Review: The Force Awakens

The Force is strong with this one.

I’ve written a couple of articles now about the critical, commercial and general response to The Force Awakens. No matter which way you slice it, this movie seems to be connecting in a way we haven’t seen since Star Wars was at its peak, when the original trilogy dominated the pop culture landscape. Individuals are free to hate the film, but looking at objective metrics reveals that The Force Awakens is at least in line with the original trilogy in terms of overall perception.

But that’s what everyone else thinks. Let’s be a bit more subjective for a change.

Depending on your point of view, Star Wars was, at its best, either a grand piece of modern-day myth-making or a simple space adventure with a pretence to something greater. It was fun, breezy cinema that maybe spoke to audiences on a deeper level, too. It was about individuals finding their place in a larger world—the emphasis was squarely on the human experience, with the larger conflict acting as mere backdrop.

The prequel trilogy tipped the scales too far in the other direction. It tried to say more yet, ironically, said far less: caught up in Machiavellian plotting and aiming for Greek tragedy, it instead became bogged-down with exposition and needless complexity, its characters lost amidst a sea of intrigue that led nowhere. The biggest crime was that Anakin’s fall to the dark side—the entire point of this set of films—seemed like an afterthought. Rather than being “the tragedy of Darth Vader”, the prequels recontextualised the saga as “the rise and fall of Sheev Palpatine”. Somewhere along the way, Star Wars ceased to be a story about people and instead became a political drama, culminating in the third act of Revenge of the Sith directly referencing the Bush presidency.

The Force Awakens restores the balance. “This will begin to make things right,” intones the venerable Max von Sydow as he utters the first lines of the film. Again we are in a world where individuals determine their destinies with active choices: Finn, a Stormtrooper who chooses not to murder innocents; Rey, a scavenger who chooses to break free from her life of subsistence and mere survival and Kylo Ren, a man who chooses evil in the face of goodness. It’s all there, starkly drawn and beautiful in its archetypal purity. This is a film that reminds you that Star Wars is meant to be first and foremost about real life: are you going to say “yes” to the challenges that life brings, or will you instead embrace a stultifying existence in the wasteland of lost dreams?

“Why does everyone always want to go back to Jakku?” asks Finn, frustrated that his life seems to have become tied to a junkyard he associates with death. If Tatooine was the frontier—the threshold between what is and what might be—Jakku is the graveyard of those who said “no” to life. It is Death Valley, strewn with the carcasses of another age. Jakku is the place where people live in order to die.

That both Rey and Finn break free of their tethers as they leave Jakku is no coincidence, nor is the fact that the final confrontation with Kylo Ren happens in a snow-covered forest. Another metaphor for the wasteland, the life of this planet is stripped of vitality, mirroring Ren’s fateful decision. The lightsaber duel in this setting is fierce, weighty and imbued with the personalities of its participants—it’s a highlight, and it stands alongside the duels in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi as the best in the saga.

Desert and snow bookend the lush greenery that signifies the vivifying, life-giving powers of the feminine principle, symbolised first by Maz and then Leia—both “earth mothers” with the wisdom of the goddess. And then, finally, we meet the ocean, the gateway to the powers of the unconscious, and we know that we’ve come full-circle. We’re home.

This is a Star Wars that is truly about something—about the things that transcend ordinary discourse. Its embrace of life permeates every frame, giving it a joyous, funny and fun flavour. Chewbacca, in particular, has never been better. But the entertainment factor is merely a vehicle to deliver deeper truths.

It’s not a perfect film, with minor missteps as director J.J. Abrams turns the saga’s legacy into an object for fetishism. It feels a little bit too safe at times as well, never really pushing the boundaries of what Star Wars has to offer. But on its own terms, it’s a gorgeous film that looks great and sings both on the page and on the screen. It’s pure Star Wars, no more, no less.

That galaxy far, far away isn’t so much a cinematic fabrication as it is a symbolic transformation of our present day. When Star Wars is firing on all cylinders, as it does in The Force Awakens, it ceases to be a movie and instead becomes a modern Mount Olympus, where our dreams are made flesh on the silver screen.

Four stars (out of five)

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