There is so much to talk about when it comes to Star Wars: The Force Awakens and we fully intend to devote major time to various aspects of the film in the weeks ahead. But with the movie only a few hours old, we wanted to tread lightly and not talk about plot specifics or thematic concerns. Instead, we wanted to discuss just how jaw-dropping, knock-you-on-the-floor beautiful the movie is.
Star Wars movies have always been beautiful, weaving a distinct visual tapestry around their stories of ancient knights and insidious evil. Original cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, a veteran of British TV shows like The Avengers and arty collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock and Richard Donner, perfected the “used future” look George Lucas envisioned. Everything is dusty, tattered, second-hand (even the robots). Peter Suschitzky, another British cinematographer best known for his work with Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, gave The Empire Strikes Back a moodier visual palate, with deep shadows and glowing machines. Even sunny locations like Cloud City seem infused with dread. Alan Hume, who shot many of the Hammer Productions horror films Lucas was so clearly influenced by (he cast many actors, including Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, in his Star Wars films), gave Return of the Jedi an unexpected dose of naturalistic warmth, embodied by the lush greenery of Endor and the fact that everything, even the half-completed Death Star, feels gloriously alive.
For the prequels, Lucas entrusted a single cinematographer: David Tattersall, a British director of photography who had been with Lucas for a long time, having earned an Emmy nomination for his work on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles television series. Tattersall was responsible for creating the look of worlds both real and wholly computer-generated, and it’s a testament to his talent that he was able to make images so vibrant and evocative when dealing with little more than ones and zeroes. (Just think about the rainy fight at the clone factory or the interrogation in the bustling galactic diner, both from Attack of the Clones.)
All of the Star Wars films are beautiful. They have to be. Rarely are ugly movies engaging on an emotional level or entertaining on a visceral one. But Star Wars: The Force Awakens is next-level dazzling.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams comes to the franchise with a fully formed visual style and much of that is due to his collaborative relationship with cinematographer Dan Mindel. Mindel has shot all of Abrams’ films except Super 8 and has contributed hugely to the hyper-real, kinetic style most closely associated with Abrams—defined by snappy camera movements (tons of whip-pans), saturated colors, and ultra-wide 2.35:1 photography. Oh, and lens flares. (While some take issue with Abrams and Mindel’s use of lens flares, we love them; they feel like the old school ‘70s movies and are proof that they are using spherical, anamorphic lenses.) If you’re flipping through the channels and come across a J.J. Abrams film, you’ll know it within seconds.
With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Abrams and Mindel have been tasked with putting their distinctive stamp on one of the most beloved sagas in history, without betraying everything that has come before it. That’s no easy feat. And yet … they’ve done it. And in the process, they produced the single most visually ravishing entry in the entire series.
From the opening moment, which subtly inverts the unforgettable opening shot of Star Wars, you can tell that Abrams and Mindel clearly have reverence for the original film but don’t feel imprisoned by that reverence. Soon after, we’re treated to a shot from the very first trailer: Stormtroopers, shifting in a patrol vehicle, as they’re about to land on a dusty planet. Light scissors into the spaceship in sharp bursts. Everything is pulsing with life, and the cinematography plays a big part in that: it’s measured but electric, zooming here and there. (Moments later, a whip pan becomes the first of many that both act as a stylistic flourish and plot advancer.) Much in the same way Abrams filled Star Wars: The Force Awakens with physical stuff—actual sets, makeup effects, practical monsters —in an effort to make the whole movie feel more immediate and real, he’s crafted a photographic look that reflects that desire.
There are a few moments (which we won’t talk about yet), which made us yelp with glee. In the prequels there were a few long, unbroken shots, meant to mimic the opening of the original Star Wars but with a significantly higher emphasis on technological advancement. And while these shots in the prequel were cool (we particularly love the opening of Revenge of the Sith), they were also almost wholly created on the computer. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Abrams is just as ambitious with his camerawork and it’s really-for-real too. It’s staggering.
But the biggest accomplishment for Star Wars: The Force Awakens is how grandeur and emotional intimacy are given the same amount of visual oomph. Images are lush, colors are vibrant, and the camera always knows when to move, when to slow down and when to stop entirely. It’s a marvel, through and through. And one of the many things we can’t stop thinking about, when it comes to The Force Awakens.