Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a breath of fresh air, not just for the Star Wars faithful but for millions of moviegoers who left the last batch of Star Wars films disenchanted and wondering if the series had lost itself. The familiar characters and locales feel a bit like a homecoming, but writer/director J.J. Abrams’ real accomplishment here is opening doors to a thrilling new corner of the universe. Episode VII isn’t a perfect movie, but through and through, it feels exactly right.
The Force Awakens takes place several years after the death of Darth Vader and the (apparent) defeat of the Empire in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker, Vader’s son and the last living Jedi, is missing, and an heir to the Galactic Empire has arisen to challenge peace and order. The plot is the intersection of three new characters: Finn (John Boyega), an imperial Stormtrooper who defects after witnessing atrocity; Rey (Daisy Ridley), an orphaned junk scavenger; and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a leader of the evil First Order who appears to have learned the ways of the Dark Side and continued Vader’s legacy.
Each of these characters have surprising emotional depth. Rey believes she may see her family again, but is drawn to abandoning that hope and joining the New Republic’s war. In a scene late in the film, a villain uses telekinesis to discern that she hopes she’ll find a “father she never had.” That’s the kind of earthy dialogue that Lucas always fumbled over, and done well it adds layers of humanity to the film. Finn fears retaliation for his defection and doubts whether he will actually be able to fight when the moment comes. I won’t say much about Kylo Ren for fear of spoiling, but will only commend The Force Awakens for taking a rare and satisfying risk with their main villain that I didn’t expect.
Perhaps the most serious weakness of episodes I-III was the previously known fate of the film’s heroes and villains; the predestined lives of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, and Emperor Palpatine lacked meaningful development and emotional resonance. By contrast, Rey and Finn are not simply pieces of legendarium existing to fill gaps; they offer relatable and fascinating narratives that the story builds on naturally. Much of this is due to good casting and good writing; Boyega and Ridley turn in excellent performances, and their personalities aren’t farmed out in favor of making them responders to enormous action sequences.
The decision to bring back some of the heroes from the first Star Wars films turns out to be a good one. Harrison Ford appears as Han Solo for the first time since Jedi, and infuses the film with humor and nostalgic delight. Carrie Fisher as Leia isn’t quite as interesting, but her moments with Ford are sweet and strike the right notes. Fans will relish these scenes.
My fear going into The Force Awakens was that Abrams would try too hard to craft Star Wars into an Abrams Production, and sacrifice the wonder and thrill of the Saturday matinee serial that Lucas channeled. I’m happy to report that the fear is (mostly) unfounded. The Force Awakens looks terrific; its puppets and live set pieces shame the prequels’ over reliance on digital effects (and for what its worth, the digital effects in Episode VII look as good or better anyway). There’s space in the screenplay for memory and enchantment: Consider a lovely scene underneath a seedy space bar, where Rey finds a crucial piece of Luke Skywalker’s past, as well as a wonderfully written monologue from Han Solo about the adventures of old: “The Force, the light and the dark: It’s true, all of it.” These scenes hit high emotional notes and avoid the over-contemplation of the prequels or the forced sincerity of the Marvel movies.
There are a few missteps along the way. The third act feels a bit too much like we’ve seen it before, and Boyega’s character is given more than his fair share of comedic obligation. But who cares? The first Star Wars films were filled with things that didn’t work, and that was OK. They weren’t supposed to be flawless mythological masterpieces. The Force Awakens is a return to a dustier Star Wars, a more explosive, more human and less philosophical space opera. Its last shot is sure to tantalize fans for as long as we must wait for Episode VIII.
I have a good feeling it will be worth it.