This is a spoiler-free review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Please be considerate of other readers by not posting spoilers in the comments. If you want a completely spoiler-filled discussion, click here.
The moment has finally arrived and the first new Star Wars movie in a decade comes to the screen at last this week. By now the expectations and hype have reached levels of near hysteria, making any sort of measured response to the picture difficult to manage. Already, as word of mouth spreads from Monday night’s world premiere, it seems as if you either have to love the movie unconditionally or you’re just some of kind of cranky hater.
And let’s face it: in a way, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is almost critic-proof. But the idea that you can’t talk about this movie in anything but tones reserved for a godlike being descending on a golden staircase from the clouds is flat-out ridiculous.
The good news is that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a terrific and at times purely wonderful movie. It has its faults for sure – every Star Wars movie has at least some – and while I wouldn’t call it a truly great motion picture, it is a worthy follow-up to the original trilogy. It captures so much of those movies’ warmth, sense of fun, and entertaining tone that it leaves the prequels quickly behind as a bad, distant memory. It has a sweep and grandeur all its own, and while it may just miss the mythic power of the series at its very best – i.e. A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and most of the third act of Return of the Jedi – it sets up the sequels to do that.
Perhaps the strongest part of The Force Awakens is its cast, all of whom are clearly enjoying themselves and giving it everything they’ve got. Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as Rey and Finn, our two new heroes, are both charismatic and compelling, and both have juicy, well-developed arcs to play. It’s also fantastic to see the ostensible lead character in a Star Wars movie be a woman who can kick ass and hold her own in almost every situation – Rey is a welcome successor to Leia and a nice development to see in 2015, and Ridley nails the role.
Boyega fulfills the potential he showed in Attack the Block, making Finn haunted, fast on his feet and ultimately deeply humane. We see a bit less of Oscar Isaac than I might like but he’s fun and irreverent and makes a good enough impression that I hope Poe Dameron has a little more meat to work with next time out.
The MVP of the entire film, however, may be Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. From his voice to the way he carries himself, Kylo exudes an air of quiet malevolence that is palpable. But there are other layers to the character as well – which will not be revealed here – and Driver handles them effortlesly, making Kylo perhaps the most three-dimensional and fully-rounded villain that the Star Wars saga has ever produced.
As for our beloved favorites, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo gets the most screentime and it’s genuinely moving to see Ford obviously relishing the role and stepping back into it so easily. Thirty years on, Han is tired, a little defeated, and more than a bit melancholy. But as the story unfolds we see him once again become the Han we know and love, a little more frayed around the edges and more emotional, but as courageous and off-the-cuff as ever with big ol’ Chewie by his side.
Carrie Fisher as Leia has less to do than Ford, but she brings a lot of warmth to her scenes and unveils some new layers to her character in addition to being the steely general we remember from the original films. As for Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker… let’s just leave it here for now.
This is where we come to the issue of spoilers. Disney and Lucasfilm have been extra sensitive about any of the movie’s surprises being leaked beforehand, and even in writing this review, I’m not in the business of giving away information that will ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the film. As the movie opens, a lot of what we have come to know is quickly established: years after the destruction of the Empire, a remnant called the First Order seems to have gained control over at least some portion of the galaxy.
There is also a Republic, but in one of the film’s missteps, we don’t get to know much about it. Does the Republic control one region of the galaxy and the First Order another? It’s never made exactly clear.
What we do know is that the Republic is backing a resistance to the First Order’s control of the regions it has captured, and that both the First Order and the Resistance are seeking the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker. The First Order, personified by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), and Kylo Ren, want to find Luke and eradicate the last traces of the Jedi while the Resistance would like to have Luke rejoin the battle and possibly train new Jedi Knights – which won’t be easy.
Into this struggle comes the AWOL Stormtrooper Finn (Boyega) and the scavenger Rey (Ridley), who are drawn into the search for Luke and end up not only crossing paths with the First Order and the Resistance, but come to realize that there may be a bigger role for them in the conflict that they could have imagined.
That is where I’ll stop with the plot, but I will say that the strength of J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay is with its characters. All the major players are given something interesting and compelling to do, and we come to root for our heroes in the same way we rooted for Han, Luke, Leia, Chewie, and everyone else in the original trilogy.
Where the script falls down occasionally – and this is probably my biggest criticism of the film – is in two areas: first, certain points of the narrative and one huge reveal are handled in either a clunky or strangely off-handed manner, robbing them of some mystery and power; and second, the structure of the film becomes repetitive and borrows elements from all three of the original movies, with some parts of the plot almost acting like a semi-remake at times. There’s a new variation on the famous cantina scene, for example, as well as a super-sized version of what is still essentially the Death Star. These things are distracting, but thankfully not dealbreakers.
Abrams has directed the movie with flair, confidence and affection, and it’s absolutely his best film so far. The fan service here (and there is a fair amount) plays much better and more naturally than the cynical, half-baked attempts in Star Trek Into Darkness. Abrams’ best strengths as a director – terrific character work and strong emotional underpinnings – are on display, but he also handles the action and battles with more control and clarity than in his previous films. His decision to go as practical as possible with the movie – real sets, real locations, physical creature suits – was smart: it links The Force Awakens to the original trilogy in a subtle, organic way while setting this movie apart from most of the other sci-fi epics of recent years. He and cinematographer Dan Mindel also come up with a number of striking, majestic images that make this easily one of the most handsomely shot entries in the series.
We also can’t forget John Williams, who has composed a sweeping new score for this film while bringing back some of the classic cues at appropriately poignant moments, making the bonds to the older films even more complete. And that, in the end, is what Star Wars: The Force Awakens accomplishes most successfully: it quickly and seamlessly defines itself as a fun, worthy follow-up to the chapters that came before, with the spirit and energy that only bubbled up intermittently in the technology-driven prequels. It occasionally sputters or stumbles, and sometimes falls back on the past a bit too obviously, but it never feels like a dour, obligatory cash grab.
George Lucas recently said that it’s the movie the fans have been looking for. He may not have realized he was more right than he intended to be, because if fans have been looking for a movie that feels like the Star Wars they love, then The Force Awakens fits the bill.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is out in theaters this Friday (December 18).