“Luke Skywalker has vanished…”
The familiar burst of John Williams’ iconic orchestral score, an introductory text crawl setting the stage for what’s to come, and just like that, we’re dropped into the newest – and best since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back – Star Wars film, The Force Awakens.
Decades have passed since the Rebel Alliance defeated the Galactic Empire, but the mystical power known as the Force seems destined to eternally come in two flavors – the light and the dark. The Sith gave way to the Empire, and now it’s the First Order who threaten the peace and stability throughout the galaxy. They’re busy blowing up planets with a new weapon that makes the Death Star look like a gallstone, but Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is tasked with the mission of finding Skywalker. A map to his whereabouts has been hidden in a rolling droid named BB8, but as the dark Jedi scours space the little guy finds a friend in Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young woman on something of a stationary quest of her own.
Further plot specifics await in a theater near you.
For better or worse, J.J. Abrams’ opening salvo into a new Star Wars trilogy is everything you’re hoping for. It’s the closest thing to the original 1977 classic since the original 1977 classic, and it’s not just because it matches that film beat for beat at times. The Force Awakens is a high-energy space opera stuffed with dramatic character swings, epic laser battles in the sky and lightsaber duels on the ground, and a tangible line between good and evil designed to leave viewers cheering and worrying in equal measure.
We hit the ground running, and the movie rarely pauses to take a breath. Breaks that do come throughout the two hour plus running time do so briefly for banter, revealing conversations, or the occasional dialogue clunkers like “We’ll hit that oscillator with everything we got!” The script (by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt) is noticeably sharper and smoother than anything the prequels gave us, and legitimately funny lines are brought to life by favorite characters old and new. A few moments land with a George Lucas-approved thud – unfortunately uttered almost exclusively by newcomer Finn (John Boyega) – but the majority of the time we’re left smiling at the jokes and the rush of familiar memories.
Those memories are key as the film plays with our history with the films through small call-backs and large tugs on our heartstrings. No one ever fell in love with characters from the prequels, but Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Leia (Carrie Fisher), and others were ingrained in childhoods the world over, and the time we’re given with each is enough to rekindle old affections. Curiously, one big moment doesn’t hit as powerfully as you’d expect thanks to its setting and foreshadowing, but it’s an anomaly in a film that occasionally reminds us of a simpler time when movies were truly magical.
As wonderful as the nostalgia is though, the film’s greatest strength is its ability to create new moments that feel immediately iconic. Our old friends are back, but it’s the new blood carrying the story forward. Their dramatic and emotional beats are gripping, and while more character exploration is needed for some it’s enough that the film leaves us immediately hungry for their further adventures. Rey is a delightfully charismatic spitfire and another strong, capable female character in a year that’s already given us Imperator Furiosa and Ilsa Faust. Finn gives us our first look behind the stormtrooper’s mask and opens the door to a rich world of untapped backstory. Kylo Ren is a newly minted and tragic villain filled with dark promise. By the time the credits roll we’re invested in these and other characters as if they had been along for the Star Wars ride from the beginning, and it’s an unexpected accomplishment in the presence of the ones we’ve actually cherished for decades.
Most issues are small – Why is the stormtrooper armor still so worthless? Did Lucas stipulate that C-3PO be eternally obnoxious? – but one larger problem is the film’s structural adherence to Star Wars itself. From a character on a desert planet who wants to visit space and comes in contact with a very special droid holding very important information to… several other plot turns that feel more than a little familiar, the script retreads a lot of steps as the first in a new trilogy. The addition of new characters goes a long way towards making this forgivable, as does a strong sense of humor and some thrilling action scenes, but it feels at times like a somewhat lazy re-entry into the series.
Like any blockbuster-to-be The Force Awakens can be nitpicked in a hundred ways, but none of its issues, big or small, prevent it from being the tremendously entertaining return to a galaxy far, far away that we’ve been waiting so damn long for.
Related Topics: Star Wars