A Spoiler Free Review – a much as can be expected. Star Wars: The Force Awakens recaptures that elusive cinematic magic not felt since…”a long time ago.” Cutting to the chase, the film is everything fans could have hope for and – dare I say it – a bit more. The film is full of surprises, shocks, thrills and amazing sights to behold. It is a monster barking at the heels of the Star Wars films that proceed it, falling just short only because of its narrative ties to the original 1977 classic. It is the most satisfying sequel of the modern age.
JJ Abrams wastes no time re-establishing that revered and treasured universe of Jedi Warriors, Smugglers, Wookies, Princesses, Rebels and Droids with the Seventh installment to George Lucas’ cherished franchise with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He smartly weaves in the new characters, the new worlds and the new world order first before slowly bringing in the visual treats and characters fans crave: The Millennium Falcon, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Leia Organa, Luke Skywalker, C3PO and R2-D2. But Abrams embraces the new characters as well – as will the audience: Finn, Rey, Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren. They are all marvelous and as instantly charismatic as the Luke, Han and Leia back in 1977. How quickly they earn the audiences’ admiration is impressive and crucial to the film’s success. How the old guard weaves into their lives and back into the Star Wars universe is equally important and masterfully achieved. To paraphrase James Cromwell, “That’ll to, JJ. That’ll do.”
What’s old is new again. The Force Awakens and A New Hope are not so distant cousins sharing many themes, beats and plot elements. It is time for new faces to take over for the battle worn Skywalkers and Solos. The torch must be passed. The script from Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt introduce us quickly to Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the best pilot in the galaxy on a special mission for General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). He crosses paths with a First Order Storm Trooper named Finn (John Boyega) with a conscience who unwittingly finds himself taking over Poe’s quest to return a droid to the Resistance, a droid that is now in the possession of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger on the planet Jakku. In hot pursuit is a former member of the Knights of Ren, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). And with that their fates are sealed and the best damn fantasy film this side of the Outer Rim Territories begins.
It is not long before familiar favorites make their spectacular, fan-service entrances. Harrison Ford, returning as Han Solo, is just as heroic, sarcastic and lovable as ever. Much of the film belongs to him as he is slowly brought back into the world of Empires, Rebellions, the Force and Princesses. The “Chewie, we’re home” moment – from the early trailers – plays out wondrously well in context and it mirrors long-time fans’ emotions within that moment as well. When Solo and Chewbacca finally stroll down the rusty corridors of the Millennium Falcon, the film shifts into high gear fully submerged into the deep end of the Star Wars pool. “Home” cannot be more accurate. Ford – yes, aged thirty years – easily embodies Solo once again and it feels like he’s never left. The same is true for Chewbacca, Leia and the rest of the familiar faces but not as much as it does for Harrison Ford and Han Solo. In many ways, this is his film.
What sells the characters and events we remember from A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in this new world is how they have become legends and ideals to the new characters, names whispered a campfires, stories told to children, inspiration of hope and freedom. This emotional bridge ties the Star Wars legacy fans hold so dear to the minds, worlds and emotions of Finn and Rey making them instant surrogates for entering this new story for both fans who saw the originals back in the day and new fans discovering these characters for the first time. It helps greatly that John Boyega and Daisy Ridley share a strong chemistry between them making their instant friendship magnetic and natural. They give their characters common weight with different strengths, goals and fears. They are both orphans, both lost in worlds they long to escape, and together they find their chance to break free – not too terribly different from a young Luke Skywalker encountering a pair of droids on Tatooine looking for old Ben.
But it may be Adam Driver as Kylo Ren who displays the most complex and incredible performance in the film. His character is fierce, angry, troubled, conflicted, driven; Kylo may be the most multi-dimensional villain in a sci-fi film in a good long time. Driver is magnificent, a tornado of good versus evil, light versus dark, rebellion vs empire. His Kylo is a worthy successor to Darth Vader, but he is not yet as confident as his Sith Lord predecessor. His is more dangerous, more unpredictable, more bloodthirsty. And more enigmatic. Abrams and Driver swiftly establish Kylo as a villain that both lives in the shadow of Vader but is very much different than him as well. A lot of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is bigger than the previous films and so is Kylo but in a more complex and mult-faceted fashion. It is who he is and how Driver portrays him that is larger which is the greatest strength the film has.
It is obvious that JJ Abrams is a huge fan of the Star Wars films and universe. He builds the world in loving fashion mixing the old with the new. The beats Abrams hits are like walking along the sidewalk to a childhood home but discovering new landscapes and decor along the way. He brings in the right amount of practical effects to balance the CGI elements making the two more symbiotic than ever before. He impresses early when he brilliantly marks Finn during the first battle so the audience will recognize him, not only the physical character but the emotional one as well. He also slowly brings in the world from the original trilogy, first the Empire and their ships, then the Falcon and then the beloved faces and heroes, allowing them wash over us and caress us into a joyful exuberance. It is a monumentally satisfying structure, the perfect path.
The film is not flawless, the path has a few misplaced stones, but the dips are not traumatic, the valleys are not detrimental. The rebellion against the empire plot is overly familiar down to rebel bases and star destroyers, there is a lot of A New Hope to be found in The Force Awakens. (I mean, a lot) There are a few plot holes, mostly with Poe, and hurried scenes that hunger to be left for a moment to breathe and stretch. Certain key plot elements are rushed in favor of spectacle. Many “Easter eggs” and calls back to the original films are in danger of pulling the audience out of the story. And there are many characters and events that just cry out for more time to explore and establish. But, understand, these are minor quibbles – aside from maybe a few sillier plot points. In the end, they do not detract from the enjoyment of the film nor do it any significant harm. And in a few cases, for more tried-and-true Star Wars fan, they are exactly what is needed to keep the force alive.
Seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens is akin to running across an old friend from yesteryear, quickly getting reacquainted and realizing it feels like just yesterday when you were last brothers in arms, childhood friends or a tight-nit family. Within every frame, JJ Abrams shares his admiration for George Lucas’ world, his love for Jedi and Sith, his imagination and respect for the visuals of the galaxy far far away. Abrams also admirably ties the past generations to those who will guide the future as Han faces his own past and future, teaming up with Finn and Rey to face the New Order and Kylo Ren. It is a splendid mix, the perfect cocktail. In the end, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is simply and utterly satisfying and demands repeat viewings.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (5 / 5)