COMMENTARY: What J.J. Abrams did right with The Force Awakens

I have to be completely honest … I cannot write an objective review for The Force Awakens. The Star Wars films (the New Hope trilogy anyway) are far too dear and precious to be able to provide a respectable critique. That said, and I will do my best to avoid spoilers (for The Force Awakens  — there are spoilers related to the previous films) at all costs, there are some thoughts that I would like to share regarding the whole undertaking.

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I certainly had great expectations, but I also felt the seeds of doubt creep in, knowing how this precious story, birthed by George Lucas almost 4 decades ago, could go way off the rails. The prequel trilogy was a daunting effort that fell short. The good parts showed us the birth of the legend of Obi Wan Kenobi. The bad, well, all I need to say is Jar Jar.   The elephant in the room was the fact that we had to watch Anakin be sucked into the dark side and devolve into Darth Vader, making those dear to him victims of his descent. We always knew the ending and it didn’t make sense to get too invested. In my opinion, the Phantom Menace trilogy kind of buggered things up, and was not infused with the heart of its predecessors – or is it descendants? In my home, this is an ongoing debate.

For viewers of The Force Awakens, there will also be much cross examination over the minutiae of plot and technical points, and all the things that may have fallen short. So much has been fictionalized about what happened following The Return of the Jedi that it is being referred to as “the canon”. However, an important thing to recall here is that this is tantamount to fan fiction – and some of it is exceptional. This film does seem to follow similar logic: the Skywalkers are powerful with the force and there will be an ongoing struggle between good and evil, Rebellion and Empire — or rather First Order. Other than saying that, I think that I will leave the rhetoric and analysis to those who thrive on it.

After so much hype, honestly could any film live up 100%? I can say that all I wanted was to be whisked off once more to a galaxy far, far away — with a mystery in front of me. In my mind, the film definitely accomplished that, with J.J. Abrams at the helm. Here’s what I thought was done well in The Force Awakens.

A Fresh Start

Enough time has passed that this doesn’t feel so much like a continuation as it does a new chapter. It’s the characters that make it so, though their quest does lead to familiar territory. Our heroes are introduced separately and then band together as their journeys align. With Finn and Rey, their paths cross and they fall in step for a time, strengthening their bond with their conviction – not a dissimilar story to that of Luke, Han and Leia. It was nostalgic in feeling, yet without seeming like a rip-off.

Po - Rey - Finn

A Worthy Villain

We have a new villain in Kylo Ren. We have seen what he is capable of, and what remains to be seen is whether or not he is worth saving. In my view, this character could be the most interesting – but could also be a weak link if not handled correctly. I hope for much more in the future films.

Kylo Ren 

Less is more

Too many recent sequels have done nothing more than rest on the old bones of their former glory. In Force Awakens, we are allowed to reunite with our beloved characters, but they were not overused. They were laced throughout to advance the story and add color, yet did not over power by wrenching things away from the new kids. The past and present were fused together well because we had sufficient time to first embrace our new heroes – Finn, Rey and Poe.  Then, we were granted our favorites but Force Awakens was not taxed with the weight of the previous films.

leia and han

The art of ambiguity

Some plotlines were left intentionally ambiguous. The story offers easter eggs, introduces new cryptic characters and alludes to more than a few things all designed to keep us speculating until the next films unveil more details. I implore the “maker” not to work too hard at setting any records straight. I hope that the story can unfold in the future films, not in clarifying points on social media.

A New Hope

Finally, I think that Force Awakens was anchored with hope. Remember how you felt watching the medal ceremony scene after the first Death Star is destroyed by the Rebel Alliance? Our heroes were filled with fervor and ready to conquer the Empire. The Force Awakens embodies that same energy. The pivotal end scene leaves you wanting more — and that is not to have to wait for years until the next installment of the story. I left the theater feeling enthused and ready to watch it again.

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