NOTE: This is going to be a spoiler-free review, and I strongly urge that folks keep the comments spoiler-free as well. It’s been less than 24 hours — have some respect for your fellow readers. Your first spoiler gets deleted, your second gets you banned. Yes, I’m serious. We’ll have a more spoiler-tastic post up eventually. — TK
It is near-impossible to write about J.J. Abrams’ attempt to revitalize the Star Wars franchise without comparing it to either the original trilogy or the prequel trilogy, because it’s clear that Abrams made The Force Awakens with both of them prominently in his mind. So let’s get that out of the way first: The Force Awakens is a beautiful, loving homage to the original trilogy, and does everything right in the same ways that those first three historic films did things right. By the same virtue, it avoids all of the drudgery, woodenness and flat-out poor writing and film making of the prequels. It clearly sets out to establish itself as a nostalgic throwback to what made the franchise so great and lovable, and goddamn, does it succeed.
In the barest of strokes, The Force Awakens takes place several years after Return of the Jedi, and the victories of the Rebellion did not bring the galactic peace that we’d hoped for. The galaxy is still fractured, and a new threat — The First Order — is on the rise, led by a trio of leaders — the ambitious General Hux (Domhall Gleeson), the gleaming and intimidating Stormtrooper Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), and the dark and dangerous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). On the other side is an unlikely duo thrown together through luck and coincidence, the disillusioned former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and a nomadic scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), who come together on Rey’s home planet of Jakku. They inevitably get swept up into this new intergalactic conflict, making friends out of some familiar faces as well as some new ones.
It’s a terrific adventure, and it just feels right. It hits all the same notes of the original trilogy, and the film’s fresh faces do a fantastic job of portraying the reckless, youthful vigor that made the likes of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa so endearing in the original series. Ridley and Boyega are brilliant, pulled together through unlikely circumstance and with charming and immediate chemistry. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt obviously made a deliberate point of avoiding the damsel-in-distress model, and as such Rey is powerfully independent, alluring and yet still lonely, seeking a sense of belonging after so much time by herself. Finn is, of course, in some ways her opposite — born out of a massive military machine and lost without firm leadership, yet wanting to become the hero. Perhaps their most enjoyable moments are when Finn attempts heroism only to be smacked down by Rey, who is perfectly capable of helping herself, thank you very much. But there’s no artifice to their relationship, and nothing feels forced. It feels exactly like what it is — the beginning of something great and wonderful.
As for the others — Solo, Skywalker, Leia? They’re there, with varying degrees of prominence. Harrison Ford effortlessly recaptures the roguishness that made Solo so great, while also injecting the character with a sense of tiredness that an aging adventurer would inevitably feel. Fisher’s Leia is a bit stiffer than the others in her performance, but the nostalgia of seeing her back in action makes up for it. Special mention should be made for Oscar Isaac in his smaller, yet critical role as Poe Dameron, the appealing X-Wing pilot who is played with a carefree wink and a glint in his eye, and every moment that we have with him is a great one.
The story, well, I’ll leave the details for you to find out for yourselves, but the story is both the film’s greatest strength and weakness. It’s a throwback tale of high adventure and galactic derring-do, carefully sidestepping all the pitfalls that Lucas fell into with the prequels. Gone are the interminable political conversations and overly dense and utterly unnecessary plot structures. Lucas forgot that what made the original trilogy great wasn’t the story around the characters, but the characters within the story. The original trilogy succeeded because he cast a terrific group of enthusiastic young actors to play engaging, exciting characters, and then inserted them into a relatively simple tale of good versus evil. The prequels failed (well, they failed for many reasons) because he built a massive, overbearing, and uninteresting political and social structure, and then shoehorned poorly written and uninteresting characters into it.
Abrams skips all the bullshit, and let’s the story unfold through the characters and their adventures, and it works. The catch, however, is that the story is a little too familiar, borrowing whole cloth from the original trilogy to the extent that sometimes it feels almost like you’re watching a remix of A New Hope. There are so many similarities that after a while it stops feeling like an original new chapter. That becomes immensely frustrating at times, because while you’re watching something new, there’s a bit too much similarity and that hurts an otherwise sparkling production.
Yet in the end, it barely matters, because Abrams did what Lucas never could with his recent efforts — he made the film fun. Jesus Christ, is it just so much pure fun. There’s a selfless, unpretentious joyfulness to the production, even when the story touches on its darker moments (and it does get quite dark at times). It eschews the ridiculous CGI sets and effects, and it’s amazing how much more intimate and uncluttered that makes the film (and the air-and-space combat is breathless and exhilarating and perfect). It feels like finding a store that sells the most comfortable coat you ever owned, one that you thought long gone. It brings you back to the universe you once loved, wiping clear the darkness that stained it through recent years, bringing it roaring back through a combination of the old and the new, but giving more focus and attention to the new (and rightfully so, because the new leads, both light and dark, are absolutely amazing). It brings it all back around again. Go see it in a crowded theater, and get swept up in it, whoop and holler along with everyone else, and you’ll feel what I felt.
It feels like home.