“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” isn’t a perfect movie (none are), but it is a damn good one that delivers the goods. It pay homage to its predecessors, stays true to its source, and opens up George Lucas’ creation further possibilities. More importantly, it’s something a Star Wars movie hasn’t been in three decades: fun.
The set-up is elegantly simple, and mostly known at this point (note: minimal spoilers ahead). Roughly 30 years have passed since the events depicted in Return of the Jedi. The blow dealt to the Empire by the Rebel alliance crippled the regime, but did not finish it – at least not entirely. A successor called The First Order has risen from its ashes, and is locked in a Galactic stalemate with the new Republic and its resistance forces. Luke Skywalker has been missing for many years, and is believed by many to be a mythical figure at best.
A tipping point comes as in the opening scenes when the Resistance’s best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) receives a possible clue to Skywalker’s whereabouts, and a stormtrooper, Finn (John Boyega) decides to desert the ranks of the First Order. By chance, an orphaned junk scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) is pulled into the galaxy’s great conflict.
Chance is something that seems to drive a lot of the opening act, though when the Force is involved it could be interpreted (or at least explained away) as fate. Much as he did with his Star Trek reboot, director J.J. Abrams keeps the plot moving at a brisk pace that keeps the viewer from overthinking it until after the credits roll, but not so brisk that we can’t relax and enjoy the ride.
And what a ride it is. Abrams is a filmmaker who, like many a child of the ’70s and early ’80s, has Star Wars in his DNA, and co-plotter Lawrence Kasdan was responsible for many of the series’ best moments. (Michael Arndt, who wrote the first draft of The Force Awakens, no doubt deserves some credit as well.) Between them, they channel necessary tropes to make it look and feel like a Star Wars movie, while adding more to its universe and expanding its borders.
There are several subtle callbacks to the original trilogy, but they largely stop short of fan service. Yes, there’s a gigantic super-weapon, family secrets, et cetera, but thankfully those are details are secondary to the characters, who are the big draw here. This is indeed a torch-passing sort of tale, and both the old guard and the new get their moments. Dameron is the least developed of the three, but Isaac fleshes him out with an energetic performance and a dash of Errol Flynn-esque charisma. Ridley conveys a haunting and wide-eyed innocence tinged with sadness as a lonely young woman waiting on a desolate planet for someone who never come. Boyega plays it large as a reluctant hero who just wants to run until he can’t be found. Finn is this series’ callow and over-eager youth, and it’s a blast to watch him be reigned in by a cantankerous Han Solo (Harrison Ford), much as the latter did with a certain young Jedi.
It’s Ford, however, who steals the show as an older but not much wiser Solo, still the over-confident rogue with the rakish charm. Ford is far better served here than he was in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, and given the heavy lifting he gets to do drama-wise it’s no surprise the producers were able to lure him back. The onscreen chemistry between him and Carrie Fisher is still there, and the two share the movie’s most touching scenes together.
Star Wars has always had fascinating villains to pit against its heroes, and that is no less true here. Adam Driver creates an amazing portrait of self-tortured evil as Kylo Ren, an evil Force user with a zealot’s fascination for the late Darth Vader but with less self-control; little more can be said without spoiling key details. Domhnall Gleeson’s more restrained General Hux is a fascistic true believer competing with Ren for dominance as well as the approval of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), a murky figure filling the vacancy left by the late and unlamented Emperor Palpatine. Gwendoline Christie’s turn as Captain Phasma may disappoint some, as here character isn’t developed much yet.
Abrams and company succeed in walking a tricky tightrope with The Force Awakens. There are plenty of parallels and references to the original trilogy, but those seem to be fully dispensed with here, leaving the story in a prime position to stop looking back and start moving forward. Indeed, there are plenty of tantalizing plot threads left untied at the end, giving viewers plenty to discuss and debate until Episode VIII arrives in 2017. It’s going to be a long two years.