No matter what the last few years of hype might have told us, bringing Star Wars back was always a risky move. It might seem like our current nostalgia-based pop culture consciousness will turn anything new that happens to be based on something familiar into an instant smash. But there’s always the chance that audiences might rebel, upset with the way their beloved stories have been altered, or fans and casual viewers might split, leading to endless debates over the “true” nature of the franchise. So despite the fact that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is poised to break every box-office record imaginable, gathering rave reviews from critics and viewers alike, and will likely catapult Star Wars, Disney, and a cast of faces both old and new to the highest of heights, the question still remains: is it any good? Put simply, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Almost 40 years after the series debuted, and over 10 years since its last entry, The Force Awakens is without a doubt the film that fans were screaming for. In fact, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the single greatest work of fanfiction ever made.
Taking place 30 years after Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens presents us with a galaxy (still far, far away) that remains in chaos. The triumph of the Rebellion over the Empire was never the complete victory it seemed, and the surviving remnants of the Empire have reformed into the First Order, still opposed by the group now calling themselves the Resistance. Into this unending conflict fall a group of unsuspecting heroes, whose journey will bring them not only into the heart of events that will change the course of things to come but also across the paths of some older, more seasoned heroes, who have been through this sort of thing before. To say much more about the plot is to delve into spoiler territory, but it’s a well-balanced mix of old and new, with enough twists along the way to keep you constantly guessing.
The Force Awakens revolves around newcomers Rey and Finn, a move that gives the film an energy that helps it feel unique and to stand out from what came before. Rey, a scrappy scavenger on the desert world of Jakku, is resourceful and highly skilled, but with a sense of compassion that sets her apart from her cutthroat surroundings. Finn, on the other hand, is a stormtrooper with a conscience, who is willing to throw aside the only life he’s known due to his distaste with the First Order’s methods. This unlikely pair form the heart of the film, and they’re unlike anything we’ve seen before in Star Wars. They’re much more relatable and human than characters we’ve seen before, not intended to fill archetypal roles in the story but to give it emotional resonance. And luckily the filmmakers cast a brilliant pair of (relative) unknowns, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, in the roles. Boyega brings fire and drive to the film, but it’s Ridley who steals the show, turning in one of the most natural and authentic performances we’ve seen in a Star Wars film. In many ways, her portrayal of Rey echoes Mark Hamill’s from the original trilogy, not because their characters are in any way parallel (remember no spoilers) but instead for the level of believability she brings to the role. Daisy Ridley is Rey, much as Hamill was Luke Skywalker.
Of course, Rey and Finn are joined by a host of familiar faces, all of whom have aged a bit since we last saw them. Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, with Peter Mayhew’s Chewie by his side, is given the biggest role of the old-timers, and he’s just as fun to watch as he ever was. The wisecracking, improvisational side of Han still shines, but it’s been tinged with a weariness that suits the character, and reflects some added emotional depth we haven’t seen before. Carrie Fisher’s Leia shares that weariness, and it’s clear these characters have lived through a lot in the last 30 years, but she’s still always more than a match for Han. It’s really a delight to see this pair reunited again, and inhabiting these beloved characters so perfectly. These may be roles they left behind long ago, but they still fit the actors like gloves. They’re not the only familiar faces, though, as Anthony Daniels’ C-3PO returns along with R2-D2 and others. And, of course, there’s Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, about whom I will say absolutely nothing.
The Force Awakens is actually stuffed with new characters. There’s Oscar Issac’s Poe Dameron, a cocky hotshot pilot for the Resistance. Of course there’s the villainous Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, whose mask and red lightsaber call to mind the intimidating form of Darth Vader, in whose footsteps he hopes to follow. But that’s not all. Familiar names like Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Max Von Sydow, Domhnall Gleeson, and Gwendoline Christie all have new roles to play, some more secret than others, along with seemingly the entire cast of J.J. Abrams’ Lost. And therein lies one of The Force Awakens‘ few flaws. It’s literally stuffed with characters, old and new, to the point where some seemingly important characters fail to make the impact they were perhaps designed to. There’s a lot going on in The Force Awakens, and there’s not always enough screen time to go around.
Speaking of J.J. Abrams, who directed the film as well as writing it with Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, it’s clear from the start that he’s a huge Star Wars fan. From the broad strokes to the small touches, Abrams goes out of his way to make the film feel like it belongs in the series. Little things like the scene wipes favored by George Lucas return, while the production design and the focus on practical effects wherever possible help it feel right at home alongside the original trilogy. Of course, having John Williams return to bring his iconic music back to life once again is a key piece of the equation.
But Abrams brings a lot of new aspects to the film as well. In many ways it feels more modern, both visually and in the script. Space battles are shakier, dirtier, and more chaotic than ever before, while the Millennium Falcon swoops and twists in ways we’ve never seen. The action has a kinetic quality that feels at home in modern cinema, and at times a long way from the model-driven effects of the original trilogy. From a storytelling standpoint, the film is often extremely funny, whether from the quirky mannerisms of BB-8 or a well-timed offhand comment. In fact, The Force Awakens is the most jokey film in the series, with many of its laughs feeling more like jokes than simply humorous beats in the story, something of a departure for the series. Overall, the movie’s rhythm feels very different from the somewhat formal, classical style of the previous six episodes, much looser and freer in a way that feels in sync with the current state of filmmaking.
But there is one aspect of The Force Awakens that doesn’t sit well with me, and it’s one I’ve discussed before. I called the film fanfiction earlier, and I chose that word intentionally because that’s essentially what we’re dealing with. George Lucas, the creator of this the most beloved film series of all time, has been reduced to a “based on characters created by” credit in the film. When Disney bought Lucasfilm, he handed them his story notes and outlines for his vision of Episodes VII-IX, which they discarded in favor of what we have today. That’s, of course, entirely their right, and the resulting film is genuinely great, but the fact remains that what we’re seeing is not in any way the story originally envisioned by the saga’s creator. It’s hard to blame them, following the unprecedented reaction to the prequel trilogy (which, full disclosure, I absolutely love), and it’s very clear that The Force Awakens was crafted first and foremost to please the fans. That’s going to make most people very happy, but it honestly leaves a bit of a sour taste in my mouth and makes the film feel somewhat inconsequential. I know many have rejoiced that Star Wars was taken away from Lucas, but that’s something I just can’t do. And I can’t help but wonder what the “real” story is of what happened after Return of the Jedi. At this point we may never know, and most people probably won’t care, and I’m not saying they should. But I couldn’t honestly review the film without touching on this aspect of my reaction to it.
Objectively, however, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a hell of a good ride. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s funny, and it has a lot of heart. In Rey and Finn the film has created two of the most compelling and interesting characters in the history of the series, and I honestly can’t wait to see where the story goes from here. This is, of course, just Episode VII after all, with at least two more main entries plus several spin-offs still to come. The new era of Star Wars is just beginning, and it’s clearly in good hands. But for now we should take the time to savor The Force Awakens. After spending much of my youth as the local Star Wars nerd, sneered at for my devotion to the franchise, it’s nothing short of miraculous to see the way the public has embraced the series with open arms once again. This is a big moment for Star Wars, and I hope it lasts as long as it can. It’s a universe of unlimited potential, and we’re still only just scratching the surface.