Thirty-eight years have passed since George Lucas gave the world A New Hope. In that time, two additional Star Wars films have gone on to be considered iconic pieces of cinema, while three others have been written off as a lapse in judgment. The Force Awakens, the first franchise contribution from filmmaker JJ Abrams, offers fans old and new a reminder of just how wonderful the power of the Force can be in a way that immediately ranks the film among the best of the series.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has disappeared. In his absence, a new breed of evil has risen from the ashes of the Empire known as the First Order. Their primary objective is to seek and destroy Skywalker, the man they believe to be the last living Jedi. Working against them is the Resistance, lead by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), who are also on the hunt for Skywalker. For them, finding Luke means finding what they believe will be the key to finally ending the reign of terror that has been life under the First Order, but finding the secret behind his location proves to be a far greater challenge than anyone could have foreseen.
Living in these uncertain times is a cast of unique and colorful characters, including a renegade First Order trooper known as Finn (John Boyega), a brave orphaned adventurer called Rey (Daisey Ridley), a fighter pilot named Poe (Oscar Isaac) and an adorable BB-8 droid with a personality entirely its own. They are the characters upon whose shoulders the future of the Star Wars universe rests, both in a literal and figurative sense, and each brings something completely unique to the already massive world they inhabit. There are also a couple characters named Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who are the same now as they ever were, only one has gray hair and a lifetime of regret weighing on his chest. It seems while much has stayed the same about the universe fans love, much has also changed, and over the course of the film, characters of every age learn something new about themselves that complements the overall narrative without distracting from the hunt at hand.
The villain of The Force Awakens is Kylo Ren, a mysterious and powerful evildoer brought to life with an amazing bit of charisma from Adam Driver. Of all the talent found onscreen, it’s Driver who delivers the most memorable performance, even when confined behind his Vader-like mask. Ren is evil, through and through, but the motivations behind his choices make him a far more complex character than initial introductions may lead viewers to believe. Unlike the villains we’ve seen before, Ren is flawed, and it’s in recognizing those flaws that viewers will forge a connection with his presence in the film.
JJ Abrams has earned something of a nerd pedigree over the course of his career, but his talent for thrilling and visually compelling storytelling has never been better represented than it is with The Force Awakens. Just like Lucas accomplished with the original trilogy, Abrams has found a way to suck you into a galaxy far, far, away and make you forget everything around you for two hours and 15 minutes of science-fiction brilliance that will no doubt be remembered as a genre highpoint for decades to come. The mechanism behind this is almost impossible to decipher, as it’s an intoxicating combination of everything from fan-servicing easter eggs to strong original characters, brilliant practical effects, imaginative set pieces, quick pacing and a story that largely does not disappoint.
As with any film that must kickstart a new chapter in a franchise while also showing reverence towards the movies that came before, The Force Awakens has a lot of characters doing a lot of things that do or do not pay off in ways big and small. Abrams is no stranger to balancing multiple stories and characters, so keeping things fun is never a problem, but there are times when the film’s desire to reference earlier chapters in the franchise takes away from the unpredictability of the moment. It’s not that there are any mirrored moments per se, but there are beats and turns that feel a bit too familiar for their own good. Nothing goes as far as too ruin the surprises that lie in the final act, but the constant barrage of tie-ins may grow slightly stale for some.
When the stunning final sequence quietly transitions to credits and all goes black, Star Wars: The Force Awakens ends up ranking somewhere between The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi. The characters you love are back and better than ever, but more importantly, they are joined by a cast of new and familiar faces that push a breath of fresh air into every nook and cranny of this aging series. The stories of those we’ve only just met, in particular that of Rey, are engrossing and alluring in ways far too numerous to attempt listing in this review. What I will say however, is that JJ Abrams has done right by series diehards, and he’s executed his vision for the Star Wars universe in such a way that I have zero doubt as to whether or not future generations will come to love this series as much as those of us living today. It is, by and large, an accomplishment of the highest measure.