[A Note on Spoilers: Usually, I contain what I reveal about a film to what’s been revealed in trailers and the official plot synopsis. However, since director J.J. Abrams and Disney have gone out of their way to keep almost everything secret regarding the plot, I’m going to use my personal discretion. The movie has major reveals and twists, but I won’t include them here. If you still want to stay completely free of any plot details, I suggest you avoid reading any reviews until after you see the movie.
A Disclosure on Screenings: The Atlanta screening of the film was marred by power outages that meant the movie stopped and started three times with major delays in between and being unable to finish five minutes before the film finished. This meant I had to go back to see the entire film again a few hours later. This second viewing was the way it was meant to be seen—uninterrupted and with an ending!—but I feel you should know that my screening experience as a critic was very different than most others who are reviewing the film. I don’t think it necessarily would have altered my opinion if I had seen it correctly on a single, first-time viewing, but here we are.]
I have kept a steady, and I believe fair, set of expectations for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I acknowledged that the film would never be able to eclipse the original Star Wars or its beloved sequel The Empire Strikes Back. The metric was if it would be better than the disastrous prequels. It would be a success if it could outdo Return of the Jedi.
The Force Awakens is a success, although it falls short of greatness because it never fully embraces the new, exciting energy Abrams and his cast bring to the franchise. The movie is reactionary—a reaction to the prequels and a security blanket that wants to give fans what they already love. While no one expects Star Wars to disrupt cinema, the movie’s greatest weakness is in how it tries to look tall by standing on the shoulders of the giant original trilogy. Thankfully, more often than not, the sequel forges its own path with endearing new characters who will make you eager to see them on an adventure that leaves the safety of certain plot beats and signposts behind.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is missing, and his disappearance has thrown the galaxy back into civil war with the remnants of the Empire becoming the First Order, and seeking out a map held by the Rebels’ latest iteration, the Resistance. Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) puts the plans on the droid BB-8, who escapes, but the First Order’s mysterious, Force-powered warrior Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) captures Poe. BB-8 meets up with scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young woman on the desert planet of Jakku who dreams of adventure. That adventure comes her way when she encounters Finn (John Boyega), a former stormtrooper who’s now on the run and agrees to help her and BB-8 meet up with the Resistance. Along the way, they meet up with familiar faces like Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and General Leia (Carrie Fisher), but it’s a race against time to not only find Luke, but also stop the First Order’s devastating new weapon, Starkiller Base.
The similarities between The Force Awakens and A New Hope (and to a lesser extent Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) are at times overwhelmingly distracting. It’s the inevitable byproduct of a film made by a fan for fans as opposed to the prequels, which were made by a creator for the pleasure of…well, we’re still not exactly sure. Of course, Star Wars isn’t the only sequel to repeat things that happened in previous films, and even the prequels recalled particular moments. But whereas the prequels could at least make the argument for creating mirrors for its (poorly played) tragedy, The Force Awakens is gripping the handrails in the hopes that it doesn’t fall down.
So you give audiences a new roguish pilot with Poe. There’s a wannabe Vader with Kylo Ren. We’ve got our desert planet, Death Star 3.0, and a handful of other moments that will remind you that you are watching a Star Wars movie as if you somehow forgot. These moments don’t derail the film, but they do build up to create a distraction. We’re not allowed to watch a Star Wars film; we’re watching a movie that knows it’s a Star Wars film.
When Abrams lets the self-consciousness go, his movie is an absolute blast, and he’s at the top of his game. Outside of the clutter of recalling the past films, this is a movie that feels like Star Wars and it’s not just because of slide wipes or a character at one point saying, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” although those are both fine things to have. He just has the proper feel but injected it with some modern sensibilities and plenty of humor. This is a film that soars in its best moments, and it’s thanks largely to the new characters and cast.
To think of the film in the cold terms of a franchise, The Force Awakens does its job. It successfully makes us care about the new characters who will be the focus of the sequel trilogy, but to describe them in such a reductive fashion does a great disservice to the amount of thought and effort that were put into creating and playing Finn and Rey. It’s tough to say how beloved they’ll be by the time the sequel trilogy is over, but they’re already a million times more endearing and unforgettable than any new character introduced in the prequels.
Leaving the low bar of the prequels aside, Rey could easily go down as an all-time great new hero. She’s just someone you want to root for, and it’s impossible not to love seeing her hold her own. Furthermore, she’s not made in the generic Tough Chick™ mold, which usually just means “Heavily sexualized woman who punches and shoots people”. She can be vulnerable, funny, annoyed, or any of the veritable range of emotions we’d expect from any well-written character. However, she is undoubtedly the main hero of the tale on par with Luke in A New Hope except without all the whining. Abrams and his casting directors found a diamond in the rough with Ridley, and I’m very curious to see how she’ll do outside of the Star Wars franchise.
Finn is much harder to peg down. While you can see the screenwriting-DNA of Luke and Han in Rey and Poe, respectively, Finn comes from an entirely new and exciting place in the Star Wars universe. We’ve never seen the world through the eyes of an ex-stormtrooper, and while Finn’s not a neophyte to the world, he’s struggling to do the right thing while also get away from the monster the First Order tried to make him. Mix in his strong feelings for Rey, the character’s tremendous comic appeal, and you can’t simply type him as “love interest” or “hero”. He’s complex, fascinating, and unpredictable. Fans of Attack the Block won’t be surprised that Boyega rose to the challenge of playing the role, but it’s still wonderful to know that a much larger audience is going to finally recognize his tremendous talent and how much fun his character brings to the film.
“Fun” seems to be a high priority with the sequel, and just as its callbacks seek to comfort you with your love of the past movies, Abrams skill with action and comedy make sure you’re always delighted during this party. Again, in cold franchise terms, they got the right guy for the job, but that’s underselling his accomplishment and the thrills he brings to the table.
From both an action standpoint and absolutely from a comedy standpoint, The Force Awakens features highpoints for the series. While the set pieces may not have the dramatic stakes of blowing up the original Death Star or Luke fighting Vader, that doesn’t make the Millennium Falcon ducking through an old Star Destroyer any less exhilarating. Also, Force Awakens features some of the funniest moments of the series, and that’s including A New Hope, and those moments come usually because Abrams is willing to embrace a slightly more modern sensibility like having Finn say a particular line that I feel is destined to become a popular tattoo among nerds.
There’s also the matter of “legacy” and while that’s all well and good (and something to be discussed in an article that’s willing to reveal certain spoilers), The Force Awakens works best when it embraces its future rather than leans on its past. It’s great to see Ford having a ball as Han Solo, but I adored every minute Rey and Finn have together, I’m going to be upset if Episode VIII doesn’t feature significantly more Poe Dameron, and I desperately want a 1:1 BB-8 to keep around my home. The Force Awakens is more of a bridge than a completely new era, but it successfully lets audience live again in a galaxy far, far away. If the next two installments can build on this movie’s foundation, we’ll never want to leave again.
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