The Force Awakens will be many things for many people, but one thing is certain: for the first time in decades, a Star Wars film lives up to the hype.
For anyone worried about spoilers, anything said regarding the specifics of The Force Awakens from here on out will be minor and structural. I will not spoil plot or story beyond the opening text crawl.
The Force Awakens opens thirty years after the destruction of the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi, and it would appear this return was not as triumphant as it once appeared. Luke Skywalker and his friends have disappeared from the spotlight and taken on mythic status as a new galactic power struggle crystallizes: the Empire splintered, but a surviving cadre of Imperial officers forged the First Order, whose aim is to hunt down and eliminate the emboldened Rebellion, now backed by the Republic and referred to as the Resistance. New age MacGuffin droid BB-8, former stormtrooper Finn, strong-willed scavenger Rey, and ace pilot Poe Dameron lead the Resistance in a race against the First Order led by the mysterious and powerful Kylo Ren. Their goal? Find the one person who can shift the balance of power.
While A New Hope begins with a bang, and The Phantom Menace stumbles boldly in pursuit of that bang, The Force Awakens has perhaps the most inauspicious beginning of any Star Wars film: with no familiar faces to guide us, these young bucks must be trusted to shape the fate of the galaxy. How appropriate. Within minutes, though, it becomes clear that our new protagonists are struggling with deep moral issues regarding their place in the universe. The black-and-white, good-and-evil paradigm of the original series is instantly broken, and we launch headlong into the most emotionally complex Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.
The structural crux of the series, whether George Lucas intended it from the beginning or not, has been relationships. Father and son. Brother and sister. Friends forged and alliances broken. Portraying the emotional impact of these relationships either confers gravity on a film or saps it away; while Empire is beloved for this developing complexity, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are reviled for the lack thereof.
Fortunately, J.J. Abrams understands that beneath all the aliens, lightsaber duels, and space battles, Star Wars needs to be about people. As such, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and especially Harrison Ford are not mere stunt casting to fulfill a perceived obligation to fans. Their relationship to The Force Awakens is established in a manner so organic that their place in this film and fates in the continuing series will not only feel natural, but inevitable.
By contrast, the new crop of actors already feel like all-stars. Oscar Isaac is breaking out big-time with this, Ex Machina, and A Most Violent Year, but Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Domhnall Gleeson, and especially Adam Driver prove definitively that the future of Star Wars is in good hands.
Now, on the technical front, one thing consistent among all the Star Wars films has been the advancement of state-of-the-art special effects, regardless of how well they were ultimately used to tell the story. The Force Awakens is no slouch in this department, and I’d venture to say that J.J. Abrams’ understanding of the ‘wow’ factor eclipses that of even Lucas. We don’t need ten thousand ships or even outer space to have a good dogfight, and the examples here easily eclipse the prequels in terms of excitement and spatial consistency, the latter referring to the prequel trilogy’s tendency toward nonsensical flashes of combat that look cool but fail to retain a sense of proportion or geography.
Conversely, the lightsaber fighting has been of consistently high quality throughout the series; where the prequels were more like high-energy ballet and the original series featured a less-fluid brand of intensity, The Force Awakens makes swordplay a grueling, violent conflict between largely unskilled combatants. And boy does it get your blood going.
Even better, Abrams isn’t tempted to escalate the climax to the ludicrous proportions of The Phantom Menace, where the film’s final act hinged on a space battle, a lightsaber fight, ground combat, and palace infiltration. The Force Awakens instead narrows its focus on the only two final conflicts that really matter, leaving the audience no time or inclination to check their watches. Credit editors Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon for their terrific pacing, proving once again that women have the market cornered in film editing from Lawrence of Arabia up through The Wolf of Wall Street.
I also give the writers a fair amount of credit for conceiving their antagonist, Kylo Ren, as a fanatic, transfixed with the cult of Darth Vader much like an obsessed Star Wars adherent with a den full of hermetically sealed collectibles. His scene with the scorched helmet of Vader functioning as a subversion of nostalgia was not lost on me.
The troubling issues in The Force Awakens are fairly small and mostly reasonable. The impetus for the climactic space battle is treated as perfunctory, treading similar territory as at least two of the previous films. A few minor but nevertheless beloved characters are given almost thankless roles. At least one set-piece involving large aliens comes off as an ineptly staged distraction. Certain plot developments toe the line between convenient and contrived.
The biggest issue seems to arise when the ‘supporting’ characters get more screen time than our previously established leads, but this is an artifact of affectation: Han, Luke, and Leia were the protagonists of the original series, and their cultural caché is immense, but now they’re a little older, wiser, and wearier. Their fighting is done. It’s time to pass the saber hilt to someone else.
If this can be accepted, The Force Awakens will solidify itself as belonging in the same league with the original trilogy. Even A New Hope had its faults, but it succeeds in spite of them in part because it was a beautiful exercise in world-building. The Force Awakens does this far more successfully than The Phantom Menace, and even points the characters in a direction that allows the film to feel complete on its own while still necessitating a second act.
A new Star Wars film can’t be everything for everybody, but creating a new entry in the vaunted series was a delicate balancing act teetering on the brink of catastrophe. In spite of this, The Force Awakens is a superior science-fantasy space opera of epic proportions and honest intentions. It’s far from perfect, but the fact that it’s the best film in the series in 35 years goes a long way toward proving that the Force is with Star Wars and will remain with it for the foreseeable future.