It’s very easy to talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens as an event. Or maybe just talk about returning stars Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher and even Peter Mayhew (who gets actual scenes with Ford this time, for the first time ever). But those avenues aren’t the most interesting, because the window dressing–all of it pretty good looking (with real sets), a lot of it sounding good (John Williams’s score is successful forty percent of the time)–just distracts from what director Abrams accomplishes.
He hands off the franchise. Not just from Ford and Fisher to Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, but from George Lucas Star Wars to Walt Disney Star Wars. Abrams is making the latter, but in the style of the former. The script, credited to Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan (presumably writing all of Harrison Ford’s dialogue to get the cadence) and Michael Arndt (who scripted a version for Lucas, pre-Disney), is a bit of a disaster. The movie flows great. It goes very long, but only because there needs to be a cliffhanger and a bit of audience pay-off. Abrams knows how to play for the viewer, whether they be sixty-five, thirty-five, twenty-five or five. He certainly should show off more than he does, given that accomplishment.
But Abrams’s success comes not from his script (obviously) or his direction. It comes from the casting. Abrams understands how to cast. Ridley, Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac (the trio model becoming a quartet, what with Ridley actually available to all of her male co-stars). They’re all good, all occasionally great. Driver’s the best. Can’t say why without spoiling, but maybe the neatest “geeky” part of the film is catching where Abrams is playing with familiar, distinct conventions.
Ridley’s really good too. She both does and doesn’t get enough to do; as one of the leads, yes, but not as an actor.
Ford and Fisher are both good, though Abrams can’t figure out how to shoot them. He keeps his distance and looks like he’s keeping his distance. It’s hero worship. And it’s also supposed to look like hero worship. Abrams has to acknowledge it. It’s pandering. But it’s also Abrams just not knowing how to do it. And Fisher isn’t in it enough (the messy pace sacrifices everyone but Ford).
The film is never organic. Everything is forced into place, whether for narrative reasons, commercial reasons, Hasbro reasons, cast reasons. It’s should be a Frankenstein, but it isn’t. Abrams holds it together, because he’s knows how to tell a story, knows how keep characters’ stories simultaneously compelling. Even if he does cheat at it a lot.
The only bad performance is Domhnall Gleeson and it isn’t even his fault. It’s Abrams’s fault, one of the times he tries and fails. He’s wrong about something (but, note, it’s something new, not something retro).
In the end, Abrams knows how to fly Force Awakens casual. Though, really, Williams’s score isn’t okay. They need to either fire him or get him to actually work.