Yes indeed, the Force is back. Stars Wars: The Force Awakens - Episode VII for you nerds - reboots the grandfather of film franchises after a near disastrous turn with the story-light, CGI-heavy prequels of the late 90s and early aughts (naughts? 00s?). Based on the strength of the trailer alone, we're back on solid, albeit dusty, booty clad, footing again under the capable guidance of Writer / Director / Producer J.J. Abrams. Three thoughts having just seen the film hours ago:
- Casting - Obviously a crucial element and one which I've had some firsthand experience. Not in the same galaxy of scope and budget that Abrams and Casting Director Nina Gold worked with, but still: a weak or inconsistent cast can drown a strong script or even shed light away from gorgeous cinematography. Wooden, stoic Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker (aka Darth Vader) was a central reason why Episodes II and III flailed around like Luke Skywalker in his initial training as a Jedi in Episode V (Empire Strikes Back). Gold and Abrams announced in 2014 they were looking for young, unknown actors to play the two leads. While this follows in Star Wars creator George Lucas's giant footsteps of almost 40 years ago in casting Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, it's an incredibly gutsy move given the film's budget ($200M), the franchise's legacy (a new generation of fans, global reach, the $1B in merchandise), and the social media era that we're living. A pair of London 23 year-olds - Daisy Ridley and John Boyega nabbed the roles with Ridley auditioning five times before being cast as Rey. I was hoping to find how many actors they saw before settling on these two but my meager Googling hasn't yielded an answer. Yet. Regardless, both Ridley and Boyega shine, finding the balance of action and humor that's become an Abrams trademark (see Mission Impossible III, Star Trek, Star Trek Into the Darkness, and Super 8 as examples.)
- Story and Script - LucasFilm President and former Producer Kathleen Kennedy worked on the story with writer / director Abrams, veteran writer Lawrence Kasdan, who penned both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and Michael Arndt of Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Little Miss Sunshine fame. IMHO, they nailed it. IMHO #2 - this installment could only work with a writer / director at the helm. The reboot needed a director invested in every twist and turn and explosion, one who'd collaborated to get them on the page first, well before the casting, the storyboards, the costume design, etc, etc.
- Release & Promotion Schedule - Lucasfilm parent Disney has done a masterful job in building momentum and hype into the pre-Christmas opening weekend. After releasing two suspenseful, keep'em guessing teasers online, they threw a deep, perfectly spiraled touchdown in mid-October releasing the first official trailer during halftime of Monday Night Football. The trailer was coupled with the opportunity to pre-order tickets. Fandango and other online retailers were overwhelmed with traffic and orders. And it now seems this bold Episode VII will pass the domestic opening weekend record of $208.8m set by Jurassic World this June.
If it's been some time since you saw Episode IV: A New Hope aka the original Star Wars, then rediscover the Force and Lucas's original vision with a screening before rushing to your local theater for The Force Awakens. It'll be like having a double in the Mos Eisley cantina where we first met Han Solo and Chewbacca all those years ago.