[This review contains spoilers]
From the moment the opening crawl began there was a palpable, tingling excitement permeating the theater, as only the most cold-hearted can avoid at least a small burst of childlike wonder at the sight of those golden letters that signal the beginning of a new Star Wars film hurtling across space. This one, the JJ Abrams-directed Episode VII: The Force Awakens, did not disappoint.
Introducing the Rebellion-turned-Resistance's golden-hearted flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) as well as new droid friend BB-8 (Bill Hader & Ben Schwartz), we’re quickly connected with an instantly likable young cast capable of moving the now open-ended series forward. The real stars, though, are Empire splinter group First Order's determined yet often unsure (importantly non-clone) ex-Stormtrooper turncoat, FN-2187 (a reference to Princess Leia’s A New Hope cell number), better known as Finn (John Boyega), and the plucky and self-sufficient Rey (Daisy Ridley), a lone scavenger of unclear heritage on the desert world of Jakku.
Despite how tiring it must be still fighting a somehow larger power three decades years later, the original cast members have aged well. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is a general in the New Republic now, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is just as charming and fun a scoundrel as before, and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) still doesn't show a single grey hair. C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) now has a (mysterious or mundane?) red arm, and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) comes around eventually. Even Admiral Ackbar (Tim Rose) remains at the helm of the navy’s controls.
A big fear leading up to Awakens was that the new and old characters would not mesh well as the two worlds collide, or that Abrams would struggle to utilize the returnees without making it too much about them or kick them aside almost entirely, though this concern abated almost as soon as Rey and Finn seamlessly banded together with Han and Chewie after being captured by the latter. It never feels like an outdated babysitting even when Rey displays round-eyed admiration upon meeting them, much like the fans themselves sitting beyond the fourth wall.
The looming foil to these heroes, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is soon revealed to be Leia and Han’s son Ben, an official canon replacement of the expanded universe’s Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin Solo, as well as a nice nod to EU's Ben Skywalker, son of Luke (both, of course, named in memory of Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi). Beginning as one of Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) protégés, he derailed his former master’s attempt at regrowing the Jedi by turning to the Dark Side. It is this background that sets the scene for Luke’s disappearance, as our protagonists spend the most of the film in search of him.
Overall, the plot line runs largely like glorified reboot of A New Hope with strong parallels throughout: a young, apparently orphaned and force sensitive individual escapes their desolate desert home planet (Jakku serving as Tatooine II) before being thrust far out of their depth and into intergalactic conflict. But many of these parallels are turned on their heads, such as the father-son dynamic; just as Luke once dangled over a bottomless pit at the mercy of his Dark Side dad, Kylo Ren flips the script and ushers in the end of an era by throwing his own benevolent parent Han into the abyss with a ruthless - and heartbreaking - fatal stab. One can argue it was predictable, but you’d be lying (or quite cold) if you didn’t feel at least a twinge of hope as the lovable hero tried to save his own son face to face at his own peril.
Sporting the much discussed lightsaber with twin exhaust ports near the hilt, Kylo Ren’s unstable but powerful blade is of course a symbolic representation of the anger and erraticism associated with the Dark Side itself. (It is also, interestingly, the first uniquely built lightsaber we see since Darth Maul and Count Dooku’s modified weapons in the prequels.) Not quite the archetypical ne’er-do-well, Kylo Ren exhibits emotional complexity the absence of which was often bemoaned in the prequels. It’s clear he has raw talent and certainly the pedigree, but he needs training, and it's interesting to see a Star Wars villain not fully formed and brooding over a storied past for once, but rather vulnerable, raw, and growing. Despite his cocksureness he even admits to Han he is struggling with the pressure before killing him, and it's a key facet to Kylo Ren’s character that we observe his insecurity and volatility.
Kylo Ren aspires to emulate his grandfather, Darth Vader, even wearing a mask in the same style and praying to his idol’s damaged helmet at one point. It’s here when one can’t help but recall how Anakin, Yoda, Ben, and even Qui-Gon Jinn were able to communicate with their followers from the afterlife through the force, and wonder if - and if not, why not - Kylo Ren has done so with his inspiration. And would there not be a disconnect as Anakin had turned back to the light at his latest living point? (It also begs the question if this what Luke has been up to in his exile, though with Alec Guinness unfortunately passing away in 2000 it raises the issue of who would play Ben’s ghost.)
And who is this mysterious larger-than-life hologram of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) that he reports to? His ancient appearance implies he is new only to us, but where would that place him during the events transpiring only 30 years before? With the Banite Line of Sith finally dying out with Vader's last breath, neither Snoke nor Kylo Ren hold the Sith title of Darth, so what are they really? Is it possible that Snoke is somehow a return of Darth Plagueis, Darth Sidious’ immortality obsessed late master? We have until May 2017 to speculate.
Throughout Awakens, many of the same classic Star Wars motifs are expanded upon, like the vaguely UK-accented bad guys parading around, now even more overtly fascist than ever before with Nazi-reminiscent rallies in front of their new genocidal super weapon. Despite being only a rogue faction of the disbanded Empire, their technological ability appears even more powerful with a Death Star-esque sun-sucking death ray (of questionable physics) embedded in a planet called Starkiller Base, which is capable of evaporating multiple worlds at once. That’s no moon, it is literally an entire planet this time, and the classic mission impossible to lower shields and destroy it from the inside repeats for the third, somewhat self-aggrandizing but still nevertheless wholly enjoyable, time. Combined with subtle expansions on the awe-inspiring little things, like Darth Vader’s force pull on Han's blaster evolving into Kylo Ren's force freeze of a blaster bolt itself, Abrams furthers the narrative as sort of a love letter to the original trilogy.
Despite these developments the militaries of both sides seemed to have changed little over the elapsed time (X-Wings and TIE Fighters are still not obsolete, apparently, despite the stark changes in weaponry between the first two trilogies and the archaic appearance of dead vessels on Jakku), though there is the small but notable addition of some sort of sword capable of sparring with a lightsaber, brandished by a Stormtrooper against Finn in his first lightsaber battle on the luscious Takodan. It’s the only time we see our galactic enemies smart enough to invest in lightsaber-resistant melee weapons besides General Grevious’ electrostaff-wielding MagnaGuards in Revenge of the Sith; for all their ineptitude at firing and seemingly little tactical or uniform changes, at least they now have enough sense to realize maybe they should designate at least one individual capable of countering their main threat. Still, in a series always revered for amazing us by introducing us to something new every episode, it did seem the growth in that area was a bit stunted.
Staying true to the original vision, The Force Awakens employs puppets over CGI whenever possible, and, barring the ravenous tentacle monsters on Han’s other ship, everything seems real enough to make you forget about fantastical digital editing. The 3D showings added depth without being overbearing exaggerations, and the overall visual representations ranging from lightsaber duels in the snow to riveting dogfights over gorgeous planetary displays were stimulating feats of beauty.
This is not to say there are still scenes which require at least some suspension of disbelief, such as, how did Rey and Finn find the Millennium Falcon unlocked, why do evil bases still not install security cameras in their hallways to better find escaped prisoners, why was there only one guard left with a force sensitive prisoner, and why was it one so susceptible that even a completely untrained Rey could seduce him? Not to mention the subtly strange implications of R2-D2 conveniently powering on with the rest of the map when the plot needed to advance, and Rey and Finn overpowering a trained and experienced Kylo Ren with little more than heart. But Abrams keeps things moving along at such pace and with such coursing excitement it’s impossible to linger on these detractions.
The film is also not without playful moments, though they’re thankfully created without a character anywhere near the often hilariously maligned and dreaded Jar Jar Binks, which seems especially pandering and silly in the light of our two new main characters' effortless chemistry and natural comic relief intertwined with real human emotion and dialogue.
Even at its most self-indulgent, The Force Awakens earns the hype by being a genuinely enthralling experience built through deft character development and plot drive mixed with authentic nostalgia derived simply through the Star Wars brand. Moving forward it is perhaps best to think of this as the first of three as opposed to the latest of the OT, though Abrams’ intent in crafting a beginning, middle, and end does make it a satisfying film in its own right, despite the near-literal cliff hanger of Rey handing a lightsaber (that chose her over Kylo Ren) back to Luke (who could potentially turn out to be her father or uncle) on a mountaintop, with Kylo Ren’s life status unknown.
From the quintessential opening scene in the dark of space to the ending that felt too soon despite a 136 minute runtime, The Force Awakens was one of the rare films for which the theater applause didn’t seem tacky, as it truly brought us at least a few parsecs closer to the beloved magical home we left a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.