Before you go any further, be aware that this review has minor SPOILERS. If you haven’t seen ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ and you want to go in knowing absolutely nothing beyond what its unstoppable hype machine has already provided you, get the hell out of here. (Until you actually see it. Then come back!)
By Jarrod Jones. Let’s face facts: if you like Star Wars at all, you are going to love J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It doesn’t matter if you’re an OT die-hard, one of those folks who wore out their paperback of Shadows of the Empire, a prequel apologist, or just somebody who likes the sound of lightsabers — you are going to love J.J. Abrams‘ ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’. And you’re definitely not going to let the opinions of one lone voice in the vast expanse of the digital universe affect the way you feel one way or the other.
But if we can set aside our dog-sized AT-ATs and our Return of the Jedi security blankets for the amount of time it takes to read this review, just for the sole purposes of being honest with each other, loving Star Wars has been, for far too long a time, a precarious thing. While it’s true that we’ve seen three very large, very expensive Star Wars films roll through the theaters since Luke Skywalker bid farewell to his wayward father, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that we’ve been wildly beholden to the nostalgia the series inspires moreso than anything else. (It’s tough trying to explain away ill-advised concepts like midichlorians to purists when you’re populating your justifications with plenty of yes, buts.) And sure, each successive film has enough buyable merchandise with which to fill your newly-installed living room shelves, but when it comes down to it, Star Wars has for too long been a franchise that has offered only diminishing returns. It came and went with three films aimed at inspiring a new generation of audiences, only to miss the mark worse than a rookie Stormtrooper. Now it’s 2015, a full decade since George Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith allowed the series to gasp its last dry breath, and we are — all of us — ready to see new life breathed into this monolithic beast.
Enter: J.J. Abrams. As a perfectly fine director who made a name for himself by making films that both looked and felt like older films made by superior directors, Abrams is just malleable enough to repurpose a fondly-recalled property into something that can be marketed to a whole new demographic, while keeping the best interests of his corporate overlords at heart. (See his swiftly deteriorating Star Trek franchise.) Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrived to us already imbued with decades of unabashed fan adulation mixed with hard feelings towards its once-deified creator, so all Abrams had to do was make sure it “wasn’t as bad as those other ones”. And with The Force Awakens, he succeeds. It was a low hurdle admittedly, but Abrams cleared it with aplomb.
As the first sequel to the series in over thirty-two years, The Force Awakens sets itself up for another decade-or-so of misadventures in a galaxy far, far away in about the most straight-forward and no-nonsense way as any of these films have been in years. Whenever you find yourself sitting through a compulsory info-dump, you can rest easy knowing there’s absolutely no lip-service about trade disputes (or even those dreaded midichlorians), just plain-faced, purely distilled Star Wars mayhem. If you were to close your eyes during one of the many moments of skirmish during the film (if you would dare to), you’d find yourself in a state of full nostalgic immersion. Everything from the score to the blasters to the predatory screeee of soaring TIE fighters projects you to a place of sheer aesthetic fulfillment. This is as “Star Wars” a Star Wars film has been in ages.
And while we’ve been chomping at the bit to find out even the most remote of plot points by vivisecting each trailer that’s come our way, The Force Awakens is a movie that remains heavy on the brouhaha and maddeningly slight on reveals. There come answers as to what Leia has been up to all this time (she’s a princess no longer, now a Mothma-esque Resistance General), and we get to see how time has treated Han Solo and Chewbacca (beautifully, in case you were wondering). As for everything else, you’d have to consult your Episode IV blueprints for the particulars: the Empire is gone, replaced by the equally fascist First Order; the Rebellion is now the Resistance; Darth Vader’s been replaced by Kylo Ren (more on him in a minute), Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux fills in for Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, and Emperor Palpatine has been replaced with… well. I can’t give everything away. The new guard is equally as fascinating as the old, though it should be said that some fare much better than others.
The most intriguing of them being Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. (Yes, Oscar Issac is certainly dreamy, and Gwendolyn Christie’s Captain Phasma looks cool as all get-out, but both characters arrive simply to disappear.) Of all the new kids on the block, Rey and Kylo have the most to offer this world. (Though getting into why would be far, far too spoiler-y.) It’s refreshing to see Star Wars characters that aren’t achingly stoic or manically abrasive (though John Boyega’s Finn skews dangerously close to the latter), and both provide some much needed humanity amid all of Abrams’ practical monster magic. Driver struts about in his jet blacks like the second coming of Vader, but his frequent temper tantrums keep him within arm’s reach. (One of the funniest parts of the movie is a Stormtrooper’s blasé reaction to a Ren freakout.) Every single character is confined by a wholly recognizable template, but their assured presence in future installments portend wonderful (and terrifying) things.
If you’re feeling the least bit trepidatious about entering a darkened theater to watch another darn Star Wars movie, just keep in mind that all this ballyhoo hasn’t occurred in a vacuum. That maybe — just maybe — there’s still something of worth to be found here. It’s what most of us have longed for, it’s what J.J. Abrams was tasked with providing, and now it is what we have: Star Wars has once again become the phenomena we all remember it being. Now if only it would learn to let go of the past. We certainly had to.