In defence of The Force Awakens: The best Star Wars movie since Empire

This pseudo-review of The Force Awakens is going to reveal some major plot details, so if you haven’t seen the movie don’t read any further unless you’re absolutely fine with knowing about its biggest twists ahead of time. 

Seriously, there are some pretty big spoilers further down.

Okay, here we go. You’ve been warned.


I want to preface this piece by stating outright that The Force Awakens is in no way or shape a perfect movie. It has flaws, some more obvious than others (the map was in R2 the entire time?!), and there are some things I would’ve done differently had Disney decided they wanted to commit financial suicide and make me director instead.

Thankfully, they didn’t. Instead they went for the man who’d successfully reinvented Star Trek, lifelong Star Wars fan, J.J. Abrams.

It was an appointment that I was happy with at the time, and one that I’m even more delighted with now that I’ve seen the movie. However, it’s also an appointment that’s surely led to what’s widely viewed as The Force Awakens’ biggest problem: it feels like a soft reboot of A New Hope.

Same old, same old

After seeing the film (for the second time) I quickly waded into reddit, looking to find out what others thought of the movie. Most were incredibly pleased with what they’d seen, but there’s a sizeable group that uses the “A New Hope 2.0″ argument mentioned above as a way to rationalise their disappointment, and in some cases, flat out call The Force Awakens a bad movie.

It’s too familiar they say, and on the surface it’s hard to argue with them.

Just like A New Hope, we have R2-D2 BB-8, a droid with information vital to the Rebels Resistance. We have Luke Rey, an unaware force-sensitive stranded on the desert planet of Tatooine Jakku, who soon gets swept away on a galactic adventure. We also have Finn, the sharpshooting, wise-cracking smuggler stormtrooper. Then there’s the Death Star Starkiller Base, a planet-sized weapon of awesome power that can only be destroyed by a daring group of X-Wing pilots. Along the way we’re introduced to the grizzled, wise, war veteran, Ben Kenobi Han Solo, who teaches our heroes about the force and the legends of old, before eventually dying at the hands of his now evil apprentice son.

Yep, when you boil it down I guess The Force Awakens is just a carbon copy of A New Hope. Let’s all burn J.J. at the stake.

Or we could put down our pitchforks and dig a little deeper, because, for me, those similarities help make the movie great, and the differences, of which there are many, establish The Force Awakens as the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back.

Allow me to explain.

When Disney announced there was going to be a new Star Wars trilogy, the news was met with unbridled excitement. Surely, these would be the movies fans had been waiting for. Disney, who’d done so well with Marvel properties, wouldn’t give us another set of prequels. They couldn’t.

Well, no, they couldn’t. And that’s the point. That’s why The Force Awakens feel so familiar. It’s because of us, the fans.

We tore Lucas’ prequels to shreds. He tried to do something new, to show us different corners of the galaxy through a modern lens, and he failed. So, what did we do? We berated his movies and refused to forgive the man who gave us the original trilogy for “ruining our childhood”.

Even though the prequels still made money, largely by appealing to a younger generation, they had clearly alienated those who’d supported the franchise since it began. Disney knew they couldn’t risk putting out another Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones, so they didn’t.

They didn’t take those risks. Instead, they hired a fan to rein the franchise back in and give us something familiar and nostalgic. In short: something we could get excited about.

So then, the task of creating a safe and satisfying sequel to Return of the Jedi fell to Mr. Abrams. Except, The Force Awakens couldn’t just be that, either. It had to please lifelong fans by bringing back Han, Luke, and Leia while serving up a healthy portion of nostalgia. It also had to lay down the foundations for a new trilogy and make us fall in love with a new group of heroes and villains, who’ll be leading from the front in Episode VIII and IX.

Perhaps more important than that, however, it was essential that The Force Awakens make a bucketload of cash – Disney did spend $4 billion buying Star Wars, after all – and secure the future of the franchise. That meant providing a viable point of entry for those too young to remember the prequels, and definitely the originals.

Yes, those people exist, and because they’ll be about 8-12 years old now, they’ll be Disney’s target audience for the foreseeable future. They’ll be the ones convincing their parents to splash out on the action figures, the overpriced lego sets, and the video games. Although, I’m sure we’ll all be helping along the way.

An impossible balancing act

That’s the sort of pressure Abrams was dealing with, and that’s why anyone expecting a straight-up sequel to Return of the Jedi will likely be a little bit disappointed. But this movie wasn’t just for them, it was for everyone, and that means compromises had to be made.

Yes, it’s easy to point the finger at Abrams and call him out for giving us a new rendition of A New Hope (and, I’ll admit, sometimes the nods and easter eggs do get wearisome) but to do so would be to forget about everything he’s done right.

He did what Lucas’ prequels couldn’t, and introduced us to a group of new characters that I genuinely care about. Rey, Finn, BB-8, Poe, and, yes, even Kylo Ren – who is in no way similar to Vader. Seriously, I could write another 1000 words about that particular gripe – are all strong, three-dimensional, unique characters, who steal the show time and time again.

I’ve got no issue with the original trio passing the torch to this new group, and that in itself proves that The Force Awakens has done its job.

It’s also worth mentioning that I can’t think of a single character from the prequels that I adore as much as our new heroes. We have to give Abrams some of the credit for that, because, while the actors clearly gave it their all, it’s a director’s job to bring the best out of their cast – something Lucas always struggled to do – and that’s exactly what J.J. did.

TFA

Of course, that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. He also ushered in the return of practical effects, injecting each scene with a sense of wonder that had been washed away by Lucas’ most recent CGI-laden efforts. He brought back the franchise’s humour, making The Force Awakens the funniest Star Wars film of the lot – thanks for that, John Boyega – while he also gave Rian Johnson the platform he needs to take Episode IIV in a completely new direction, and tell stories that aren’t burdened by the weight of the prequels or the original trilogy.

By playing it safe this time, Disney has done what it set out to do. It has regained the the trust of die-hard fans and simultaneously introduced a new generation to the timeless phenomenon that is Star Wars. As a result, the House of Mouse is now free to take the franchise wherever it wants in the years ahead.

If by 2019 it turns out I was wrong, and the new trilogy does reveal itself to be a beat-for-beat retread of the originals, I’m sure I’ll look back on this post with horror. Still, that won’t be the case. I’m 100 percent sure of it.

Yeah, I’ll probably regret saying that.

Before I sign off, and this devolves into an endless ramble, I will say this: even if the next two (numbered) Star Wars movies do harken back to their older relatives, it’s worth remembering that, at its heart, Star Wars will always be about the Skywalker family, good versus evil, and the dark side versus the light.

Our favourite characters will continue to lose their hands, someone will always end up falling down a chasm, and there’ll always be a certain amount of cheesy humour, whether from the Ewoks, R2-D2, or a certain Darth Jar Jar.

Star Wars wouldn’t be Star Wars without those things, and for all of your complaining, deep down, you know you wouldn’t have it any other way.

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