Three decades after a trilogy that sparked an undying love and 10 years after prequels that threatened to snuff it out for good, Star Wars is reborn in director J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. With a return to the thrills, characters, and emotions that made the franchise a worldwide phenomenon, Star Wars is reborn in a film that satisfies deeply, even if it rarely breaks new ground.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens begins 30 years after Luke, Han, Leia and the Rebellion destroyed The Empire in Return of the Jedi. But when we return to the galaxy far, far away, we find that war still rages on, with the noble Resistance fighting against the evil First Order. As we reencounter the characters that fans have known and loved for decades, we are also introduced to a new generation. Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger, Finn (John Boyega), a defector from the First Order, and Poe (Oscar Isaac), a Resistance pilot, become entangled in a plot to stop the First Order from taking over the galaxy as the mysterious villain known as Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) embarks on a quest that slowly reveals what happened to our old heroes.
Restarting the Star Wars series with a film that takes beloved characters and forms brand new narratives for them and their world is like taking someone’s favorite toys and telling them to trust you with what you are about to do. The results could be devastating, but success could satisfy in all the right ways. Here, Abrams and the minds at Lucasfilm shoulder the burden of pushing one of the biggest series in cinema into the future at the risk of breaking apart what everyone loved in ways that even the prequels never could.
With a jump 30 years into the future, much is left to be discovered and understood, but Abrams and company are smart to not get bogged down in details, political structure, and historical lectures, but instead keep The Force Awakens moving at a rapid clip that still allows for emotional investment and character building. The mysteries that unfold help make the experience far more engrossing, even if unanswered questions slightly muddy motivations and the larger context of the war. But these surprises and shocks are what fans often associate with the series’ highpoints, so their inclusion here is nearly mandatory in the creation of a new Star Wars trilogy.
If there are two main pillars that the success of The Force Awakens is built upon, they are the recapturing of the original trilogy’s magic and the introduction of multiple fantastic new characters. Together, they reenergize the series and give audiences something to invest in, rather than solely relying on the nostalgia of seeing the classics back in action.
I will only touch on the prequels briefly here, as the Internet has said everything that needs to be said about them. In summary, everything wrong with Episodes I-III can be tied back to creator George Lucas straying incredibly far from what made the originals great. That includes special effects, action, characters, dialogue, plot points, and emotions. It’s clear that Abrams and company sought to course correct hard with The Force Awakens and make Episode VII a film that is absolutely a continuation of the world that was made in the original trilogy.
In order to get the Star Wars franchise back to its roots, Abrams and writer Lawrence Kasdan had to use a signature Star Wars formula, which clearly takes its shape from A New Hope. Throw in a dash of Empire and a splash of Return and you have the narrative structure of The Force Awakens. That familiarity can either be a positive or a negative depending on your preferences concerning a new entry into a long-loved franchise. Indeed, there are callbacks aplenty to the original films, with everything from references made by the characters themselves to the story beats playing off what fans know and love. Thankfully, The Force Awakens still works on its own, although nostalgia and the gravitas added by the previous entries improve the film.
However, when the narrative tracks upon which the film runs are so obvious due to their familiarity, it’s difficult to be as deeply moved by the directions taken by The Force Awakens. Yes, there are only so many narrative structures used in film, but Episode VII is heavily reliant on familiar developments within the series’ past, which undercuts some emotional heft due to its transparency. Secrets hidden in a droid, a weaponized enemy base, familial issues, a countdown to destruction, a noble sacrifice, an X Wing raid, they are all here with only minor tweaks. Perhaps this was the only way to get Star Wars back on its feet once again, but those looking for a brand new direction may feel shorted. But how different can the franchise truly be until it no longer satisfies according to the ways in which it was designed?
Beyond a plot that returns to the series’ essentials, should The Force Awakens have fallen short with its new protagonists, this series revival could have been a disaster at its very core. But that is far from the case here. In fact, the characters are so strong they elevate the familiar plot. Both Finn and Rey make for compelling characters that echo what was loved about the original trilogy’s heroes without becoming carbon copies. Ridley portrays Rey as a capable woman with great potential who is deeply affected by her past. As her character grows and her destiny is revealed, Rey becomes the heart and soul of the film, with her responsible for some of its most moving and thrilling moments. Boyega’s Finn is likely the most original character in Episode VII, his charisma and energy blending with a constantly fluxing character arc for satisfying and unexpected results. While Isaac’s Poe receives the least screentime of the three, his charisma is magnetic from the very beginning. Not only that, but his buddy chemistry with Finn is established so quickly and so wonderfully that you’ll be quickly taken with the character and the way the central three play off of one another. And then there’s BB-8, who’s just the perfect type of adorable that belongs in Star Wars. This is the type of character building that made Star Wars so electrifying in the first place.
Of course, special attention needs to be given to Harrison Ford’s return as Han Solo, who takes center stage among the film’s returning characters. Ford easily slides back into the role, convincingly bringing the scoundrel back to the big screen while providing him with new layers and a surprising amount of pathos that has resulted from the off-screen tragedies of the past 30 years. His easy repartee, ongoing partnership with Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca (who gets some wonderful moments and the film’s best running joke), and investment into the new generation of characters all elevate the film in a way that is vital to the quality of The Force Awakens and the overall needs of this newly-forming trilogy.
On the Dark Side of things, without revealing spoilers, Kylo Ren is an intriguing villain thanks to the layers that are quickly built within the character. The Dark Side warrior is feral and intimidating, thrashing about in rage compared to Darth Vader’s stoic and imposing nature. When combined with stellar costume design, Kylo Ren presents an electrifying villainous presence that is subverted by his complicated nature by the film’s second half. His humanity is in stark contrast to the pure menace of the franchise’s previous villains, which may cause frustration in those expecting a return to the iconography of Vader. However, it’s one of the film’s few breaks away from the status quo. Rather than being someone designed to be reminiscent of past characters, he’s a character who is literally striving to be like them within the narrative. The differences in the villain present a hope that future installments will break further and further away from the mold followed here.
However, not everyone benefits from the story structure of The Force Awakens. Between reestablishing the franchise, creating mysteries to propel the upcoming films, and establishing a strong narrative for its core characters, multiple actors get the short end of the stick here. Classics like Leia and C-3PO are essentially minor notes while newcomers like Captain Phasma are little more than show dressing. Not every character in a film deserves equal screentime (this is storytelling, not socialism), but viewers may be disappointed in the short shrift that some receive.
Beyond the characters, The Force Awakens is packed with action that uses the modern technical wizardry and the emotionality of the original in combination with stellar cinematography for moments that become instant classics. There’s a balance between graceful camera work and raw physicality that makes everything far more immediate and visceral, which can largely be attributed to the much-publicized focus on practical effects over CGI. There are, however, some completely CGI characters that come to life with varying degrees of success, with Maz Kanata being the highpoint and a group of escaped space beasts being the low. On the action front, lightsabers clash with the ferocity of exploding suns, in-atmosphere aerial dogfights fill the skies with fire, and shootouts shake enemy bases to their foundations as everything feels far more immediate and powerful.
While a film as highly anticipated and heavily burdened as The Force Awakens can never live up to the mind-melting scrutiny of a billion fans ready to pounce, Abrams and Disney have given Star Wars fans something they have waited 30 years for – a new film that adds to the series’ mythology, which they can proudly watch again and again.