Star Wars: The Force Awakens recaptures some of the magic that thrilled generations of obsessive fans. Director JJ Abrams abandons the modern flourishes from the Star Trek reboot, and instead relies on classic techniques to plunge us into a galaxy far, far away. Still, The Force Awakens is not simply a retread of the original trilogy, and the way he freshens the franchise can be intriguing, or even bold. Expectations for Abrams, his screenwriters, and his cast could not be higher. They meet them, mostly, and occasionally exceed them. The Force Awakens is destined to be debated more than it is universally loved, as there is plenty for fans to dissect and gripe about. Star Wars is back.
Before I continue, I want to assure you that this review will be completely spoiler free. It takes a special type of twisted evil to reveal the secrets of The Force Awakens, and the last thing I want to do is to ruin the fun. While I will discuss characters and some situations from the movie, I’m going to do so in a general way. When I refer to characters by name, it will only be in ways that have already been revealed in the promotional material (e.g. the trailers and TV spots). That being said, if you want to go and see the film without knowing any of its details, I recommend waiting until you’ve seen it and then coming back here.
Before Abrams gets to the characters we already know and love, he introduces us to several newer faces. Daisy Ridley stars as Rey, a plucky scavenger on the desert planet of Jakku who takes junk parts from a dilapidated Star Destroyer. Elsewhere on Jakku, Finn (John Boyega) is a Stormtrooper who abandons his post after he witnesses an atrocity committed by the evil First Order. Both Daisy and Finn meet because of BB-8, a droid who contains important information for fighters in the Resistance (formerly the Rebellion). Along the way from Jakku to the Resistance base, Daisy and Finn run into Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who supply some crucial details about what’s happened since the events of Return of the Jedi.
In terms of structure and stakes, The Force Awakens bears the strongest semblance to A New Hope. This is as much a origin story as it is a sequel, so Abrams defines his characters in sharp, simple strokes. There are also riffs on situations we’ve seen dozens of times, such as a tavern sequence with memorable creatures, and a series of death-defying escapes. The difference between The Force Awakens and the original trilogy is how Abrams and co-screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt introduce the element of doubt. Finn, Rey, and even the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are uncertain of themselves, and fight to see just how they fit in the galaxy. If the Star Wars films include a “coming-of-age” element, then this story has a modern, nuanced view of that process (another welcome change is that Rey is never condescended to, unlike Leia in the original films).
As a director, Abrams films with confidence a kind of reverence for the material. No matter if it’s a dogfight or a blaster battle, the action unfolds with clarity and special attention to grand gestures. The Force Awakens is at its best when it feels completely new, so there are frustrating moments where Abrams is essentially checking references off a list. To his credit, the script mostly introduces the familiar characters in an organic way, yet it is the bad guys who dazzle the imagination. Kylo Ren’s evil master Snoke (Andy Serkis) is both intense and strange, while General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is a humorless, sneering crypto-fascist. The First Order stage a rally midway through the film, and Abrams was clearly inspired by Triumph of the Will.
While the villains are strongly defined, the biggest weakness of The Force Awakens is how it rushes through defining their capabilities. It’s as if Abrams relies too much on the mythology of the original trilogy, and is too excited about his new world to explain it. Some plot points are downright confusing, and others only make sense in retrospect. Come to think of it, the same is true of what the good guys want to accomplish, too. Ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) glosses over important exposition, while other key heroes somehow have crucial knowledge before they should. In interviews, Abrams explained how Kasdan would opt for a “less is more” approach to screenwriting. Well, sometimes more is more, and parts of the film are so breathless that audiences may gasp for a reprieve.
But despite all the rushed world building and elaborate production design, The Force Awakens is at its best when it taps into what made the films so great in the first place: the high drama of watching characters we love. The last act of The Force Awakens hits intense beats, ones that meld action and melodrama into something emotional, even moving. The climatic light saber duel has forcefulness to it – Abrams fills it like a brawl, with moody colors – and the build-up to the duel adds a genuine sense of fear. The diverse, well-chosen actors are the key to this success. Boyega and Ridley are both break-out stars, with the right mix of determination and humility. Lupita Nyong’o and the aforementioned Isaac both leave a strong impression, albeit in completely different ways. The film’s best performance, however, comes from Adam Driver. He plays Kylo Ren with a mix of zealotry, rage, and pain. He never apologizes for the cruelty of his character, and we still sort of understand him.
There is so much I could still talk about, including the sheer excitement of the opening crawl or immersive richness of John Williams’ score. The best thing I can say about The Force Awakens is that it reminded me of what it was like to watch the original films. There are moments where I could not help but smile, and others still where I was aching to see what would come next. That’s the appeal of Star Wars: it is for everyone, so everyone will find something that resonates with them more. The Force Awakens is not perfect, yet I occasionally felt as if I was in its world, fighting alongside Finn, Rey, and the others. On those terms, anyway, this movie is delightful.