead kidnapped and forced to do their bidding. The First Order, while certainly an excuse from investors to capitalize on the popularity of Stormtrooper merch, is a perfect villain for these kinds of heroes – if our heroes are the ones who paid attention to history, our villains are ones that also did, just in the opposite direction. The film was released in 2015 and feels eerily predictive in the worst way possible; the slow creeping rise of fascism back into the mainstream.
There is so much to love beyond that as well. Simply as an experience, the film is unmatched and is paced beautifully, and every performance hits the mark in terms of balancing the naturally cheesy elements of the narrative with genuine emotional catharsis. Adam Driver is predictably the best thing here, playing a conflicted antagonist that constantly flip flops from being wholly sympathetic and wonderfully despicable. But the entire cast here is game, from Ridley’s irresistible charms, Boyega’s great comedic timing, Isaac’s small yet instantly charming presence, and Harrison Ford actually giving it his all here as an aged, more wise yet still sarcastic Han Solo who is still mouthing and lying his way to success.
Honestly, I think this might be a perfect movie. It’s the rare sequel that manages to do what it’s predecessors did so magnificently but also forge it’s own path, and uses it’s iconography to actually say something about the nature of legacy and it’s effects on the world at large. It’s both entertaining and uplifting – simply a grand time, beautiful time at the movies. Stellar.