I don’t know if it’s possible for the more colorful Lucas-haters to have their childhoods “un-raped,” but what I do know is that after Friday, if you continue to insist, “There are only three Star Wars movies,” you’re just being a dick. The Force Awakens is a Star Wars movie through and through – hell, it even opens with just the Lucasfilm logo, not the Disney castle – and a wonderful one, slightly different than what George Lucas would have done but certainly as canonical-feeling as the best of the Expanded Universe. There’s less goofy stuff, less CG clutter in every background, the aliens feel perhaps a little off, and Stormtroopers have finally figured out how to aim (though in a very subtle joke, it takes Finn a moment to learn). It’s also “dark” in the way fans tend to love – if you’re online as much as I am, you’ve probably seen several articles going around insisting that the original Empire are actually good guys, and we never see them do anything really bad. Not the case here – new hero Finn (John Boyega) quits his Stormtrooper career after being asked to murder civilians on his first combat mission. These are indeed Space Nazis – and there’s even a Triumph of the Will moment to emphasize that.
The new Stormtroopers belong to the First Order, formed from the remains of the Empire with the goal of finding Luke Skywalker and killing him, as he is still the last Jedi and has gone missing (for reasons that become apparent later). The Republic still exists, but mostly abstractly and far away – new good guys the Resistance exist specifically to counter the First Order and find Luke first.
Okay, you’re safe now from further story specifics. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Finn encounters Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), desert scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and
new marketing gimmick astromech droid BB-8 on the desert planet Jakku, a graveyard for vintage trilogy vehicles like crashed Star Destroyers and AT-ATs. They are pursued by the First Order’s General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Dark Lord in Training Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), both of whom are quite prepared to commit mass murder in order to get the secrets hidden inside BB-8…who’s the closest thing to a comic-relief character onscreen, and mostly absent for the big climactic battle.
I won’t say how Han Solo and Chewbacca get involved, but by now you already know they do, and a lot more than I dared to hope. The nature of the plot is such that we don’t see much Mark Hamill, but there’s plenty of Harrison Ford, and he’s more fun here than he’s been since the last Indiana Jones, without that LaBeouf kid dragging him down. Yes, he does the finger-pointing thing; no, there’s no joke about shooting first (there is one about the Kessel Run, and it works). Han in his old age has a touch of Homer Simpson to him, apparently having launched a series of crazy money-making schemes to his name that never go quite right (once we’re done with hiding spoilers, there’s a wealth of fun backstory to be filled in in the new Expanded Universe; the spaceships may look about the same, but much has clearly happened in 30 years).
You’ve seen the new super-weapon on the poster, and it is pretty much what you think it is – with the caveat that the supposed science of how it works is probably utter nonsense, to be handwaved away by the idea that physics work differently in this galaxy or something (or are magically controlled by Force powers, perhaps – why not?). Thankfully, one holdover The Force Awakens has from A New Hope is that it does not feel the need to explain every new detail in its universe. Besides, that’s what the comics, novels and cartoons are for now.
Of the new characters, I’m most partial to Poe Dameron, who brings some Solo-style swagger and smart-assery to the new generation – it’s a shame his best screen time is mostly limited to the film’s early scenes, but I’ll be quite happy if he gets more to do in the next installments. Boyega’s good as a coward who wants to become something better, and a source of situational humor and heart. Daisy Ridley gets the more thankless job of playing serious, but her Rey does manage to have fun sometimes, and will become a role model for young girls to a greater degree – I suspect – than Padme ever did.
My biggest question mark going in was for Adam Driver, and I’m relieved to say he’s a great Kylo Ren. Where Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine had that mastermind quality where they’re confident in their power, Ren is like a spoiled, tempestuous teen prone to using the largest military arsenal in the universe to enhance his temper tantrums. That, in its own way, is more scary than a clear-headed tyrant. Plus, just wait till you see what he uses Force powers to do in the first scene (I want to say Sith powers, but he is technically not a Sith yet, just as Luke was not a Jedi for most of the OT).
As director, JJ Abrams subsumes himself to the house style, using lots of transitioning fades and wipes, and nary a lens flare that I noticed. Wisely, he has given Carrie Fisher very short scenes; as Leia, she can hold together the gravitas of her character in short bursts, but if you’ve seen Fisher speak publicly anywhere for the last few years, you’ll find it is a bit obvious that Abrams is cutting around the crazy. Returning faves Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nunb are disappointing – minus that extra layer of slobber and slime that made the practical aliens come to life in Jedi, they look too much like dry masks. They don’t really factor into the plot, and might as well be celebrity cameos, but still – shame. Newer aliens, unfortunately, look closer to the creatures of Abrams’ Star Trek than Lucas’ Star Wars; it’s not a deal-breaker, but one sequence in particular involving man-eating monsters could have used more of a Ralph McQuarrie design touch.
If you’re asking, “What about Captain Phasma?”, I warn that you might still be asking after you see the film. No, she doesn’t die screaming like a Fett, nor is she dispensed like Darth Maul, but she was clearly never intended to be a major character; just an authority figure denoted by her armor color. Changing her gender during the production phase was presumably easy because she has, as yet, no observable character traits. Sorry, ladies – Rey’s kick-assness will have to make up for it, for now.
While the primary story arc concludes with satisfaction, following many great action sequences, character bits and moments to make you cheer, things end with several unanswered questions and segues into the next inevitable installment – you may find that you learn less about the characters than you thought you might, particularly Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke, and even Rey to a degree (though nothing explains why her vehicle was labeled “Kira’s Speeder” at Star Wars Celebration – that name is not used for her at all). And not every spoiler you may have seen online is right: the movie does NOT, for instance, begin with Luke’s severed hand floating in space. That it leaves you wanting more, however, is not a bad thing – I can’t wait for more adventures of Rey and Finn and…well, beyond them, I don’t feel safe saying who definitely is or isn’t aboard for Episode VIII. I’m just hoping Lando comes back one day.
It will take some distance to fully assess and nitpick the hell out of The Force Awakens as only nerds can. I will, however, tell you that I walked out of The Phantom Menace deflated and disappointed the first time, out of Revenge of the Sith with some satisfaction, and out of The Force Awakens with tears in the corners of my eyes. (I’ve blotted large portions of the animated Clone Wars movie from my memory entirely.) To be fair, I am older and wussier. But you can take my Finn action figure when you pry it from my cold, dead hands, and I suspect most children you know will feel the same, inner and otherwise.
[Julia’s review: “ALL HAIL BB-8 IN ITS CUTENESS!”]