The Force Awakens: The Force of nostalgia is strong with this one
It has been a well-documented gruelling task. How could any director please the legion of fans of the original Star Wars trilogy. A trilogy that is so embedded in cultural thesis and collective memory that every parent who saw it when they were young has embraced the idea of sharing it with their children.
It’s the sort of task that a lesser director would have passed on, but J.J. Abrams is well-versed in reinvigorating ideas, particularly those that are nostalgic throw-backs. Hi CV is littered with TV series and films that have always tapped into the zeitgeist, and what is old is very much new again.
Even the title of the film is a clarion cry to wake fans up from their disenchantment with the prequel films. And Abrams and his team have carefully crafted a story for a new generation, all the while weaving the fabric of legacy and nostalgia.
The anticipation for this outing has seen the entire internet being overtaken with tie-ins and marketing campaigns. Even Google. You just have to type “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” and witness the result to understand how much of the public conscience has been taken over by Star Wars.
So it was that Abrams was tasked with the monumental task of pleasing the fans who have universally derided the Lucas-directed prequels. In order to do this he employed the writer of the film universally hailed as a franchise best (The Empire Strikes Back) and vowed that the film would not only utilise original characters but also shy away from a heavy reliance on special effects.
Game changing cinema
Now nostalgia is a funny thing: The further away from the experience the more it grows and mythologises in your minds’ eye. Star Wars has become an imbedded part of everyone’s childhood. Like many people my age it was our first exposure to a cinema experience like no other. For many it remains a transformative and almost transcendent experience. The “galaxy far, far away” was full of intriguing ideas, uncharted ideas and worlds full of possibilities — like the idea of a dark and light side in the Force itself – an idea that as a young Christian resonated with me deeply.
When the original film was released in 1977 it transformed and changed cinema, had commentators wondering about its spiritual and cultural relevance. It made George Lucas a very rich filmmaker, but launched something bigger than I don’t think even Lucas could have imagined, that’s just how embedded Star Wars has become in popular culture.
What Abrams has done with The Force Awakens is to mine the nostalgia and resonant mythology while keeping this new episode in the franchise fresh through the introduction of surprising new characters and worlds.
New characters and directions to explore
I do not intend to spoil the plot of The Force Awakens in any way in this review, because I believe that everyone needs to see the film with fresh eyes and with a clean slate. Just like all of us did back in 1977 – before the internet and social media – you need to discover for yourself the wonder and excitement. There is a reason the plot details have been so closely guarded and the trailers have given nothing away. The fact that Disney and Lucasfilm have been able to keep the details such closely guarded secrets is amazing, but I think we need to honour this effort at least while people are able to see it for themselves.
For those fans who like me had thought that Lucas had lost the plot with the prequels with the dull political conversations, shoehorned origin stories and wooden acting, it really feels like Abrams has captured everything that felt uplifting, fun and exhilarating that had left the films post Return of the Jedi.
The DNA of Star Wars is back. Newcomers John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver and Oscar Issac give the film a fresh new direction and protagonists that have stories that will undoubtedly be explored in subsequent films. For those of you who saw the second trailer and the return of Han and Chewie, the film delivers goosebumps and wonder with the introduction of the familiar characters. And writer Lawrence Kasdan has honoured their inclusion with familial relationships that work and understood what fans loved about the original films – having written the best one himself.
For the first time in a while we have a villain that is on a par with Darth Vader, a complex character that is undeniably linked in lineage to the classic trilogy and is every bit as menacing. His allegiance and personality crackles and hums like the startling new lightsaber he wields.
Nobody has ever written Han Solo, Leia, or Chewbacca the way Lawrence Kasdan has — he captured them as fully formed wise-cracking, poignant characters in The Empire Strikes Back — and the minute they appear on screen in The Force Awakens, it’s clear Kasdan has tapped into the same sense of fun he did so many years ago.
There are lump in the throat moments, the stunned silence and then delirious excitement erupts at the entrance of the Millenium Falcon, the introduction and gathering veterans together after 40 years and some genuinely emotional scenes which propel the franchise in unexpected directions.
If Kasdan brings out the beating heart, Abrams has delivered the soul of the film. His almost humble approach to the film makes it feel like A New Hope but for all the right reasons. He is the master of visual flair, delivering in every scene a sense of physicality and robust storytelling that was lacking in the prequels. The places, vehicles and creatures feel real. The Millenium Falcon has weight and presence. Details abound and there are countless embedded references that will no doubt be discovered in subsequent viewings.
What writers and director have done triumphantly is introduce a new generation to the Star Wars universe in a way that both honours it and creates new directions and stories to follow and enjoy. It’s fitting too, that the film, like the franchise itself is about parents and children and about the legacies passed down from generation to generation.
When my 11 year proudly proclaimed “this is the first Star Wars movie I will see in a cinema” it made this Dad proud. As Luke Skywalker said in the original trailer for The Force Awakens: “The force is strong in my family. My father had it. I have it. My sister has it. You have that power too…”
Thank you J.J. for passing the wonder and exhilaration of a new chapter in the Star Wars saga to us all and transporting us back to our childhoods a galaxy far, far away.
Adrian Drayton is the Editor of Insights
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