It was only a matter of time until we got a new Star Wars movie, and yet, for those of us who were deeply disappointed pre-pubescents when George Lucas’s prequel trilogy hit theaters in the mid-2000s, the possibility that someone could recapture the magic we felt when we first encountered Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi seemed like a pipe-dream.
Recapturing the magic is the bar that The Force Awakens needed to clear, and I’m here to say that, at least in most ways, it cleared it. The seventh installment in the Star Wars saga is very self-aware. Some people have called it a straight-up remake of the original Star Wars, but it is more like a remix. It is sampling the best moments from the original trilogy and using them to establish a new set of characters. The plot does not develop in the most original and satisfying way, but that doesn’t mean it’s not successful. If this movie’s main job was to get me excited about Disney’s new trilogy, then it was undoubtedly successful.
Director J.J. Abrams is as big a Star Wars fan as any, and his devotion for the original trilogy informs this movie deeply. The first 30 or so minutes of the movie are blockbuster filmmaking of the highest quality. We meet orphan scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), who lives inside an abandoned AT-AT, and waits for the parents who abandoned her to come back to the desert planet of Jakku. After a long day of work, Rey sits down to eat a meal and look at the horizon, but before she does, she puts on an old Rebel helmet. It’s a moment that directly calls back to Luke’s binary sunset, but is charged with nostalgia for the adventure of the movies we love.
Rey, like Abrams, is a fangirl. She has heard about Luke Skywalker and the Jedi (although she thinks it’s all a myth). She has also heard about the famous smuggler Han Solo, and how he made the Kessel run in *fourteen* parsecs. This is the most effective way in which The Force Awakens rhymes with the original trilogy. It has become, once again, a mythical adventure. Rey, like Luke, is the regular teen who will soon get to part of the battles that fuel her dreams. Abrams goes back to the most elemental fantasy of heroes and villains, and re-invents the original myth in the process.
Rey’s call to adventure comes in the form of a little droid called BB-8, which holds a map that could lead to the whereabouts of the legendary, and disappeared, Luke Skywalker. But Rey doesn’t know about the droid’s importance until she meets Finn (John Boyega), a sensible Stormtrooper who has defected, and is trying to escape the fascistic First Order. The meeting of these new heroes culminates in the movie’s most exciting action sequence. We are re-introduced to the Millennium Falcon, and the myth-making is finally complete.
It’s in the movie’s second act that things start to get a little shaky. This is when we finally see some familiar faces, most notably Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), both of whom join our young heroes in their journey. This is also when Abrams’s remixing of the original trilogy start to show its weaknesses. The callbacks are so evident, that it becomes easier and easier to spot what moment from the original trilogy is being referenced in each scene. By the time we get to the third act -which revolves around the destruction of yet another Death Star-like base- we know exactly what beats the movie is going to play.
Plot has never been Abrams’s strong-suit, but his direction is so strong, and the first act has done such a great job of establishing our main characters, that we can excuse the familiarity. Even if we are familiar with the plot points and story beats of the movie, we can find refuge in the characters’ reactions to everything that is happening around them. This is without a doubt the best acted Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back, and the performances are crucial in getting us invested in the new characters who are going to be at the center of this new trilogy.
Daisy Ridley and John Boyega have fantastic chemistry as Rey and Finn. Ridley is a wonderful discovery, and a great action heroine, while Boyega is immensely charismatic and very funny in what -somewhat surprisingly- ends up being the funniest Star Wars movie yet. But they’re not the only great new characters. I must mention Oscar Isaac, probably the best actor of his generation, killing it as Resistance pilot Poe Dameron. And Adam Driver, who gets to play Kylo Ren, the most complex villain so far in this saga.
Kylo Ren can be summed up as a more interesting version of what Lucas tried to do with Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. He is an overly emotional and temperamental young warrior. He prays at the alter of Darth Vader, and wishes he could be as menacing and evil as his idol. The problem is he has doubt. He is temped not by the dark, but by the light side of the force. There is good in him that he wants to annihilate. The struggle to be evil is one of the few thoroughly original ideas in The Force Awakens, and one that will surely play a big role in the movies that will follow it.
However, if we’re talking about great characters, then we must talk about BB-8, the most miraculous creation of this movie, and a immediate candidate for the best character in the history of Star Wars. An awesome silent robot with all the personality of a great silent comedian, I hope to see much more of him in future movies.
To put the whole thing into perspective: The Force Awakens has some of the most fascinating characters this franchise has ever seen, and they’re stuck in what is not exactly the greatest story. By adhering so closely to A New Hope, the movie gains the power of myth-making, but it loses in originality. Whatever emotion there is to the movie’s last act comes not necessarily from what happens, but from how our characters react to it. I never thought I’d say this about a Star Wars movie, but a lot of the emotion comes from the nuance in these actors’ performances.
I was excited and I was skeptical, but I think J.J. Abrams succeeded. I wouldn’t call The Force Awakens the best movie of the year or anything like that. But it is incredibly entertaining, always fun, often exciting, very funny, and I most definitely looking forward to spending more time with these awesome characters when Episode VIII comes around.
Grade: 8 out of 10