Ali Taimur Shabbir reviews the long awaited sequel
It is very easy to be caught up in the vortex of hope, hype and general goodwill concerning the seventh instalment in the Star Wars series. A Google search for reviews of Episode VII: The Force Awakens is overwhelming in its positivity. The critical and mainstream consensus is that the movie is terrific, and that putting this cult franchise into the hands of director J.J. Abrams was a masterstroke for the Disney executives. I had only watched Episode III: Revenge of the Sith prior to heading to the cinema, but had done research and understood the lore. I told myself that I would assess this film critically and would end up not agreeing with the critics just for the sake of it. When I exited the cinema, I let out a sigh: The Force Awakens is, to put it bluntly, really good.
Set 30 years after the end of Episode VI: Return of The Jedi, a fascistic organisation (the First Order) aims to crush rebel freedom fighters (The Resistance) with a planet-sized superweapon (Starkiller Base) and spread its tyrannical rule everywhere. The rebels’ only hope is a young woman (Daisy Ridley’s Rey) unaware of her destiny, on a desert planet (Jakku), that must follow the path thrust before her to save the galaxy. If this sounds like déjà vu, don’t worry. Though the plot contains several inconsistencies and is relentless in its pace at times, barely giving the audience room to breathe, Abrams has not merely recycled it from the original trilogy. He has overseen a metamorphosis that propels Awakens into the 21st century, something that is most evident in the new trinity of heroes.
Ridley is a woman, John Boyega (playing Finn) is of African descent and Oscar Isaac (playing Poe Dameron) is Cuban-Guatemalan, and the viewer can see them as the bastions of 21st century ideals. Ridley’s casting in particular is to be celebrated. Female leads are rare among films of a smaller stature, much less among gargantuan film franchises, and Ridley’s own spin on the role is slick. She is a combination of the best of Luke and Anakin: generous without being naïve, savvy and powerful without arrogance. All three characters merge well, but the true measure of the calibre of a classic good vs. evil film nestles with its villain. Here, Awakens delivers again. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), AKA Darth Vader in construction, is what Anakin Skywalker should have been in the prequel trilogy, a multi-faceted young man dominated by his emotions, furious at the world and the responsibility thrust upon him that extinguishes what light he had within himself. Nonetheless, the old guard is still strong. Harrison Ford’s Han Solo gives some much-needed maturity to certain scenes and General Leia (Carrie Fisher) passes on the torch to the new heroes with utmost grace.
Abrams and his team understood that Awakens had to please older fans whilst attracting new ones, and have crafted a movie that is as suitable for the casual filmgoer as it is for the diehard Padawan wishing for Mace Windu’s purple lightsaber for Christmas. Make no mistake, this is an incredibly difficult feat that they have pulled off. The amount of things this film manages to achieve in its 2 hours and 16 minutes running time is staggering. Abrams, among other things, had to establish a new geopolitical landscape and explain the aftermath of Episode VI, introduce and develop Finn, Rey and Dameron, reintroduce Solo, Leia and Chewie, milk every iota of nostalgia, and somehow fashion these parts into a movie that doesn’t collapse under its own emotional weight. In order to achieve this, Abrams tried several things, most of which come off, but several don’t.
It was not necessarily a good idea to explore the same themes of family, destiny, power and corruption that fans have seen in the past 6 films: there is a lot more to space and sci-fi that can be explored in the confines of a similar plot. Awakens is still largely about the Skywalker family and this connection can be seen as Abrams being very cautious and safe with his vision. Closely tied to this is Lucas’s idea of the Hero’s Journey, which rears its clichéd head again. The meticulously designed weapons and costumes fail to have any real oomph and are instead relegated to the background, as well. But by using a barebones approach that takes the movie back to the basics in a warm-hearted, humorous tone under his tutelage as a Star Wars superfan and pop-culture savant, Abrams achieves the aforementioned goals with aplomb.
Part of the problem with having the aim of creating a trilogy is to ensure that the characters and plot don’t exist just for the sake of filling out the running time, particularly in the first film. Awakens overcomes this with clever manoeuvring. It simultaneously sustains just the right amount of mystery and feeds enough morsels of truth to its ravenous fanbase to satiate its hunger for another couple of years. That is, until Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII is released in May 2017. Until then, fans and newcomers to the series can enjoy a film that rewards multiple viewings.