AT A TUESDAY afternoon press screening for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the most common question heard beforehand — as critics bantered with palpable anticipation — was: “Are you excited?” Which was really shorthand for: Do you think J.J. Abrams can truly restore a sense of joy for the Star Wars franchise?
Nearly 2 1/2 hours later, the most common acknowledgment overheard once the lights came up was: Yes, I got a bit emotional.
Star Wars of course stands as one of the great filmic touchstones of our times: The commonly shared, rolling pop-culture achievement that once upon a time blasted us into the special-effects future, and which now yields its time-capsule gold like well-worn nostalgia with nods to innovation. Cinematically, it is the mother lode with daddy issues.
The air of storytelling is so thick with newly spruced nostalgia, in fact, that as you exit, you may find yourself needing a moment to recover a bit from Abrams’s thrill ride. There so much to digest — from Daisy Ridley’s stellar performance as Rey (like some younger, crosstraining Keira Knightley with acting Force) to Andy Serkis’s latest amazing CGI-incarnated performance — even as the lines on Han Solo’s face become as reassuring as the gruff lines tripping from his lips.
“The Force Awakens” could instead be subtitled: “The Course Corrects.” Abrams so nimbly navigates a film fan’s pleasure points at a brisk pace that you quickly wish he had decided to stick around for the next film.
With John Williams’s soaring score still ringing in our ears, and the uplift of this soon-to-be globally embraced film still dizzying our senses, here is Comic Riffs’ fanboy dissection of the Star Wars franchise reawakened:
MICHAEL CAVNA: So, first off, I know we both left the theater Tuesday in a state of semi-awe as we fully processsed the drama and nostalgia and narrative power of “The Force Awakens.” What are you thinking now, now that you’ve had, oh, several hours to think about it?…
DAVID BETANCOURT: I’m glad we had an unseasonably warm December afternoon [for Washington], so I could walk off what I just processed. I expected this movie to be great. I did not expect it to be, with the exception of maybe 1989’s “Batman,” the most memorable movie experience of my lifetime. I love Star Wars. Have my whole life. But I discovered the movies on HBO during visits to my grandparents house. I was too young to experience Star Wars in the theater. But the first time I saw a lightsaber I was fascinated. So in 1999, when the prequels started, I figured that would be my Star Wars moment. But it wasn’t. I didn’t feel the letdown everyone else felt. I had a good time.
But those prequels weren’t a generational moment for me. Minus Duel of the Fates, which I loved, they didn’t move me. “The Force Awakens” really moved me. It’s a movie you can feel. If you care about these characters and this universe, you will be moved.
MC: We talked right afterward about being moved, and I overheard a couple of journalists admitting to tearing up a couple of times during the film. I would say that part of this is because J.J. Abrams has the gift of navigating — with the dead-eyed sharpness of Poe Dameron — the audience’s pleasure centers. He deftly engages us in the new characters, then pivots to foster our nostalgia in old Star Wars friends, and then maintains this beautiful balancing act as they engage with each other. We thrill to old-school dogfights in one scene, then get closeups that pull us back into the sense of humanity and family and profound connection. I know my level of engagement never waned. What moved you most about this film — without spilling into outright spoilers?
DB: The new cast members do an incredible job of pulling you in and establishing themselves as key players in this new Star Wars universe. The original cast members who appear don’t overshadow that moment. As for being moved, there are so many moments that I can’t say right now — but that opening crawl was pretty special. They had me at the first sentence.
MC: One thing I really liked about the crawl was that it signaled the degree to which Abrams nods to vintage ’70s decisions and designs by Lucas [and Ralph McQuarrie]. J.J. seemed to lovingly include some of the same touches that Lucas used in “A New Hope” to nod to old Saturday-movie serials. This, I only realized a bit later, helped viscerally trigger my childhood connection to Luke and Leia and Han and Darth.
Another thing that J.J. captured from the original trilogy, for me, was the pure thrill of the dogfights. We don’t need disorienting visual blenders of insane CGI to appreciate rapid and elegant action. There, too, Abrams seemed to find a sweet spot between old school and new capability. What did you think of the look and design and cinematography of the action scenes?
DB: “TFA” was visually fantastic from beginning to end, but did we really expect anything else? Each battle, whether it be from space or on the ground, was spectacular. From the tweaked suits of the StormTroopers to Kylo Ren’s unconventional lightsaber, you didn’t want to blink.
MC: Another powerful pull here is the sense of family. Not since “Empire” has the emotional tug of family been so strong with a Star Wars film, in my opinion. J.J.’s really working so many thematic wires. Did that get to you at all?
DB: Star Wars, at the end of the day, is about family and love isn’t it? [Well, and lightsabers.] The prequels were all about Anakin Skywalker’s path towards the darkness and what led him there, but even that had family ties. Family is the heartbeat of Star Wars, and “Force Awakens” masterfully wove that into Episode VII. The parts of this movie that literally had me taking deep breaths were when we found out how everyone, and everything, is connected.
MC: Related to that, as it were: We’re both fathers of young daughters. Did you think Rey, as played by Daisy Ridley, will have a lasting impact as a strong female action hero — becoming every bit as iconic as action heroes played by Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton and Jennifer Lawrence?
DB: Daisy did a phenomenal job. A pretty historic performance, I think. She doesn’t need anyone to save her. The acting she did with her eyes alone was very convincing; she’s someone you can build this franchise around. … Rey/Daisy is the center of it all.
My daughter loves pretending that she’s a princess. I very much look forward to a day she pretends to be Rey. She can already identify the Star Wars logo and Kylo Ren, even speaking his name, before age 3. I think it’s a safe bet that she, and countless young girls everywhere, have a new hero.