This is the film Star Wars fans have been looking for.
That much is immediately clear within the first five minutes of watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the first actual sequel in the franchise in the last 32 years. Every bit of promotional material for this film has played on our collective nostalgia for George Lucas’s original space opera trilogy, while slyly (and smartly) distancing itself from the shameful prequel saga. So does J.J. Abrams and his Star Wars reboot live up to the ridiculous hype that’s been building to a crescendo over the last couple years? The short answer is a resounding yes. Although it does retread a little too much over familiar ground at points, Star Wars: The Force Awakens accomplishes the seemingly impossible by simultaneously paying reverence to the Star Wars films of yesteryear, while introducing enough new interesting ideas and characters to spark hope for the franchise going forward.
In many ways, The Force Awakens feels like 1977’s original Star Wars remixed for a new generation. The film moves through countless nods to the first entry in that saga and in the abstract, it feels like the same movie: There’s a dreamer on a lonely planet with a much larger destiny to discover, a dark and mysterious villain who’s much more than he seems, a conflicted hero who doesn’t know if he wants to be part of a cause bigger than himself; heck, even the story hits most of the same beats as A New Hope, albeit with a few genuine changes and surprises along the way. Thankfully, while the overall plot leaves something to be desired, The Force Awakens is an absolute knockout in the one area that truly matters in a Star Wars film — characters.
While the old returning cast, including Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill, slide right back into their roles effortlessly, it’s the new cast of characters that steal the show. All four of the new leads — Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren — feel like compelling and fully-realized characters; in other words, they’re pretty much the exact opposite of the one dimensional stiffs that largely comprised the prequel cast. Out of the four, it’s really difficult to pick a favorite or one who stands out above the others, a testament to the stellar performances that each actor brings to the table.
John Boyega and Oscar Isaac have immediate chemistry and it’s a shame that they don’t have more scenes together, but the friendship between Rey and Finn is a driving force behind the narrative and feels more reminiscent of Han Solo and Princess Leia’s charming dynamic than Anakin and Padme’s stilted “romance,” which is a very good thing. Rey, the film’s ostensible lead, is every bit the strong female hero this franchise needed and Ridley is a revelation, while Boyega’s Finn operates as the comedic relief, but has his own interesting arc is just as captivating to see play out as Luke Skywalker’s or Han Solo’s in the original saga. As the core heroic duo, Rey and Finn don’t disappoint; the entire film could focus on just them and it would still be enjoyable.
Isaac’s Poe Dameron is underutilized, but he’s perhaps the most immediately likable character to have ever graced a Star Wars movie. Affable, reckless, and steadfastly heroic, Poe just seems like a great guy to be around and Isaac sells the hell out of it, further proving that he’s one of today’s best leading men. Out of everyone, however, it may just be Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren that steals the show, if only by the slimmest of margins. There’s no way to discuss details without giving too much away, but suffice it to say that Driver gives a suitably tortured and menacing performance that not only lives up to the massive shadow cast by Darth Vader, but adds a few new wrinkles to how the series portrays its villains. Ren’s cool confidence is kept in check by some pretty serious self-esteem issues and out of the entire cast, Driver may be the real surprise. This guy is magnetic and has a bright acting future if his performance here is any indication.
The Force Awakens adheres closely to the formula that worked so well for A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back specifically, raising the concern that it relies too heavily on nostalgia and doesn’t chart enough new territory. Honestly, this is a valid criticism, but to call The Force Awakens a carbon copy of what came before would be a major disservice to what J.J. and Disney have accomplished here. This is the best work Abrams has done to date, and while it commits some of the same sins the director has become known for with his other films — namely, that their structure kind of falls apart the minute you start seriously thinking about them — his style lends itself so well to Star Wars that it’s difficult to think of another filmmaker who could have pulled this off so successfully. Every frame of this film feels like it was made by someone who truly “gets” Star Wars, even if it does shamelessly pander to nostalgia at times.
The most important thing that can be said for The Force Awakens is that it goes a long way in making up for the sins of the prequels. It’s not only vastly superior to those three films, it acts like they never existed. The script is charming, humorous, and melodramatic in all the right ways, there’s not a single annoying character in sight, and the big moments feel suitably epic and emotional. Heck, even the lightsaber battles feel old school, wisely jettisoning the over-the-top acrobatics and pomp that typified most of the duels in the prequels in favor of a more traditional fencing style. While there are some parts that don’t work, feel too rushed, or are just poorly-explained — The First Order, AKA the bad guys, are pretty much identical to the Galactic Empire and the political climate from the end of Return of the Jedi to the beginning of this film is woefully underdeveloped — The Force Awakens largely achieves what it set out to do: appease the converted while looping in a whole new generation of Star Wars fans that will be drinking the kool-aid for years to come. Put it this way: as soon as the movie was over, I not only immediately wanted to watch it again, but just wanted it to continue.
Star Wars is back. . . and it was worth the wait.