As the date for Star Wars: The Force Awakens approached (this last Friday), the hype surrounding the film built up exponentially. Disney’s announcement in October 2012 left millions holding their breath for three straight years, hoping for the same lightning in a bottle that the originals provided and dreading another critical disaster like the prequels. Like Avengers: Age of Ultron which came out earlier this year, it seemed almost impossible for The Force Awakens to measure up to the expectations.
Perhaps putting your worries to rest, I can happily tell you that the movie is great. I dare not use a stronger descriptor, lest I raise your expectations too high (you strange people who still haven’t seen the movie four days later). Cowritten with Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams tactfully achieves a perfect balancing act above all potential pitfalls. The movie builds on its predecessors but also stands on its own in terms of filmmaking, emotion, action, and humor (Kasdan also co-wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, which makes sense of this Star Wars installment’s frequent wise-cracks).
The Galactic Empire, defeated thirty years earlier, has been replaced by the similar—though strikingly more fascist—First Order. They plan to rule the Galaxy and destroy all who oppose them. Their commander is the ruthless dark knight, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Kylo seeks to find and kill the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker, who would bring justice to the galaxy before General Leia Organa and the Resistance can find him. The movie begins with the capture of Poe Dameron, a Resistance pilot, and his rolling droid BB-8 who have some critical information on the whereabouts of Skywalker. They are able, however, to escape by the help of Finn (John Boyega), a former First Order Stormtrooper. As they flee Kylo and their pursuers, the team joins up with Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger from the desert planet Jakku, and eventually with Han Solo and Chewbacca. The team must race Kylo Ren to find Luke and stop the First Order from expanding their iron control over the galaxy.
The first and foremost virtue of The Force Awakens is its new characters. BB8 is cute as can be, and Finn represents much needed diversity in a cinematic universe often accused of racism. However, the best addition is Rey, who seems to be pushed forward as the lead in this movie. Rey is one of the best female protagonists in recent action-blockbuster history, something she achieves by not drawing attention to the fact. More than a pretty face, she is smart, rarely needs saving, and even spends a lot of time saving others. Her subversion of classical masculine roles—while maintaining her femininity—is all very subtle.
The next strength worth mentioning is the movie’s villain, Kylo Ren. He is a step away from the dark menace of Darth Vader, but is almost as fun to watch as Darth Maul and demonstrates character complexity. Kylo Ren can be threatening, but admittedly we receive our “big bad” elsewhere. While he may not stand as tall as some of his predecessors, he will make for some interesting movies in the future.
Finally, the movie boasts a healthy relationship with the old series. This, strangely enough, has been the biggest complaint I’ve heard from others who claim the story is too borrowed (pointing to plot pieces like the Starkiller and Deathstar). To that I would contend that while there is a lot of similarities in the overall scope, there is plenty of new on the micro-level: an updated tone for new audiences, a balance between the handmade special effects of the originals and CGI of the prequels, and exciting new characters. That’s the new stuff. But what interests me is how this movie, unlike Episodes 1-3, is able to mimic the voice of the original trilogy (something Abrams has proven adept at) and use references to them but not rely on them for scaffolding the film. Overall, I can promise if your expectations are not for A New Hope, then you will be delighted. The movie is smart, thrilling, and fun. I’m excited for what the future brings.