It’s easy to view the franchise callbacks in Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the context of the contemporary overproduction of remakes, reboots, and sequels. From its first post-text-scroll shot of a looming, dagger-shaped battleship encroaching on and seemingly blotting out a planet below, J.J. Abrams’s film rarely deviates from direct visual and structural recreations of classic elements from the Star Wars series. The hardscrabble life of the preternaturally talented, orphaned Rey (Daisy Ridley) on a desert planet is a dead ringer for Luke’s arc in A New Hope, just as sardonic ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) has shades of Han Solo. And, again, the action all comes down to an assault on a gigantic superweapon, in this instance the Starkiller Base, which differs from preceding Death Stars in a terraformed surface that makes for the galaxy’s first planet destroyer/ski resort.
And yet, to watch the film through the prism of established property fatigue ignores that its reflexivity is the logical progression of a series begun by a man paying tribute to everything from old serials to Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. There’s certainly nothing here so egregious or pandering as the Easter eggs not so much hidden in George Lucas’s prequel trilogy as indifferently dropped in full view. The characters from Abrams’s film may only be tweaks of the core Joseph Campbellian archetypes that already populate Star Wars, but it’s more than a cosmetic change for Rey to be a young woman whose wit, instinct, and strength regularly save the day, not to mention the life of her protective but traumatized companion, Finn (John Boyega). Likewise, while Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) arc broadly mimics that of Darth Vader’s, his corrupted innocence is accompanied by a toxic sense of entitlement that’s uniquely his own, which makes him at once more banal and unsettlingly real.
As a director, Abrams tends to opt for huge, action-packed compositions at the expense of spatial coherence and logic, and that can be seen throughout The Force Awakens. Nonetheless, Abrams has never directed with so firm a sense of scope. A shot of Rey racing across a desert, for example, feels epic as much for the looming backdrop of a downed Star Destroyer half-rammed into the sand like a blade as it for the way Rey’s expression suggests that this is a commonplace sight for her. Action scenes are grandiose but logically plotted, far more so than those from Abrams’s own Star Trek films. One sequence even places a starfighter dogfight in the skies above a ground skirmish, and Abrams deftly captures the pandemonium of the entire battle while respecting the intricately choreographed exchanges of fire on land and in the air.
Abrams also understands the small details that make the original trilogy so beloved—details that George Lucas himself long ago forgot. The climactic lightsaber fight between Rey and Kylo eschews the asinine stick-waving and mindlessly drilled martial-arts exercises that turned every duel in the prequels into an interpretive dance, instead relying on emotion and character attributes to determine the speed and skill of each strike. More impressive, though, are the simpler scenes of character interaction. Harrison Ford has long regarded this franchise as an albatross about his neck, yet he fills all of his scenes as Han Solo with a sense of exhaustion and guilt that arguably marks the first time in this series that he’s actually acted. Meanwhile, Boyega, Ridley, and Isaac give off such immediate charm that the action almost feels like a distraction from the delight of their natural charisma.
From the moment Han Solo walks into frame, the mechanics of the Star Wars canon start to grind away at the plot and weigh down the adventure. Yet the speed with which Han, Leia (Carrie Fisher), and certainly Luke (Mark Hamill) become background figures, if they’re visible at all, underlines the film’s key strength: It’s the new characters, not the old, who genuinely carry the movie. With Star Wars set to become a yearly entry in Disney’s accounting ledgers, the care and respect shown to these emerging heroes is the best indication that the upcoming films might represent more than just a corporate cash-in.
Shot on 35mm and populated with real locations and physical effects, The Force Awakens immediately jettisons the waxy textures of the prequels’ primitive digital sheen in favor of the tactile beauty of the original films. The color palette is exceptionally balanced, with the more earthen tones mixing with the more electric hues of laser bolts and lightsabers without compromising either. The transfer also maximizes the natural tones that dominate the film, bringing out the worn texture of faded clothes and background climates. The 7.1 audio mix is boisterous, blending John Williams’s brassy, invigorating score with a host of battle sound effects, yet even quieter moments make the most of the surround system, as muted horns and strings are placed deep in the mix while leaving ample space around conversations.
An hour-long, four-part documentary, "Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey," delves into the long process of the film’s creation, dating all the way back to George Lucas’s handoff of LucasFilm to Disney. Copious behind-the-scenes footage shows just how much of the film was built by hand, while reverential talking-head interviews emphasize the responsibility everyone involved felt in crafting this sequel. A host of brief featurettes round out the extras, covering everything to the script’s table read to a brief look at some of the charity work related to the production. The most interesting of these concerns the climactic saber duel, revealing that the forest used for the sequence was actually a gigantic set with dozens of interlocking elements. A handful of deleted scenes are also included, though they’re all less than a minute long and inconsequential.
Despite one too many callbacks to its predecessors, The Force Awakens has all the charm of the best entries in the Star Wars series, and it arrives on a pristine Blu-ray primed to delight the next generation of fans.