As The Rise of Skywalker hits, does The Force Awakens still hold up?
Commentary: With Star Wars: Episode VII, J.J. Abrams bridged old and new and revitalized the Skywalker saga for a new generation.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
I got goosebumps when the lights went down. When the famous fanfare blared across the crowded theater, everybody cheered. The Force had re-awakened.
... was back.
But that was 2015, when The Force Awakens arrived, and a few long years have passed since then. The saga continued in 2017's divisive The Last Jedi. This weekend, director J.J. Abrams closes this chapter of the Star Wars story in The Rise of Skywalker. Let's take a look back at the movie that kickstarted the trilogy. Does The Force Awakens still hold up?
The Force Awakens was the first Star Wars movie in over a decade, but it was more than that. The prequel trilogy had only looked backward, based on familiar backstory. The Force Awakens moved the story forward. There was a lot riding on it, as it had to bring closure to the beloved original characters and lay the foundations for a new era.
The opening text crawl established the new status quo in the galaxy far, far away. And, yeah, it was a lot like the old status quo. Despite being defeated at the end of Return of the Jedi, the Empire is still hanging around causing trouble for the Rebel Alliance, only now they're called the First Order and the Resistance. That's not a great start, frankly. It looked like J.J. Abrams had just run the classic movies through a thesaurus.
And it's true that a good portion of The Force Awakens is essentially A New Hope re-awakened and rebooted.
From its opening with a Force-sensitive dreamer on a hardscrabble desert world to an alien-packed cantina, ice planet and climactic space battle, Awakens is like a greatest hits of Star Wars.
Luckily, it works.
Abrams and his fellow filmmakers manage to strike a balance between the old and the new, deftly presenting remastered iconography like the streamlined Stormtroopers, crashed Star Destroyer and TIE fighters coming out of the sun. It's just fresh enough, and above all just cool enough, to squeak onto the right side of nostalgia.
But it's not enough to change the saga's signature space dogfights to ground attacks or give us
grinning. New droid
, adorable as he is, wasn't enough. Something truly new was required. And it's in the new generation of characters -- Finn, Poe, Rey and Kylo Ren -- that The Force Awakens really shines.
The new hope
Ah yes, the new characters. The faces that launched a thousand ships. A generation of young and practically unknown actors creating a new roster of heroes to complement the icons of the earlier movies.
Let's start with Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. Her wordless intro is filled with wonderful detail: her lingering look at an old woman, the X-wing pilot doll, the cute helmet, the reveal of a downed AT-AT. It gets less and less credible throughout the film that she's good at everything, but her pluckiness is endlessly endearing.
Then there's the dashing Poe Dameron, played by Oscar Isaac. He doesn't really do much except be handsome, but what more do you need, really?
And there's Finn, played by John Boyega. Finn is a wonderfully comic character, though both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi largely gloss over the fact he's been brutalized and brainwashed since a young age. I'd love to see Boyega dig deeper into his character, hinted at in the Awakens scene between Finn and Maz Kanata.
Rey's selflessness, Finn's conscience and Poe's determination make an immediate impact. Winningly played by the actors, they're clearly delineated, endearing characters.
And then there's Kylo Ren. The black-clad villain is one of the most interesting in the Star Wars saga. Where Luke Skywalker longed to fulfill a destiny he didn't fully understand, Kylo Ren is weighed down and tormented by the legacy his family imposes on him. He's caught between the Light Side and Dark Side with a complexity and nuance rarely seen in previous movies, brilliantly brought to life by Adam Driver. After his dramatic entrance in Force Awakens, his story went in bold and unexpected directions in The Last Jedi, and I can't wait to see how his arc concludes in Episode IX.
Not everything in Force Awakens works as well as the new characters. The climax in particular has huge problems.
Take the way characters both wield lightsabers and shrug off being hit by the blade, which blunts the power of the supposedly legendary Jedi weapon.
We're shown that Starkiller Base is like the Death Star, only way bigger, in a cringeworthy introduction. (Just try not to roll your eyes.) Look at A New Hope, where the ominous-sounding Death Star is named in the opening text -- in CAPITAL LETTERS, no less. We see it throughout the film, we witness its awesome power, and as a result the terrifying threat looms over the whole film. So we get a sense that as Luke Skywalker enters a wider universe and learns to harness the Force his journey is building directly to the moment when he must prove himself by facing the Death Star.
In Awakens, we're told the Starkiller is meant to be vastly destructive, but its use packs none of the emotional punch of the moment Leia is forced to watch the destruction of her home world in A New Hope.
Among the other new characters, Captain Phasma is a huge waste of a cool costume, an oversight that was sadly repeated in The Last Jedi. And why bother casting the martial arts aces from The Raid if they're literally not going to do anything?
Then there's the Emperor -- sorry, the Supreme Leader. The Force Awakens does a great job of using practical makeup and excellent acting performances to bring characters vividly to life, but Supreme Leader Snoke is a much less convincing CG creation, which is a problem for the crucial leader of the bad guys. When I recently rewatched all the Star Wars movies I was struck by what a great villain Palpatine is, so it's a real problem that Snoke doesn't measure up in The Force Awakens. And his name's "Snoke," for porg's sake.
Still, thanks to Last Jedi director Rian Johnson, there's no need to worry about that one any more, eh?
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For all the great new stuff in The Force Awakens, the biggest emotional punch comes from the reunion of Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. To see such distance between Han and Leia, one of cinema's greatest couples, is heart-wrenching. If only there could have been more of that in the last half hour and less regurgitating Return of the Jedi.
As a standalone film, The Force Awakens has its problems. But as a foundation to a new saga, balancing and combining old and new, it's deftly done. The absence of Luke Skywalker is a masterstroke of restraint compared to the prequels' obsession with continuity, and the film more than earns its momentous meeting between Luke and Rey.
Thanks to The Force Awakens, the lightsaber was well and truly passed. Now we're ready for The Rise of Skywalker to end the saga in style.
The best bits of The Force Awakens
The opening fanfare
The laser blast in mid-air
"Who talks first?"
Rey turning the tables on Finn
The Falcon careening dizzyingly upside down
"Chewie... we're home"
The sibling-esque squabbling between Hux and Kylo Ren
"That's not how the Force works!"
"Will you help me?"
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