As we approach the end of the Skywalker saga with Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, we here at Full Circle agreed it was time to take a look back. Every day until The Rise of Skywalker‘s release, we’ll be discussing every single theatrical project in the Star Wars franchise, in canonical order. For this latest entry in our retrospective, we will take a look at the beginning of the newest trilogy: 2015’s The Force Awakens.
On December 18, 2015, the excitement in the air was palpable. After over three decades of waiting, Star Wars fans were finally able to witness the continuation of one of cinema’s most beloved and influential trilogies. With a proven director at the helm in J.J. Abrams, The Force Awakens was meant to usher in a brand new series of sequels, laying the foundation of a new Star Wars adventure for a new generation of moviegoers. At the time of its release, people heralded The Force Awakens as a step in the right direction, paving the way for its sequels by establishing new, likable characters and creating a few tantalizing questions that begged for an answer.
However, there was an unshakable feeling that The Force Awakens primarily concerned itself with retreading old ground rather than forging a new path. This is mainly due to the fact that its plot is extremely reminiscent of A New Hope’s. From the overt, like the climactic struggle to destroy a massive, orb-shaped super-weapon, to the subtle, like the protagonist originating from a sandy planet, it was hard to shake the feeling that we have already seen this exact movie play out before. At the time, this aspect of the film wasn’t too bothersome, but the complaints about it are warranted. Although it has its flaws, The Force Awakens is an exciting return to a galaxy far, far away.
There are two big reasons why The Force Awakens works: its pacing and its tone. The film moves at a blisteringly fast pace, introducing the audience to new characters at the same speed in which it brings back familiar faces. Rey, Finn, and Poe are all immediately likable characters, oozing with charisma and life. Kylo Ren is a villain that, deceptively, appears to echo Darth Vader before coming into his own as a flawed, childish, tantrum-prone narcissist. All of the actors are clearly having a good time and, as a result, watching them is infectious.
After the CGI eyesore known as the prequel trilogy, the set design in The Force Awakens is refreshing. By having practical, built sets with computer-generated flourishes, the world presented here feels much more real. The dark sheen of First Order ships, the sand dunes of Jakku, and the forest that surrounds Maz Kanata’s hideout are all a treat for the eyes.
Star Wars has never looked this good, which is saying a lot. The sound design is also incredible, which is par for the course in a Star Wars joint. The “pews” of blasters, whirring of mechanical ships, and “bleep-bloops” of droids all sound as satisfying they ever did. John Williams’s score, much like the rest of the film, is a masterful blend of the old and the new. Williams alters and expands upon recurring motifs from previous films, and many of the new tracks compliment the scenes beautifully.
The tone of The Force Awakens is also fairly light. Though there are a few dark moments, the death of a certain beloved character and a blood-streaked Stormtrooper helmet come to mind, they never go too far. This still feels like a film that is suitable for the whole family. It’s rare to see well-executed movies with this sort of wide appeal. So credit to the film for never indulging in too much of this universe’s dark side. The whimsical feeling on display tries to remind audiences of why they fell in love with the franchise to begin with, and for the most part, it succeeds in this.
However, when the biggest flaw of a movie is its plot, it’s never a good sign. The Force Awakens truly benefits from its presentation because although the audience gets to see new, endearing faces amidst the action, the actual events taking place have all played out before. The plot is like a renovated house, with a new coat of paint laid upon a solid, effective foundation. Although this movie is reliable for a good time, it doesn’t give the audience any surprises. As a result, the desire to return to this particular movie in the franchise diminishes with each subsequent re-watch; the charm of its spectacle wears off. One of the strongest aspects of the film upon release – its return to the basics of what makes the franchise work – is one of its weakest aspects as it ages.
The set-pieces, still, are thrilling. The sheer scale of these battles is incredible thanks to great fight choreography and shot composition. The cardinal sin of action movies, frequent cutting and messy editing, is absent here. Fights play out with clarity, allowing the audience to observe every blaster shot, lightsaber strike, and ship maneuver with detail. They look gorgeous and are undeniably well-executed. Even when CGI is implemented, the models are immensely detailed and never too distracting. The frequency of these set-pieces is remarkable too, with multiple memorable battles scattered throughout the film’s massive run-time. It’s miraculous that the film, sitting at over two hours, never feels like it’s as long as it actually is.
All of this praise comes with one massive caveat, though; its follow-up, The Last Jedi, doesn’t capitalize on the few new developments present here. Because of this, when re-watching this film, it’s difficult to care too much about what’s going on. Knowing that these characters will go on to have their personalities altered in the sequel makes them feel insincere. Whereas The Last Jedi wants to kill the past, The Force Awakens relies on it to succeed. As a standalone film, it’s a fun, enjoyable, familiar romp. As the introduction to a new trilogy, however, it feels like a slice of fool’s gold. It’s shiny and enchanting on the outside, but devoid of value. Still, it’s effective and enjoyable enough to be worthy of praise.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is available to stream on Disney+.
The film stars Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, and Domhnall Gleeson.