The first thing I want to say about Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that it is a very good movie. More than that, it is a very good Star Wars movie. These two things may not necessarily always go together. J.J. Abrams is clearly a talented filmmaker, but what makes this film a particularly triumphant return for the venerable sci-fi franchise is that the talent he has assembled both in front of and behind the camera have a true love and passion for the Star Wars universe. That’s not something you can fake.
The balancing act the film pulls between calling back to the series’ past and setting up its future is nothing short of remarkable. Films like this are supposed to be messy: new characters and conflicts have to be introduced while old ones have to be given their due beyond glorified cameos. But Abrams and company make it seem effortless.
Part of the reason for that is the very wise decision to recruit original franchise screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. The screenplay he has crafted along with Abrams and co-writer Michael Arndt is surprisingly witty and fast-paced, eschewing the more methodical pacing of the original trilogy and the almost suffocating self-seriousness of the prequels.
The story, set about 30 years after Return of the Jedi, starts by telling us that Luke Skywalker has gone missing. In the shadow of the Empire a new sinister organization called The First Order has risen up to take its place. Their goal is to eliminate Luke, who is said to be the last remaining Jedi. Under the watchful eye of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), hotheaded Sith-in-training Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) scours the galaxy for a map that is said to lead to Luke’s whereabouts.
The Resistance is also looking for Luke, in hopes of saving him. Their best fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is sent along with his trusty droid BB-8 to find the map and bring it to the Resistance before the First Order gets its hands on it. Along the way, he runs into a fleeing Stormtrooper with a conscience (John Boyega’s Finn) and Rey, a scavenger searching for a better life. The ragtag group soon runs into the legendary Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his wookie pal Chewbacca. Together they determine to complete the map and rescue Luke in hopes of training a new generation of Jedi to take down the First Order.
The production design of The Force Awakens can’t be praised enough. Star Wars has always had a certain feel to it, and this movie gets it all right. From costumes to the subtle use of CGI and highly touted use of practical effects, there were times I felt like I was stepping back into the original trilogy. A scene set inside a cantina illustrates this perfectly. It’s filled with all manner of alien lowlifes, and a band that recalls the cantina band from A New Hope. I felt like I had gone back through time, in the best way possible. But the film is not content to remain in the past. While it calls back frequently to its predecessors, nothing is ever quite the same. Thirty years have passed, after all, and everything from light sabers to spaceships to blasters and droids has changed in subtle yet obvious ways. The slick chrome of the First Order is contrasted with the harsh desert landscape of the planet Jakku, highlighting the tremendous variety on display. Everything about the visuals is a home-run.
A movie can feel like Star Wars and still strike out if it doesn’t contain characters we care about. Thankfully, all of the new additions are good ones. The journey of Finn from terrified soldier to (slightly more) confident warrior is an engaging one, as is Rey’s discovery of some truths about her destiny and place in the grand conflict. Poe is given less development, but he fits in well as a confident and assured leader of the Resistance. BB-8 is a marvelous creation, more visually interesting and even emotionally engaging than R2-D2, which is something I never thought I would say. But the most intriguing new character is Kylo Ren. Although he worships the legendary Sith Lord Darth Vader, Kylo is a much more hotheaded and inexperienced Sith. This makes him initially less calculating but also much more unpredictable (his main general, played by a great Domhnall Gleeson, even pushes him around a bit). He reminds me more of Anakin in Revenge of the Sith, but his character is much more conflicted, and his path to the dark side is less abrupt and ultimately more believable.
Of course, a major joy of the film is seeing the old characters we know and love. Han Solo gets the most screen time and development, which is a wise choice. He and Chewbacca add a great deal of fun to the proceedings, and it’s awesome to see them bickering in the same way they always have. We get appearances from all the other major players, but it’s best not to dive in too deep for fear of spoilers. Safe to say, these original characters are given a great tribute here; nothing betrays them, and they’re actually given more depth than I would have expected.
The story could still use a bit of polish, however. Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell whether looming questions are plot holes or are simply being saved for answering in the next episode. I’m hoping it’s the latter, but the fact that it’s hard to tell the difference comes off as a little bit lazy. But the movie easily passed the franchise “mid-quel” test of being both a satisfying self-contained story and making the audience unbearably excited for the next installment.
And that’s what ultimately makes The Force Awakens such a satisfying experience. For a movie that has so much on its shoulders, it never forgets to tell an entertaining and emotional story of its own. It never feels like it simply exists to set up future movies. This, along with its expert pacing, its willingness to celebrate the past without becoming mired in it and its brilliant use of characters both new and old make it a must-see experience for both casual and die-hard fans of the franchise. Consider my expectations shattered.