The Force is indeed strong with this one (SPOILER FREE)

Yes, I’ve already seen two other websites use this headline for their Star Wars story today, but I think it’s appropriate enough that a few more will be repeating it through this weekend.

After the first full trailer earlier this year, I avoided watching any of subsequent trailers or visiting message boards about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The only exception was that I knew in advance where Daniel Craig’s invisible cameo would happen. You will neither see his face, nor recognize his voice; but it’s an entertaining and important moment from a narrative point of view and he will be forever grateful to JJ Abrams for this gift!

I didn’t catch the first 2 films on the big screen and although I saw Return of the Jedi in the theatre in Bangalore in 1985, I just can’t remember the moment when the crawl came up on screen along with John Williams’ iconic theme (for the academically minded, I highly recommend this excellent article published yesterday by Billboard on why this score is so powerful). When I went back to the theatre in 1999 for the re-release of the original film, I felt the full force of emotions during those first few seconds. I had a similar (even stronger) experience during the opening exposition of The Lord of the Rings in December 2001. Well, it was the same feeling last night as three years of hope and prayers were finally fulfilled; in fact a cheer went up in the audience already when the Lucasfilm logo came up!

The opening scene which introduces a couple of the new characters and later, the extended introduction to the central character Rey (Daisy Ridley, pictured below with John Boyega and BB-8) are pitch perfect. I had mentioned in my series of posts about next gen British actresses that this film could be a springboard to a successful career for Ms. Ridley. Based on what I’ve seen, I believe we have just been introduced to a major new acting talent. Rey is the heart of this film; it’s her coming-of-age story just as the original trilogy was Luke Skywalker’s. Every scene she’s in carries weight because she is able to project a mélange of emotions – hope, despair, resilience, fear, determination, pride, love – giving us a sense of her character’s backstory. I can’t remember the last time I have felt this strongly about a major big-screen debut and I sincerely hope that she will be able to realize her tremendous potential.

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The new villain Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver, pictured below with General Hux and Captain Phasma) will be Rey’s nemesis through this trilogy. This is a more nuanced villain than Darth Vader, but equally hateful…perhaps even more so because of what happens in this film.

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In fact, full marks to the filmmakers for all the casting. Just as it was with the original trilogy, the fresh young faces (Daisy Ridley and John Boyega) and the rising young actors (Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac) are excellent in their roles. The non-human characters like Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o), Unkar Plutt (voiced by Simon Pegg, sounding uncannily like the butler from Downton Abbey, I thought) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis doing his usual evil thing) are brought to life either through prosthetics or mo-cap CGI. No worries about a bumbling Jar-Jar Binks or a whiny Annakin Skywalker or an emotionally repressed Padmé Amidala here. And of course, the new generation BB-8 astromech droid steals the show, expressing a much wider range of emotions and solving all the mobility issues that George Lucas faced with R2-D2. This droid is truly an engineering marvel and I imagine that for those who don’t mind spending USD 150 on a ‘toy’, this will be a must-have purchase for the family.

The plot is easy to follow unlike that of the prequels. As with any JJ Abrams film, pace, editing and action are all top notch. It’s only towards the end of Maz Kanata’s castle sequence when several of the characters were at a loose end about what to do next, that I felt it was the scriptwriters who were unsure about what to do with the dialogue! There are of course, copycat situations from the beloved original trilogy and I think this was necessary to give hard core fans a ‘soft landing’ into the new trilogy. I suspect that the next two films will dispense with these and will take on a style and tone of their own. The original trilogy achieved this variety simply because The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were directed by different directors with their own filmmaking style. Likewise, Episode VIII will be directed by Rian Johnson and Episode XI by Colin Trevorrow. Johnson has directed 3 very different films – a noir thriller, a caper comedy and a time-travel scifi thriller (Brick, The Brothers Bloom and Looper). It’s notable that he has written the scripts for all of these and will have a writing credit for both the upcoming Star Wars sequels. Colin Trevorrow directed an indie scifi film called Safety Not Guaranteed and then hit the big time with Jurassic World this year.

A few words about the visual effects. I respect JJ Abrams’ approach of moving back to more practical effects and doing away with the overly digitized look of the prequels; this once again looks like a lived-in world rather than a video game. However, the fact is that while the first Star Wars invented a new category of special effects 40 years ago, the new film does not create a breakthrough of the same magnitude. In the past 30 years, we have had the water pseudopod in The Abyss, the liquid metal man in Terminator 2, the CGI dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, the bullet-time action sequences in The Matrix and a fully expressive CGI character Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. In terms of movie formats, it was Avatar that ushered in the new 3D era in 2009 and filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Michael Bay who have leveraged the IMAX format impressively with The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar and the Transformer sequels. Even in 2015, the most unique visual experience I had would probably be Mad Max: Fury Road. So, there is no single unique or memorable visual effect in The Force Awakens, but safe to say the movie is not poorer for it; I think it was a choice to focus on the story/ characters and not create any visual gimmicks.

So, a huge round of applause to JJ Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy for delivering on this movie. Disney had a USD 4 billion investment in Lucasfilm at stake. Long term fans had been burned by the prequels (which have not improved in perception with time). But now, everything is well set up for 4 more years of Star Wars films – the sequels in 2017 and 2019, a standalone film titled A Star Wars Story: Rogue One next December (featuring Felicity Jones) and a Han Solo adventure film (wonder who they will cast as a young Solo) in 2018.

PS: Here’s a wonderful picture of the cast at a table reading at the start of the project.

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