[WARNING: Light spoilers about the setup for the film are included. If you’re avoiding any spoilers at all costs, turn around.]
I do not envy the mammoth responsibility placed on new Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy, director J.J. Abrams, and the rest of the team responsible for creating a new Star Wars universe after Disney purchased Lucasfilm. Let’s be honest: Star Wars fans are in many ways loyal to the brand, but as creator George Lucas learned beginning in 1997, they’ll make their opinions known. Given the reception to the prequel trilogy, which brought in money along with scorn from fans and critics alike, it’s essential that these new films – especially this first one – bring people back on board.
Somehow, they’ve done it.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens picks up some 30 years after the end of Return of the Jedi, with the first four words of the opening crawl mirroring a missing element in the marketing campaign for the film: “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” A new threat known as the First Order has risen from the remains of the Empire to challenge the New Republic. As a defense, elements of the Rebel Alliance now exist as the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). Both sides are searching for Luke, and it’s that search that brings the new heroes and villains of Star Wars together.
Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is on Jakku to retrieve a map, but when the First Order, led by the Force-enabled Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) arrives, Poe places the map information inside his droid, BB-8. BB-8 eventually comes across Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young scavenger with a desire for adventure. Cue the arrival of Finn (John Boyega), an ex-stormtrooper on the run who agrees to help Rey reunite BB-8 with the Resistance. On their journey, they encounter some legendary figures in the galaxy, including Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Leia. Together, they work to find Luke, while also finding a way to destroy the First Order’s newest weapon, Starkiller Base.
Let’s talk about the heroes and villains introduced in The Force Awakens. They represent, by far, the film’s single biggest strength. Here, the primary heroes are Rey and Finn. Both have been isolated in some form, and they come together at critical points in their respective lives. For Finn, a combination of fear, self-preservation and heroism take hold of him, and the film charts his exploration of these and other emotions that have newly awakened in him. Rey, meanwhile, is an intelligent woman more than capable of taking care of herself, who nevertheless feels trapped by her dreams that those who abandoned her on Jakku as a child may return for her. They’re joined at various points by Poe Dameron and BB-8. Poe is a Resistance pilot, brimming with confidence in his abilities and completely good-natured. BB-8, meanwhile, manages to find the right balance between being necessary to the plot and serving as occasional comic relief.
The First Order, meanwhile, is personified largely by two figures. The more prominent is Kylo Ren, who is driven by a desire to consciously connect with the Dark Side of the Force, and to reject the Light. He’s also petulant, and prone to expressing his anger without thought or consideration. In short, he’s the type of character George Lucas tried to create in Anakin in the prequels, and with the right actor and writing, it works wonderfully. He’s paired with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), a repugnant man who embodies the First Order’s fascist leanings. Both men report to Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), and it’s clear that while they report to him together, they have different agendas and opposing methods for achieving their goals.
Across the board, these new characters are perfectly cast. J.J. Abrams can be criticized for many things in his previous projects, but bringing together ensembles like this is something he’s proven more than capable of achieving. The film’s biggest find is Ridley, who has nothing of particular note to her credit before this film. Even among co-leads, Rey is the undisputed lead of this film, and it’s her journey as much as anything that propels the story. In Ridley’s hands, she’s smart, strong, confident, vulnerable, funny, kind, and anything else we might expect from a hero. She’s matched well with Boyega, who brings an unexpected level of humor to the role and also conveys Finn’s obvious interest in Rey in a way that’s completely endearing.
To their credit, the returning actors of the franchise also prove invaluable. Ford, Hamill, Fisher and Mayhew are each utilized well for what the story requires, and all three prove more than capable of slipping back into their roles after years away (Mayhew’s cameo in Revenge of the Sith notwithstanding). C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 also pop up, 3PO having perhaps his best introduction in any of the films.
In observing the way the film moves, The Force Awakens plays like a reconfigured take on A New Hope. There’s a fair amount of world building in the background of the film, and things are mentioned that provide an answer while raising a dozen more questions. Beyond that, though, individual scenes more than occasionally share a basic structure with elements of A New Hope, with occasional references to The Empire Strikes Back as well. This, I think, will be a larger point of contention among fans and critics. Given the need for the series to return to a place where fans can be passionate about the series, though, it’s a smart call. By letting some (but not all) of the storytelling elements mirror the high points of the series, it allows the characters to show how they’re similar to and different from their predecessors. Besides, The Force Awakens also manages to cull the humor and cast chemistry of those early films, two elements sorely missed in creating the prequels.
Credit should also be given to Abrams for returning the series to film (the later prequels were filmed digitally) and for utilizing actual sets, as opposed to the blue screens that dominated the prequels. There’s a tactile quality to this film that was lacking in those films, and it connects The Force Awakens to the original trilogy in a way that makes it feel like the same universe, in a way the prequels did not. Still, Abrams and director of photography Dan Mindel give the film a unique visual look that works with the universe, but is distinctive from any of the previous films in the series. The most surprising visual element is the way that the Force, and actions made using the Force, are represented. There’s an edge of energy to the Force that’s subtly visible, and it makes the moments where the Force is utilized undeniably powerful.
I could say more about the film, but a large part of the enjoyment this film will bring to audiences lies in the element of surprise, even when there’s a familiar feeling to those surprises. But I’ll leave it with this: The Force Awakens manages to recall the best of the previous films, and starting with the final lightsaber duel (if you know this series, that should not be a spoiler or surprise), it kicks into a fresh energy that’s all its own. More than anything, for the first time watching a brand-new Star Wars film, I find myself eager to see what comes next.