For a significant portion of the population, it’s impossible to have an entirely pure reaction to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” And with so much of the audience firmly entrenched in the “Star Wars” mythos, expectations for the sequel, much like the opening-weekend box office haul, were huge. Given that this is the first “Star Wars” movie in a decade, for devotees of the 38-year-old franchise, its mere existence was satisfying. But for those skeptical of the Disney promotional machine, the level of hype and anticipation was an invitation for the film to fail.
With that in mind, I wanted to watch “The Force Awakens” twice before writing this review. The first time, the opening crawl and the “Star Wars” logo were enough to thrill me. It was an emotional reaction, which lasted throughout the two-hour-and-15-minute running time. After hearing some dissenting opinions, I decided to see the film again, during which the intellectual side of my brain would surely take over, and I’d be able to deliver pointed critiques.
As it turns out, I liked the film even more on second viewing.
“The Force Awakens” is a movie you feel. It zips along at an incredible pace – perhaps too fast at times — with enough action and humor to make up for its shortcomings. Aside from being beautifully shot and utilizing practical sets, its biggest win is the introduction of four new main characters to the franchise, all of whom are instantly and improbably likable: Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren and Oscar Isaac’s Poe. No, there’s not nearly enough Poe, but what we get is a great start, hopefully leading to much more in Episodes VIII and IX. Rey and Finn’s dynamic feels unique for the franchise; it’s not a love story — at least there are no real hints of that yet — and not a brother-sister bond, but rather a strong, platonic male/female friendship built on mutual respect. That’s not just rare for genre entertainment, that’s rare for film in general. Individually, they make for effective leads. Boyega’s energy propels every scene he’s in, and Ridley perfectly walks the line from unfulfilled underdog to blossoming Jedi.
Adam Driver is perhaps the biggest surprise of the four. His casting raised eyebrows: That dweeby dude from “Girls” is going to be the new Darth Vader? However, that dweebiness is actually fundamental to the character’s effectiveness. When he removes his helmet during his interrogation of Rey, the face you see — not intimidating or scarred or even especially threatening — is exactly what it needs to be. He appears young and vulnerable, suiting the budding, conflicted villain. His fits of rage fit in perfectly, illustrating that he’s still very much on his own journey.
There’s a lot about “The Force Awakens” that’s a little too familiar, as if it’s there simply to please fans or to follow a successful roadmap. (Another desert planet, another Death Star trench battle, and another young Jedi springing into action after a mentor is murdered by a guy in a scary helmet?) Yet there’s also some remarkable restraint shown by writer/director J.J. Abrams, writer Lawrence Kasdan and the rest of the creative team. We don’t see Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker until the very end, delaying the payoff until Episode VIII. Carrie Fisher leaves the audience wanting more of Leia in a role that feels underserved. Of the returning stars, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo has the biggest spotlight, which makes a lot of sense once he’s sadly, but seemingly inevitably, killed by Kylo Ren.
Despite Ford’s desire for the character to be killed off in “Return of the Jedi,” Han Solo’s death still has a major impact in “The Force Awakens,” primarily because of how fun the veteran actor is to watch. Ford slides easily back into the role, playing both the slippery smuggler and the passionate war hero in his most memorable performance in years. Everything’s there — piloting the Millennium Falcon, talking his way out of trouble, hanging out with Chewbacca, and imparting his wisdom to the new cast — because “The Force Awakens” is Han’s swan song. It’s the right move for the story (Obi-Wan Kenobi had to die for Luke’s journey to take shape), and the lines uttered in the scene by his wayward son Kylo Ren add emotional weight. But while it still doesn’t feel great to watch a childhood hero die a violent, definitive death, Abrams and company deserve credit for doing it right. In a movie clearly concerned with giving fans what they want, the director delivered a moment no one “wanted” to see, and ensured there will be no reunion between Luke, Han and Leia in this new trilogy, establishing that these movies aren’t just a “greatest hits.”
The things that don’t feel right are easy enough to move past. There’s a lot happening, and many of the big moments don’t get time to breathe. The original Death Star blowing up Alderaan was a major turning point in “A New Hope,” a testament to the evils of the Empire; you don’t get much more sinister than destroying an entire planet. In “The Force Awakens,” Starkiller Base blows up several planets at once, and it feels like a point on the map. Then Starkiller itself is destroyed fairly easily during what’s essentially a recreation of the climaxes from “A New Hope” and “Return of the Jedi,” which seems like an afterthought, given the more interesting battle unfolding at the same time between Rey and Kylo Ren. The movie, much like the audience, isn’t nearly as invested in the thin overarching plot as it is in the juicy character moments.
Ultimately, for as much as “The Force Awakens” borrows from “A New Hope,” it perhaps has just as much in common with “The Empire Strikes Back,” a (very enjoyable) part of a whole that moves things along expertly but doesn’t really tell a fully satisfying story by itself.
“The Force Awakens” isn’t perfect, and that’s OK. The original “Star Wars” movies aren’t perfect, either. But “The Force Awakens” succeeds in its goal of continuing the legacy with an accessible and infectiously joyous sequel. If “Star Wars” needs to exist in 2015, then “The Force Awakens” is precisely the film it needs to be, with a modern yet reverent sensibility that emerges in everything from the snappy dialogue to the notable diversity in the main cast. True to the ecumenical ideals of “Star Wars,” the fact that the three new main heroes are played by a white British woman, a black British man and a Guatemalan-American man doesn’t feel like a profound statement on the traditionally white male-heavy franchise; it’s simply the natural thing to do. It’s absolutely significant that the new lead is a woman, but Rey isn’t inspirational and exciting and heroic because of her gender – she’s inspirational and exciting and heroic because that’s who the character is.
“The Force Awakens” is the movie fans were waiting for. Thanks to Disney’s speedy release schedule, there’s less than a year and a half before Rian Johnson‘s Episode VIII, so now the cycle of lofty expectations can start anew. No matter how that one fares, though, it’s doubtful another “Star Wars” film — or any film, really — could enjoy the nostalgia-fueled set of circumstances that has helped make “The Force Awakens” special for so many. So enjoy it while you can.