Hollywood, CA…Does Star Wars really need a review? You’d be hard pressed to find a more multigenerational and beloved film franchise, and the new film—Episode VII to be precise—was guaranteed to be a massive hit no matter what, bound to succeed on its legacy alone. The Force Awakens is practically hardwired to tap into this nostalgia shared by millions of fans (and, in the interest of full disclosure, I include myself among this number), with its emphasis on practical effects, location shots, and more of the classic elements of the series.
The true genius of this new film, however, is that director J.J. Abrams and company have created a film that manages to stand on its own while simultaneously being a trip down memory lane, and one that’s sure to capture the hearts of an entirely new generation of filmgoers.
The story goes like this: thirty years after the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, the First Order, a group of Galactic Empire revivalists with a new massive planet-destroying superweapon at their disposal (dubbed Starkiller Base), are scouring the galaxy for the location of Luke Skywalker, who has gone missing. Leading the hunt is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a mysterious black-robed man who can apparently wield the dark side of the Force. But when the Resistance droid BB-8 (the Resistance being a rebranded Rebel Alliance), escapes with a critical piece of the puzzle, he falls into the hands of the young scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) on the desert planet of Jakku. Meanwhile, BB-8’s master, pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), escapes from the First Order with the help of Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper who seeks to escape the tyrannical First Order after witnessing his first battle under their command.
The plot hews closely to that of A New Hope with some elements of Empire Strikes Back, insomuch as the plot concerns a droid carrying secret information about a Jedi Master who ends up on a desert planet while being pursued by a black-masked man. There’s also a superweapon, a young Rebel pilot, and even a short run down a trench. J.J. Abrams is, in effect, plugging in his own story and characters into the outline of the original film. Additionally, when one stops to consider it, much of the plot relies on coincidence and luck, although some of these moments can be forgiven due to them being a large part of the series. At times you can practically hear the script twisting itself into knots so that it can continue the George Lucas tradition of telling one small part of a grand story, and the film’s withholding of information makes it seem rushed at points. To say more about the story would veer into spoiler territory, but it’s enough to state that the plot does an admirable job of not only introducing the new crop of characters, but also giving everyone depth and weight beyond their assigned roles in the narrative.
The core of the film is the cast, principally the new generation, which also adds some welcome diversity. On the hero side, the standout is Daisy Ridley as Rey, whose performance is a star-making one. Ridley was a relative unknown until her casting, but she’s amazing here. Combining a dry sense of humor with an emotive performance, her scenes are the highlight of the movie. She’s a great character with more depth and agency than Padme Amidala from the prequel trilogy, and it goes without saying that she’ll have as much influence on younger fans as Leia did nearly forty years ago.
For the leading men, John Boyega is the star, taking point in his scenes with a great deal of humor; his banter with other characters, particularly Rey, is especially funny. His character Finn also acquires depth as the story goes on, as he gets caught in circumstances beyond his control. Oscar Isaac is fun as Poe Dameron and he does a good job at selling how much of a hotshot pilot his character is supposed to be, but he’s sadly under utlized.
The other new hero is BB-8, the new film’s answer to R2-D2. The rolling droid, who was created as a real prop, is not only fun to watch, it also has a great deal of personality and humor. While its antics are sure to delight younger moviegoers, it’s also a treat for those who grew up watching R2. Make no mistake: the droid is as much a part of the cast as Poe, Finn, or Rey.
Also on hand is the returning power trio of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher as Han, Luke, and Leia. Ford has the bulk of screen time as Han, and he returns to the role brilliantly, being just as funny and roguish as fans remember while also slyly acknowledging the character’s age. Fisher is fine as Leia, still leading the good guys, and her scenes with Ford are a big part of the emotional center of the film. Hamill’s role is the smallest (yet perhaps the most pivotal), but to talk about Luke here would spoil too much. Additionally, C-3P0, R2-D2, and Chewbacca return, and Chewie in particular is as fun as ever, while the droids get just the right amount of time on screen.
While the heroes are excellent, the villains don’t fare as well, with the exception of Kylo Ren. It’s difficult to explain why Ren is such a great bad guy without huge spoilers, but Adam Driver is brilliant. He’s menacing while also being more emotional—as befits his younger age—than Darth Vader, who he is meant to emulate both in-universe and out.
As for the other villians, while Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux is clearly meant to imitate Grand Moff Tarkin (played by the late, great Peter Cushing) from A New Hope, his character doesn’t do much to advance the story, and as such his scenes are unnecessary. His delivery is over the top and hammy, particularly one speech during the midpoint of the film. There’s also Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma. While Christie is a force to be reckoned with on Game of Thrones, her character here occupies much the same space as Boba Fett did in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi: a character with iconic armor that barely does anything at all. In Phasma’s case, she appears for only a few scenes with a handful of lines, and while it’s already been announced that she’ll appear more in the next film, here the character feels underused. Lastly, there’s Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke, the new big bad of the trilogy, an entirely computer generated character. He’s menacing, but he he’s got nothing on Ian McDiarmid’s evil Emperor Palpatine.
The film deserves praise for the wide variety of locations and creatures that weave in and out of the main thread of the storyline. From desert planets to ice worlds and lush green forests, the on-location shots and set designs are simply beautiful, and half the fun of watching The Force Awakens is seeing where the cast will go next and what exotic aliens they might encounter (it’s worth mentioning that the filmmakers created a host of fantastic-looking new practical effects aliens for the film).
There’s also the sound and costume design, all of which is top notch. From the hum of a lightsaber to the scream of a TIE fighter: the film looks and feels like classic Star Wars. John Williams returns to score the film, and the music, which swells and recedes alongside the action and contains several unique leitmotifs, is once again some of his best work (not to mention the classic theme’s triumphant return). New elements have been added to the familiar designs of the starships and speeders to keep things feeling fresh: the updated stormtrooper costumes are a particular highlight. The main costumes, all of which are near-perfectly suited to each character (Kylo Ren being a standout), really sell the “used future” aesthetic that the original trilogy helped to codify. Far more than the prequel trilogy, the audience gets the sense that the universe on display has existed long before its introduction and will continue to exist long after the film concludes.
Last—but certainly not least—the action is a major selling point, mixing space dogfights and intense lightsaber duels with chase scenes. While there is one scene that perhaps overuses computer effects and feels somewhat extraneous to the plot, the climactic battle of the film is an excellent mix of old school effects and modern computer generated imagery, and it’s amazingly exciting to watch. The sound design also comes into play during these scenes, many of which evoke the original 1977 film, albeit modernized and updated with a fresh coat of paint.
Ultimately, The Force Awakens needed to do two things: make fans excited about the franchise again and pass the torch to a new generation, and it succeeds in both spectacularly. It’s a brilliant way to start the new trilogy and a welcome return to the galaxy far, far away. This is a film that combines new and old filmmaking techniques, a great cast, and a thrilling story to create a visually stunning adventure through the stars. To say it another way: Star Wars is back!
Final Score: 9/10