It’s entirely possible there has never been a movie as furiously, feverishly anticipated as Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The original films (and to a lesser but still notable extent the three prequels that followed) are not just elevated in spheres of Western popular culture – they’re considered holy. No other franchise has contributed as much both to movies and to moviegoers.
From spearheading the idea of the extended universe and special effects-driven storytelling to fostering a rabid geek following that has spread across every entertainment medium, Star Wars created the modern blockbuster. The new form of cinematic narrative it pioneered asked audiences to invest not in recognizable actors, but in an expansive, profoundly alien universe, one teeming with heroes and villains of all shapes and sizes. No wonder every major Hollywood franchise since has been trying to take a page out of its book.
And so it’s impossible to go into The Force Awakens, director J.J. Abrams’ endeavor to recapture the magic (and magnitude) of the original Star Wars, without first appreciating that this film’s inescapable importance, its significance to the millions who still place their faith in the galaxy far, far away, will make it absolutely critic-proof. Ever since its announcement, The Force Awakens has been trailed not by disbelieving criticisms but hopeful displays of support, from Star Wars acolytes relieved by the arrival of a new trilogy and excited about its prospects. Abrams, before a single frame was revealed, had already given fans a new hope.
Those same fans will decide soon enough whether or not The Force Awakens was worth the wait, and it seems odd to be reviewing a movie that already means so much more to so many than it ever could to a casual fan like myself, born in the ’90s, part of the generation raised after the release of Return of the Jedi. I’m not the audience with whom Abrams has to pass muster. Can you tell I’m stalling? I’m stalling. The Force Awakens is a tough movie to write about, because its twists and turns are extensive and unexpected, and it wouldn’t be fair to discuss any of them here. Abrams labored long and hard to protect his movie’s every secret, and spoiling any of them so close to opening day would be a word crime punishable by a thousand years of slow digestion in the Sarlacc pit.
So instead, I’ll say this, to get it out in the open: The Force Awakens is not just good. It’s great. It’s better than the perpetual cynic in me ever thought it could be. More than that, it represents the fulfillment of a lofty promise Abrams once made to the fandom, almost immediately recapturing the feel and tone of the original movies so goddamn perfectly that it immediately erases any and all doubt about the director having been the right choice for such a momentous undertaking.
From its opening crawl to its final shot (which, again without spoilers, is probably one of the series’ best), The Force Awakens feels like vintage Star Wars, which is to say that, for all its far-flung alien landscapes and peculiar creatures, it feels resolutely real in its dramatic heft, its imaginative world-building and – best of all – its characterization, of faces both fresh and familiar.
Abrams is a believer in the magic of Star Wars, its unparalleled ability to suspend audiences’ disbelief and transport them to a vast, visually dazzling universe filled with intrepid heroes and dastardly villains. He gets that Star Wars is about big stakes and sprawling scale as much as he gets that it’s also, in a way, the smallest, most emotional and personal of blockbuster franchises. The series is ultimately not about Luke Skywalker, Han Solo or Darth Vader. It’s about morality, basic concepts of good and evil and how the proponents of both sides will always be locked in some sort of power struggle. Star Wars is about all worlds, and all people – including you.
Understanding this is what allows Abrams to deliver the kind of series renaissance moment fans prayed for but never actually expected to witness. The Force Awakens is very much a Star Wars movie in tone, pacing and plot – but it’s also something new, and that’s the really exciting part. No one ever doubted this film would be bursting at the seams with nostalgic references to original-trilogy lore, and The Force Awakens does have more than its fair share of throwbacks, from major plot points like the presence of Harrison Ford (at his wise-cracking, nerf-herding best) as a much older, wearier Han Solo to little touches like Teedo, a pint-sized scavenger on the desert planet of Jakku who bears a remarkable similarity to Tatooine’s Jawas. But it’s also boldly forward-facing, a rollicking adventure that makes fast work of introducing a new generation of Resistance fighters, potential Jedi and Empire-affiliated evildoers (though the villains this time around are technically allied with the First Order, which grew out of the wreckage of the Empire in the thirty years that separate The Force Awakens from Return of Jedi).
It would be venturing too far into spoiler territory to detail all of the new players, or to elaborate on the admittedly MacGuffiny plot device that brings them into contact, but the main good guys this time around include Rey (Daisy Ridley), a tough-as-nails scavenger on Jakku whose discovery of an all-important droid named BB-8 puts her in the First Order’s crosshairs; Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who breaks rank after being asked to commit atrocities; and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a dashing Resistance X-Wing pilot. Over on the dark side, though Vader has long since perished, his influence, as well as that of an enigmatic big bad named Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), looms large over lightsaber-wielding baddie Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who makes it a top priority to locate BB-8.
The script, by Abrams as well as Empire Strikes Back scribe Lawrence Kasdan (an early draft by Michael Arndt wound up being scrapped), manages to move at a breakneck pace without ever feeling frivolous – like the best entries in this series, it tosses in enough exposition to deepen our understanding of the Star Wars universe yet mostly keeps the characters barreling along, moving from one wonderfully realized setpiece to another, barely ever pausing for long enough to let out any of the gathering narrative steam. Some might take issue with a few of its bigger twists or gripe about the considerable 136-minute runtime (admittedly, it might have one climax too many), but it’s nonetheless relieving to discover that a movie of this enormity feels so light on its feet.
A large part of that sprightliness is owed to unabashedly great characters played by terrific actors, which is one of the most quintessentially Star Wars parts of The Force Awakens, and something Abrams absolutely nails.
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Rey, a fiercely self-possessed and intrinsically brave soul with a Skywalker’s righteousness and a Solo’s proficiency (that’s in no way a spoiler, by the way), is plainly one of the best female heroes ever to topline a blockbuster, and the little-known actress who plays her is one of The Force Awakens‘ most phenomenal surprises, a sensational star-in-the-making who shoulders the burden of this juggernaut franchise like it’s nothing. And as Finn, who has a good heart but is far from ready to embrace the responsibilities thrust upon him, Boyega excels, playing the new movie’s most human character with plenty of endearingly geeky charm. When Abrams selected the future faces of the franchise, he chose very wisely – there’s a whole generation of moviegoers who’ll regard these two with the same awestruck devotion that many of us did Luke, Leia and Han in the original trilogy.
Driver is also terrific in the part of a deliciously twisted villain, and Isaac brings enough cocksure swagger to make even Han turn green. If The Force Awakens has a scene-stealing breakout, it’s either him or the hilariously emotive BB-8. Simply put, there’s not a weak link in this great cast, though some performers (like a mo-capped Lupita Nyong’o as tiny space pirate Maz Kanata) are inevitably given short shrift in service of maintaining the film’s momentum. That turns out to be the right call, though. With such a large number of skillfully executed, masterfully envisioned battle sequences (including a hair-raising lightsaber battle in snowy woods, an X-Wing offensive on the First Order’s most horrifying weapon, and multiple death-defying chases) as well the much-needed character beats, The Force Awakens would almost certainly collapse under its own weight if given any more to do.
But, miraculously, Abrams strikes the proper balance. He’s crafted an incredible, impressive movie that works on just about every level – as a heartfelt thank-you to the fans, an irresistible invitation to audiences only now getting on the Star Wars bandwagon, and as a grand, sweeping blockbuster that’s fully capable of standing by itself, even though it never needed to.
The Force Awakens is fast, first-class entertainment, and it never stops being a great deal of fun. But as expected, it’s also not afraid to inflict some absolutely devastating emotional gut-punches, moments Abrams and Kasdan’s script play exactly right. Trying to rank the new movie against its iconic predecessors may be an fruitless endeavor, but it seems – at least initially – to be the best, or at least the most attuned to the spirit of the whole series, since Empire.
The force has awakened, all right – and thanks to Abrams bringing Star Wars back to us with this much admiration, appreciation for the series and attention to detail, it’s not likely to recede into dormancy until decades from now, if indeed ever. Believe the hype, or don’t, but either way go see Star Wars: The Force Awakens – it’s the event movie of the year and very possibly the decade. And more than that, it’s a triumph of big-budget filmmaking, imbued with the same movie magic that’s kept Star Wars on the minds of geeks the world over for almost forty years now.
Abrams has never made a better movie, and it’s easy to picture him walking down the street weeks, months or years from today, and being approached by a grateful fan. “I love you!” They’ll squeal. And Abrams will likely take a cue from the lovable scoundrel of the Resistance he so appropriately honors in his movie, smile widely, and reply with a self-assured, well-earned, “I know.”