An outstanding female lead and breathtaking visuals make this an essential installment in the ongoing 'Star Wars' saga.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Editor’s Note: This review was written with a spoiler-free mindset; my intention was to preserve the film’s major secrets and revelations so that you may discover them on your own.
With a deep sigh of relief, Star Wars fans can finally rest easy: Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a bombastic, high-energy, eye-popping space opera with loads of heart and soul (two key ingredients the prequels tragically lacked). It doesn’t quite capture the storybook magic of the original trilogy, but the classic Star Wars spirit lives on via returning cast members and some scrumptious fan-service callbacks. What’s most intriguing is the new stuff: a hungry young cast putting on worthy performances; a savvy director whose eye for action makes the series’ signature space battles pop and sing like never before; an exhilaratingly dominant female presence. The film gives several of the series’ longstanding traditions a loving kiss goodbye while also forging forward, setting the tone for what Star Wars will be now and in the future.
The story, by director JJ Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, picks up thirty years after the events of The Return of the Jedi, with the Empire long-fallen. Taking the Empire’s place is the First Order which, in all honesty, looks and operates exactly like the Empire (they’ve even got armies of stormtroopers, and fleets of TIE Fighters and star destroyers). The Rebels have been replaced by the Resistance, led by general Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). The good-guy and bad-guy factions’ shared mission is to locate a digital map which contains the location of the long-missing Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Harboring and guarding the map is an adorable, globular droid called BB-8, who’s stranded on the desert planet Jakku when his master, Resistance ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), is captured by the First Order.
On Jakku, BB-8 meets tough-skinned scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and stormtrooper-gone-rogue Finn (John Boyega). Both are charismatic and have rich histories and a few secrets to hide. Poe is star quarterback-cool and makes a big impression though he’s less of a presence than Rey and Finn and looks to have more of a central role in future installments. Looking at the movie as a sort of baton pass from old characters to new, it feels like a clean, seamless handoff. The new heroes feel as organic and fleshed-out as their predecessors did in their respective debuts in A New Hope. The nature of heroism has been a primary theme throughout the series, and it’s further explored here; one of the protagonists could in a certain light be considered a bit of a coward. But there is no courage without fear, of course.
Personifying the dark side of the force this time around is the sinister Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a volatile, loquacious villain with dreams of picking up where Darth Vader left off (he keeps Vader’s charred helmet as an object of inspiration). The movie’s open sees him slaughtering a small village on Jakku in search of the map-guffin, and in later scenes, we learn the source and extent of his inner rage. He works for a bigger bad (I’ll let you discover who that is on your own) and also has a peer/rival in General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), a tyrannical, barking military leader who’d be a Third Reich shoe-in in our galaxy. His pet project is a massive, world-ending new weapon he can’t wait to unleash on the Resistance.
In what instantly becomes one of the series’ best aerial action sequences, Rey, Finn and BB-8 stumble upon a “garbage” spacecraft in a junkyard and use it to take out pursuing TIE fighters. Little do they know, they’ve just hopped into the legendary Millennium Falcon—Rey mans the cockpit, Finn takes control of the same swiveling turret Han and Luke once did, and a spectacular, careening, nostalgia-dipped dogfight ensues (this sequence really is a wonder). After successfully evading their enemies and exiting the planet’s atmosphere, our young heroes eventually find the ship’s original owners, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who reluctantly agree to help them deliver BB-8 to the Resistance (and Leia, who Han hasn’t seen in quite some time).
Seeing the returning actors reprise their roles is a delight though unsurprisingly there are occasional lapses in conviction on Ford’s part (when the movie calls upon him to run and gun he puts on the face of a morning jogger). The prop throwbacks and easter eggs get tiresome after a while (the film will often all but pause for applause when showcasing these classic movie relics) but they’re sure to make fans go wild and maybe even draw a tear or two. The larger narrative pays homage to the first films as well (search for lost Jedi Knight, blow up big enemy weapon) and, uninspired as this is, Abrams and co. introduce enough twists into the formula to make old tricks feel new again. What makes the returning characters’ involvement worthwhile are plot developments that are best kept a secret, though what I will say is that the ongoing Skywalker/Solo family drama is kept alive in exciting, unexpected ways.
Something that feels sorely missed in this seventh installment of the long-running space opera is, well, operatic speech. There was a theatrical, melodramatic thrust to some of the original trilogy’s classic lines that, while cheesy to some, made those iconic movie moments feel timeless and momentous. Shakespearean, even. With the exception of one exchange during the film’s most emotional scene, there aren’t many lines I can point to as being quotable or particularly weighty. Perhaps time and rewatches will prove me wrong.
The two standout actors of the film are, without question, Ridley and Driver, both of them sharing strong chemistry with the rest of the cast and, most of all, with each other. Rey and Kylo Ren are grade-A characters who are easy to invest in and bring a new energy to the Star Wars universe. Boyega, Isaac and Gleeson do fine jobs as well though I suspect those characters’ greatest moments are still yet to come. A major frustration for me was Iko Uwais and the rest of The Raid crew’s wasted casting—these guys are the best movie martial artists in the business, and they’re given nada in the way of fight sequences. Big shame.
One of the main points of anxiety for Star Wars fans anticipating this film is the implementation of CG effects. While for the most part the digital elements look fantastic (Lupita Nyong’o‘s character, Maz Kanata, is an incredible CG creation), some of them look downright out of place, like Kylo Ren and Hux’s master. This is the first successful marriage between Star Wars and digital effects, but the marriage ain’t a perfect one by a long shot.
There are moments when Star Wars: The Force Awakens feels like a modern action-adventure classic; the climactic, snowy-forest lightsaber fight, for example, ranks up there with the best in the series (in fact, the entire third act is unbelievably good). But where the movie falls short is in continuing the original trilogy’s spirituality angle. Star Wars has always been about faith and family—Abrams nails the latter, but has somewhat forsaken the former. We acquire little to no new understanding of the force and its mysteries, and the characters who do struggle with faith don’t do so in a way that we haven’t seen before. The movie gets more right than wrong, however, and all things considered, it delivers where it counts. This thing is an entertainment orgy of galactic proportions, a fun-filled, planet-hopping, visually breathtaking adventure that gets the next generation of Star Wars stories off to a good start.