As if there wasn’t enough pressure from the fan base on director J.J. Abrams, this week The Wall Street Journal determined that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” needs to gross at least $1.5 billion at the box office to be considered financially successful after Disney’s $4 billion purchase of the franchise three years ago. Even Spielberg weighed in, stating “Oh, J.J. is terrified. There’s a lot of pressure on J.J. to start paying Disney back for, you know, the franchise they bought from George Lucas.” This is a tricky franchise to manage; we all remember the prequels. One directorial misstep and the entire series of sequels could be thrown into jeopardy. Add to that the fan pressure of incorporating new characters and plots while not deviating too far from their beloved films. So how’d Abrams do? Depends on how deep your fandom runs.
Thirty years after defeating the Galactic Empire, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his allies face a new threat from the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his army of Stormtroopers. (Synopsis by Disney)
In case you aren’t overly familiar with all the backstory that got us to this point, here is a helpful summary. Not enough? Here is an interactive cheat sheet that is available to automatically dim in the theater as you watch the new movie. Don’t be that guy asking “who’s that droid?”—unless you want to explain to the ER nurse how exactly that plastic lightsaber ended up where it did. These summaries show the problem with creating any new Star Wars product. There is a vast wealth of material to draw on and must work both for extremely knowledgeable fans and for people who have no idea anything other than the movies exist. If you are Abrams, how do you reconcile this into a coherent narrative that everyone can enjoy?
For starters, you bring back some of the original writers and burn through multiple scripts to distill the purest possible product. Then you have to decide to throw out almost all the material that isn’t directly related to the original films and build from there (take care, Expanded Universe!). This works in some ways for “The Force Awakens,” but in other ways you are left feeling like you saw this movie before with different faces. While the two main characters are much more relatable than any character in the prequels, they seem to be on more or less the same quest that was hashed out in episodes IV through VI. Maybe it’s a product of the re-writes, but it doesn’t feel like the larger story got as much attention as some of the details. To be fair, the release of the very first of the sequels may not be the time to make such a broad generalization, but there is a certain feeling of déjà vu when you step back and look at the plot.
The leads, Ridley (Rey) and Boyega (Finn), are both exceptional in their roles. Facing the difficult task of assimilating into this franchise (just ask Jake Lloyd), they both hit the tonal and character points at all the right moments. The chemistry between the two of them feels natural even when the script is addressing fan grievances, such as the lack of a strong female lead. At their first meeting, Rey repeatedly chastises Finn for taking her hand every time they begin to run away from the storm troopers. A great moment that is well written as a nod to the fan base, while feeling authentic between the actors and within the context of the film. Put together enough of those little moments and you have a successful film.
Get to the point already, review guy: Is this movie what I want it to be? Does it live up to the hype? Will my kids ever shut up about making me take them to see this? The answer to all that is yes. There is a great deal of setup involved in this movie, but that is to be expected. It is certainly fun and entertaining to watch. There is enough new plot development to keep you hooked. You don’t need to be a Star Wars expert to enjoy this fully. This is the film that you wanted the prequels to be. However, outside of the classic character appearances to make the fan base cheer, this is a Star Wars film that is most likely to be enjoyed by the casual fan. Will hardcore fans still love it? Of course. But the less amount of time you spend dissecting every detail, the greater the enjoyment will be. Or at least wait until we have all three sequels to start picking apart the details.
THREE out of four stars.
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Runtime 2 hr. 16 min.
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.