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As a piece of professional film criticism, this is not the review you are looking for. From my deeply and lovingly biased, unfairly optimistic, shaking in my theater seat point of view, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will delight just about everyone. Visceral, tactile, lived in, and largely taking place in the dark ages of the Star Wars universe—we have crossguarded sabers, suits of old-school armor, sci-fi castles on planets that could pass as mainland Europe, and an evil group you might as well call the Knights of the Ren Table—it’s clear producer Kathleen Kennedy set to make the latest “A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away” correct every perceived wrong of the prequels. If you’re a new fan, buckle up. If you’re of the old guard and a lifelong student of Star Wars, prepare for emotional overdrive.
J.J. Abrams, the safest, least imaginative choice possible to write and direct the new movie, uses nostalgia as a currency with a high turnover rate. Co-written with Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back), we start on a desert planet suspiciously similar to Tatooine called Jakku, a post-battle junkyard filled with the wreckage of the more memorable ships from the original trilogy. It’s almost as if Industrial Light & Magic threw all out the miniatures from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and they all ended up scattered around this planet. Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger whose last name is kept from us with a wink, wears a rusted X-Wing fighter pilot helmet, gazing out into the gorgeous sand-dune photography that might make you label the first act “Rey of Arabia.” Let me put this up front: Ridley steals the movie. She’s a star.
We start with a bravura opening sequence that shocks with how many plates J.J. can keep spinning at once. The first few minutes deftly, swiftly, and effortlessly introduces the heroes, the villains, the latest versions of the cyclical battles of the Rebel Alliance and The Empire, what the stakes are in the galaxy, and it even ends with the plot’s Macguffin barreling out into the desert. And once Oscar Isaac delivers so much charm as Poe Dameron, a hotshot pilot for “The Resistance,” you’re powerless to resist. You’ve now accepted the nostalgia buyout. You’re now in the hands of J.J. Abrams. You’ve turned to the dark side. Luckily—no, they don’t have cookies—J.J. has never been a stronger filmmaker than he is here, and his visual literacy is on a level previously unseen in the scattered images of Star Trek.
Opening in such an exhilarating, go for broke fashion couldn’t be more Star Wars; the wild ambition of most entries is a defining attribute of Lucas and company, for better and worse. Equally Star Wars-y is the less-is-more approach to the story. In medias res and with only a few lines of dialogue for key plot and character points, this is a movie utterly confident in itself—The Force Awakens doesn’t stutter in its swagger. Lines like “There’s been an awakening” are left unexplored, puzzle pieces we’re left to ponder as lightsabers are drawn and conflict mounts. Once the full vision begins coming into view, which for me took two viewings and ample post-screening discussions, there’s a beautiful intricacy to the overall construction that’s honestly pretty elusive on a first viewing. When thinking back, dots will connect that in retrospect should have felt obvious, the hallmark of an enveloping story. Who, what, when, or how I won’t dare say, but Star Wars hasn’t truly captured a truly urgent sense of discovery since 1980. Until now, that is.
It doesn’t violate the J.J. Abrams mystery box to tell you Rey is whisked off on an adventure with Finn (John Boyega), a defecting stormtrooper unlike any character in the franchise. With Finn’s briefly revealed upbringing in mind, he’s a blank slate, a sponge, and he courses through the movie seeing trying out the shoes of different hero types, hoping one will fit. He’s essentially playing with archetypes of mythic heroes, and for those of you who take George Lucas’ Joseph Campbell mythic storytelling approach to Star Wars seriously, this is a brilliant take on the subject. The Force Awakens doesn’t merely pay homage to the the ships and characters of Star Wars, but also the themes that powered these movies from the start.
Finding the heart of this sacred series is no easy task, but harder still was knowing what to invent and what to keep the same. While The Force Awakens colors inside the lines of the original trilogy’s shadow a little too much, this is very much a movie of its own design. There’s a surprising amount of sophistication under the familiar hood, most exemplified in the impossibly delicate handling of the Darth Vader-obsessed evil Kylo Ren. It’s not just the emotional complexity of Adam Driver’s classic performance that sells the character as series-best stuff, but how he’s designed to bring everything full circle—he’s got Anakin Skywalker’s hair from Revenge of the Sith, a mask modeled after Darth Vader’s, and a never-before- seen crossguarded saber. He fetishizes the past so he can become something new. He’s the connective tissue between the prequel trilogy, the original trilogy, and now these new movies, and the weight of carrying on the mantle of Star Wars is felt heaviest on Ren, who seems to struggle with it internally as a character as much as we might as an audience.
He’s a fantastic villain even aside from the intentional meta-narrative built around him, and ingeniously is every bit as vital to the emotional center of the story as Rey and Finn. These three are the movie’s real main characters, casting a wide powerful sprawl of emotion through the movie’s quick two hour and fifteen minute running time.
A lot of that emotional sprawl is, well, sadness. Underneath the light tone that at times might seem too self-referential and jokey is actually a hidden heartbreaking tale of generational divide and collapse. More Ozu than Kurosawa. In a movie of lost children, orphans, and broken bonds, the great plot twist of The Force Awakens—no spoilers—is that it’s not entirely the Episode IV action-adventure it seems on its shimmering surface. It’s a revisionist A New Hope with a heart transplant. This is a character piece. Most everything else fades, almost oddly at parts, into a haze of background noise. It’s not been since The Empire Strikes Back that Star Wars has been so human. Some of the dialogue pricks the nose and there’s one too many seeds planted for future episodes, but otherwise the beautifully put together script sings. Using the classic Kasdan theme of hubris as a superweapon, The Force Awakens isn’t scared to deconstruct the classic heroes while it questions the new ones. Fan service this is not.
Harrison Ford’s perfectly played Han Solo, essentially a co-lead, struggles to hide emotional wounds that account for his sad state when we finally meet him. Finn, despite the supernova charisma of John Boyega, is a lost soul in need of an identity. Strong, self-reliant, family-centered Rey is equally lost. That the undercooked central plot fizzles makes all too much sense with this in mind, and battling CGI X-Wings and Tie Fighters supplement the character moments instead of the other way around. The lack of too many memorable action beats (although there are a few) hurts but can almost be forgiven due to being in service of something greater. Here, Sure, there is a lot of ‘action’, probably the most the series has ever had, but there's only a couple sequences constructed around the action, as in set pieces, as opposed to character-driven scenes that happen to have action around it.
The daring, almost talky focus on character over plot and action feels both modern and old-fashioned, an update that amounts to more than a new paint job. Star Wars has never been this immediately emotionally compelling, fronted with a diverse set of characters played to perfection by the best overall cast to lead a picture in this 30+ year-old franchise. Uneven pacing and annoying coincidences maim the first two-thirds of The Force Awakens to a degree, but it’s in the final act that we blast to hyperspace and touch the trails of greatness of the very best episodes.
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