Star Wars: The Force Awakens / J.J. Abrams / 2015 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: It’s Star Wars!; New cast; Worldbuilding details
Side Effects: Familiar action sequences; Obligation to mythology

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With expectations high and saddled with the burden of years of nostalgia and familiarity, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will likely be judged not on its own merits but as an extension of that very nostalgia and familiarity. And how could it not be? How could an audience with so much cultural baggage approach anything in this universe with anything like objectivity? It’s a strange position for a 2015 film to be in, franchise blockbuster or not, but The Force Awakens takes on this challenge by embracing our familiarity itself.

The film plays consciously with our own deep experience with lightsabers, yellow letters receding into space and the forces of light and darkness. It’s full of knowing nods and callbacks to the original films, true, and they may get a bit cutesy, but they’re also a gesture of good faith to its audience. Director J.J. Abrams knows the deck is stacked against him, that every decision will be scrutinized and held up against the films we all know by heart, and so he welcomes it. The tactic works marvelously: the film feels like an eager child earnestly excited to show you his new toys. And, somehow paradoxically, by ingratiating the audience via its own nostalgia, The Force Awakens is allowed to become its own film: a familiar film appropriately and intelligently updated for 2015.

The most exciting new elements to the Star Wars universe are its new lead characters: Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren. As fun as it is to see the familiar faces again (an initial shock at their age slowly wears off as the performers slip into familiar grooves), the new blood in Star Wars is charismatic, promising and dramatically potent. All three performers are utterly convincing, existing comfortably within the galaxy. Narratively, the film explores the dichotomy of the light and dark side of the Force in all its incarnations and manifestations. There will always be lightness and darkness in one form or another, the film suggests: an eternal struggle as old as time, and as old as narrative itself. The metaphor works it’s way perhaps too simplistically into the design of the characters and even the visual look of the film, but like the original Star Wars, the thematic purity is welcome.

It’s these young performers and magnetic characters, though, that make the future of the franchise bright. Subsequent installments, I think, will feel less obliged to make concessions to our nostalgia. I think we needed to see the Millennium Falcon one more time, for example, but as a new kind of familiarity is created with Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren, perhaps we can allow the old icons to fade away. As the first installment of this new franchise, and a fulcrum between the old and the new, The Force Awakens does terrific work. It gets the visual and sonic textures of the Star Wars universe right while injecting its own personality, and pointing the way into the future.

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