Review: Star Wars - The Force Awakens

Perhaps you’ve heard that there’s a new “Star Wars” movie out.

We last visited this universe in George Lucas’ widely criticized prequel trilogy which failed spectacularly to recapture the spirit of the beloved original films. When news broke three years ago that Disney had acquired the franchise and would be producing a new trilogy of films, fan reaction was mixed: would a Disney-fied “Star Wars” be “Star Wars” at all?

The answer is emphatically yes. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a triumphant return to the jubilant sense of adventure that defined the 1977 classic. Action-packed but grounded in emotion, “The Force Awakens” restores wonder to that galaxy far, far away.

“The Force Awakens” picks up three decades after the defeat of the empire in “Return of the Jedi.” Much was made of the decision to exclude Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker from promotional materials; as it turns out, “where’s Luke” is a question being asked by everyone in the movie, too. Skywalker, the last Jedi, has vanished. When a map leading to his location is discovered it sets off a race to find him between the First Order, born from remnants of the Empire, and the Resistance, led by princess-turned-general Leia.

I don’t need to tell you much about the returning characters, you know them already. Harrison Ford’s Han Solo has gone grey and grown wiser, but is unmistakably still the cocky, scruffy-looking scoundrel who stole our collective heart. Carrie Fisher returns as Leia, headstrong and confident as ever. But “The Force Awakens” is nothing if not a passing of the baton. The future belongs to new faces, and the real surprise is how much we fall in love them.

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega play Rey and Finn. Rey is a scavenger waiting for the family that abandoned her long ago. Not unlike Luke once did, she dreams of something greater. Finn is a stormtrooper who is shaken by the First Order’s cruelty and deserts his post. Joining them is Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, a brave Resistance pilot and his adorable droid BB-8, whose animated wobbling brightens every scene he rolls into. Pursing them is Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver. Ren is a masked warrior whose powers with the dark side outmatch anything we’ve seen before. Emotionally volatile and unpredictable, he is obsessed with finding Skywalker and fulfilling Darth Vader’s perceived destiny.

The seamless way in which “The Force Awakens” blends past and future is one of its great accomplishments, firmly rooted in the stellar cast. These performances are better than almost anything seen in the series before. Crucially the chemistry between these actors transcends generational lines. We instantly connect with the characters as their stories unfold and intertwine. They leave impressions on each other and on us.

Of course, the strong script goes a long way. Director JJ Abrams co-wrote "The Force Awakens" with Lawrence Kasden, the man behind the scripts of "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi" and the depth and richness of character he brought to those films is present here. Rey is torn between the hope that her family will come back for her and her dream of a better future. She sits in the sand watching starships come and go. Kylo Ren is a genuinely interesting villain with complex motivations. Han and Leia's story continues in a way that is truthful and touching.

It isn't all serious - this is an adventure after all. "The Force Awakens" is frequently funny. Finn gets a lot of the laugh lines, but everyone makes you grin at least once. There's a burgeoning bromance between he and Poe that you can't help but smile at. And what can be said about BB-8? Here's hoping he gets a "Minions" style stand-alone film. There are nods to the original film weaved organically into the story; some are played for laughs, others will make you cheer. The first appearance of the Millennium Falcon almost made me fist pump.

Technically, “The Force Awakens” is beautifully shot and tightly edited, a far cry from the computer generated sets and too-long, action-for-actions-sake sequences of the prequel films. There are genuinely breathtaking moments in the first third, though it can’t hurt to benefit from some of the most iconic imagery in film history. There is purpose and weight to everything. The visuals are elevated by John Williams’ soaring score. In one scene, a deep ominous brass announces the sudden arrival of Kylo Ren’s ship to battle, impossible to ignore as it rattles in your chest.

This is not a perfect movie, but it's darn near close. The political situation of the post-Empire galaxy is explained in blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments, leading to some confusion about how the Republic, First Order, and Resistance relate. There's a single extended CG-heavy sequence that adds little and could have been cut down to make room for little more exposition. Gwendoline Christie's Captain Phasma is criminally underused. Supreme Leader Snoke looks more "The Hobbit" than "Star Wars." Ultimately though these are minor quibbles next to the magnitude of this movie's accomplishments.

Some critics have complained that “The Force Awakens” is a retread of ground covered by “A New Hope.” Indeed, peel back some of the paint and it’s clear that this is as much a continuation as it is a retelling of the story for the next generation. But there is magic at work here. “The Force Awakens” is at once nostalgic and new, both a tribute and a promise of good things yet to come. This is just the passing of the torch. Imagine what comes next.

Score: 4.5/5

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  1. I have mixed feelings about the overly long CGI action scene in the middle. I think it's part of the formula. Every Star Wars film has a sequence in the middle that's meant to be pure fun. A New Hope had the trash compactor sequence, Empire Strikes Back features the whale sequence from Pinocchio, and Return of the Jedi has C-3PO founding a religion. (The prequels probably have some fun parts too?)

    I agree that the time spent running around in this sequence might have been better spent explaining why Leia is fighting with a "resistance" instead of leading the New Republic. But I also have to admit that it was fun and did a good job showing what Han and Chewie have been up to as well as giving us some more insight into the burgeoning friendship between Rey and Finn.