This is a spoiler-lite review. No major plot twists are discussed.
Sitting in a darkened theater at 10:15 P.M. on a Thursday night, watching a familiar text scroll wind its way across the screen, hearing cheers and applause from the sold-out theater, two thought occurred to me: 1) It’s impossible to hear that music, see that “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” opening line and not feel an involuntary grin spread across your face and 2) This could all go so wrong, so easily. After all, we’ve seen the prequels.
Full disclosure: I like the original Star Wars trilogy, but I’ve only seen it, maybe five or six times in my life. I’m a fan, but not an obsessive. George Lucas created something special with that original trilogy and an abomination with its prequels. The good Star Wars movies are fun, and I have enormous affection for them, enough that the mere sight of the opening credits to the first new Star Wars film in 10 years filled me with immense glee. However, compared to other Star Wars fans The Force Awakens had less to prove for me. I am obviously invested enough to have attended a Thursday night preview screening, but not so much that I would have been crushed if the film had been less than stellar.
Thankfully, The Force Awakens is very, very good. It’s better than we have any right to expect from a franchise that last gave us phantom menaces, attacking clones, and revenging siths. I think it will appeal to both those devoted to the franchise and those only casually interested. It works best if you know as little about the plot as possible beforehand, and I will refrain from any major spoilers. However, if you don’t want to know anything about it all just know that it’s really good, and maybe stop reading this review until you’ve seen it.
Still with me? Okay. The film opens, as I said, with that familiar text scroll, telling us that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is missing, a new evil empire known as the First Order is on the rise, and a resistance led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher) is fighting back. That does answer one question as to why Luke is missing from the trailer. He’s missing from the film as well. What follows is a fairly straight forward plot about a covert message being carried by an adorable, beeping robot that must reach the resistance and a rag-tag group of underdogs that find themselves engaged in an epic good-and-evil battle, as well as the familiar territory centering around those family members who just ruin family trees.
As with the original trilogy, the plot is unimportant. After all, these films were originally conceived as homages to the cliff-hanger B-movies of cinema’s Golden Age. What makes the film work is its refreshing blend of beloved past characters and appealing new characters. There isn’t so much torch passing as torch sharing, and everyone shines in their roles. Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford imbue their characters with warmth and good humor, tempered with a world-weariness that comes from seeing the same struggles replay themselves over and over again. Of course, there’s built-in affection for these characters, and the film uses that to its advantage. What’s important, however, is that it doesn’t coast on that affection. A film based only around nostalgia cannot survive on its own, and The Force Awakens stands on its own just fine.
The characters have new arcs to play, and they play them well. Carrie Fisher is believable as a rebel authority figure, and no one can deliver a cynical one-liner quite like Harrison Ford. His presence is enough to make even the most casual Star Wars fan squeal with delight. When he appears onscreen, telling Chewbacca “We’re home,” try not to feel an affectionate ache. We’ve missed these characters, and the film welcomes them back with open arms.
We’ve also got an impressive group of diverse new-comers. Oscar Isaac infuses rebel fighter pilot Poe Dameron with a cocksure charm that’s reminiscent of the younger Han Solo. Daisy Ridley gives Rey, a strong capable scavenger on the planet Jakku, a strength and toughness without sacrificing the characters’ emotional complexity. She is strong and capable enough to give Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen a run for her money, but also compassionate and caring. This isn’t really new for the franchise. After all, Princess Leia was a product of 70s new wave feminism. She could just as easily fire a gun as she could be a princess, but it’s nice to see that tendency towards strong, female characters taken to the next step.
Finally, we have Finn, charmingly played by John Boyega, the storm trooper who has a crisis of conscience and abandons the First Order. Initially, he’s just looking to escape, but he eventually finds himself more and more emotionally connected to the rebels vs. empire struggle (not to mention Rey, who he both saves and is saved by). There’s a point in which he discusses how he actually became a storm trooper, how he was taken from a “family [he’ll] never know” and brought up as a trained soldier. Having a black actor in the role makes slavery parallels impossible not to see, and his casting feels intentional in this regard.
Having an Hispanic male, a white female, and an African-British male as a film’s primary leads lends the film a refreshing diversity missing from the original films. Times have changed, and even if Star Wars takes place in a long ago, far away galaxy, the franchise has changed with it. However, it’s not just diversity for diversity’s sake. The right people have been put in the right roles.
Rounding out the cast of newcomers is Adam Driver lending his idiosyncratic brand of charisma to Kylo Ren, a character who looked at Darth Vader and said, “I can do that.” He is, of course, the villain, but there is some emotional complexity and a certain wry humor that sparingly emerges from Driver’s portrayal. He’s a compulsively watchable screen presence and makes for a compelling, layered antagonist.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also pay tribute to J.J. Abrams’ directing and the script co-written by Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. I’m one of the few people who actually likes Abrams’ Star Trek films, but looking at The Force Awakens, it’s impossible not to realize this was the franchise he both always wanted and needed to have. The film looks great and the action sequences zip along, building suspense without any difficulty whatsoever. There’s spectacle, and it’s a sight to behold. More importantly, though, he gets the smaller, quieter, character-driven moments right too. He nails those moments that ground the spectacle in the human. It’s the characters that have always made this franchise soar, not the lightsabers or space chases. Kasdan keeps the script ripping along, with plenty of humor injected in a way that feels both natural and effortless.
Just a a quick sidenote. I remember seeing Revenge of the Sith and hearing jokes just die on impact. There is something so awkward about dialogue that is so obviously meant to be funny and hearing no one laugh. There’s none of that clunky George Lucas dialogue that sank the prequel trilogy. Here, the humor hits its mark, and it keeps the film from drifting into self-serious territory. The jokes are based on character, with lines that sound believable coming out of these individuals’ mouths. That may sound like a minor facet to praise, but it’s something of a revelation when you think of what came just before. No one’s holding anyone by the lake of Naboo, and we’re better for it. It has a plucky, scrappy spirit (despite being made on a massive budget by a massive corporation) that just wins you over. The film is just unbelievably fun.
Unfortunately, after waiting for so long for The Force Awakens, now we have to wait yet again for the next chapter in this new trilogy, but at least The Force Awakens has us looking forward to that next installment. The nostalgia may be strong with this one, but the force is back in capable hands.