We gave it a B+
The wait is over. You, or that special someone you love, can stop panting into that brown paper bag and finally relax because there are about to be a lot of very happy Star Wars fans out there. J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens delivers exactly what you want it to: rollicking adventure wrapped in epic mythology, a perfect amount of fan service that fires your geekiest synapses, and a just-right cliffhanger ending that paves the way for future installments. In a way, Abrams has accomplished exactly what he did with 2009’s Star Trek. He took a worshiped pop-culture franchise with a rabid legion of disciples, treated it with respect, and made it matter again. If anything, the shoes were far bigger to fill this time around. Which, in a way, is exactly what The Force Awakens is about — being worthy of the legacy that came before you.
As much as I’d planned on keeping a critical distance going in to the first Star Wars film in 10 years, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel the hairs on my neck stand up and salute when the clarion blast of John Williams’ score struck up and the familiar opening crawl of text unspooled. Suddenly, I was 13 again. About that expository crawl… I’ll refrain from spoilers here, but this much seems like fair game: Luke Skywalker has vanished. The sinister First Order has risen from the ashes of the Evil Empire and is hellbent on finding the not-so-young Jedi and destroying him. Meanwhile, Princess Leia (now going by the title General Leia Organa) is leading the Resistance and sends her best pilot to the planet of Jakku to find clues of Luke’s whereabouts. Mercifully, there’s not a single mention of taxation or trade routes.
In this new clash between the forces of good and evil, our heroes are Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, the hotshot pilot Leia has dispatched for intel on Luke, the stand-out Daisy Ridley as Rey, a fiery scavenger who possesses powers she’s not aware of yet, and John Boyega as Finn, a disillusioned Stormtrooper whose conscience compels him to switch sides. (There’s also BB-8, that rolling gyroscopic weeble that, if possible, may out-cute R2-D2.) On the Dark Side are Domnhall Gleeson’s General Hux, a jackbooted baddie straight out of a Leni Riefenstahl film; Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, an impertinent, Oedipally-motivated Vader Lite in an inky cloak and a metallic duck-billed muzzle that renders his voice a digitized growl; and a CGI heavy called Supreme Leader, who’s essentially Emperor Palpatine crossed with one of the aliens from Close Encounters.
That may sound like a whole lot of confusing new characters to keep straight. But one of the best (and, oddly enough, weakest) things about the movie is how familiar they all feel as archetypes. So much so that at times you feel as if you’re watching Star Wars: The Next Generation. But Abrams and his co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt have an ace up their sleeves. Or rather, several of them: Han Solo, Chewie, Leia, Luke, C-3PO, Artoo, and even that old bucket of bolts that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, the Millennium Falcon. Abrams & Co. have clearly put a lot of love and thought into integrating all of these familiar (if slightly more weathered) faces into the film in a way that feels organic rather than forced. The filmmakers get what made George Lucas’ original trilogy magical, and they recapture that magic.
It’s so tempting to get swept up into the fizzy class-reunion nostalgia of The Force Awakens that it’s easy to ignore just how closely the story mimics the plot of A New Hope. But the sense of déjà vu is undeniable. The First Order has built what amounts to a bigger, more lethal Death Star. And the Rebels’ game plan to blow it up is pretty much cribbed from the same playbook they used back in 1977. Doesn’t the Resistance’s playbook have more than one play? It’s a tad lazy, but you may recall it worked pretty well the first time. Like Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, The Force Awakens is funnier and has a lighter touch than the previous Star Wars films. Its aerial dogfights are dizzying and thrilling and its CGI doesn’t feel as cheap and chintzy as it did in Lucas’ prequels, which this film tops in every way.
One of my biggest beefs over the years with Abrams as a filmmaker has been that as masterful as he is at setting up worlds you want to visit and mysteries you want to untangle, he falls short with the payoff. Whether in Lost, Mission Impossible III, or Super 8, his movies tend to end with fizzling ellipses rather than exclamation points. But the ending he’s come up with here feels so note-perfect it’s hard to imagine it any other way. When The Force Awakens ends, it feels bittersweet simply because you so badly want to get to the next chapter. So, yes, the wait is over. But now a new waiting game begins… B+