Hype can be both a uniter of excitement and a destroyer of expectations. In a world dominated by hype, by unending branding and licensing and, frankly, a deep desire to make as much money as possible at the expense of all else, a movie stands in limbo.
Whether or not Star Wars: The Force Awakens is any good seems almost irrelevant in any traditional sense. No matter what, people are going to hate it just for even existing, and some people are going to love it unconditionally even if it falls short on every front.
So, if you’re going to see it, you’re going to see it. If you’re going to hate it, you’re going to hate it. What I have to say is of very trivial importance.
That said, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the best Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi. The story itself is a rather familiar retread of many of the same elements from the original Star Wars in 1977. It hits many of the same beats, devolves in similar ways. And, like the original Star Wars, it’s a movie that has a sense of awe about it. It’s a movie that wants an audience to be as thrilled with its creation as the filmmakers are.
When I entered the theater this morning I was tired, my stomach was a little bit upset and a man clearly on drugs kept shifting seats, seemingly getting closer and closer to me and my girlfriend until, as if by the grace of God, he simply vanished and I didn’t have to sit next to him while he nervously chewed at his fingers and tapped at his face. I had a deep aura of cynicism and exhaustion all throughout the in-your-face special-effects extravaganza trailers that preceded the main attraction. I saw effects thrown at my face in the third dimension, all seemingly designed to overwhelm the senses. All it did was cause existential dread in my heart. After being burned by three Star Wars movies in a row created by the original man, the legend, George Lucas, what hope did this fourth one after its prime—spearheaded by J.J. Abrams, the man who didn’t understand Star Trek—have?
Finally, the opening time and place setting emerged. “A long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away…” and I felt a twinge of nostalgia tug at my heartstrings. And then John Williams’ familiar score blasted and the main title and prologue crawled down from outer space. And then there were massive ships. And strife. And a battle of good and evil playing out on a world below. And I felt actual excitement well inside of me.
The Force Awakens is committed to telling a story. It has characters that it cares about. It has a struggle that it’s invested in. It has an endgame in mind that is going to be difficult to achieve. Really, it’s about telling a story in its most classic sense. It utilizes every aspect of filmmaking to its benefit, from basic direction to set design, sound and overall aesthetic. It seems to have taken a cue directly from the prequel trilogy as a lesson of what not to do.
And, as such, we have a new Star Wars that works as an homage to the original trilogy and a continuation into its own trajectory. I hope that the next film can step out from the series’ massive shadow and do something unique and wholly its own.
The Force Awakens is not without its problems. No movie is. Sometimes the story gets sidelined for the purpose of engaging in pure spectacle and we have to wait it out until the destruction calms down before we can see where our group of heroes goes next and what happens to them. Sometimes the winking nod references to the original can be more distracting than organic. And sometimes the forward momentum of the plot can fall into doldrums.
What’s on screen though, and what’s successful, is absolutely rife with practical effects and actually quite good CGI. It’s incredibly pleasing to the eye. Stepping back from the bizarrely-shoehorned digital lizard things that were awkwardly inserted into the original for its special edition, we see massive creatures made up of physical elements and existing in our actual world. And the human eye notices these things. We can tell the difference. While there are some obnoxious completely digital renderings, where it matters the most, we see a marriage between the two technologies, existing in a cooperative and happy existence. Maybe that’s where this movie succeeded and George Lucas’s attempts at recapturing the magic failed. Instead of abandoning a technology for a new one, this movie understands that both have their own reasons for being. And in the world of Star Wars the old and the new coexist as happily as practical effects and CGI do. It’s a Wild West frontier—replete with decaying structures—punctuated with blasters instead of revolvers and spaceships instead of trains and wagons.
My expectations were absolutely exceeded, and I was actually glad that I saw it. No, it’s not perfect. Yes, it has its problems. But, yes, I was entertained and had my imagination and my eyes exposed to something that was excited for being alive and breathing.