We all know what it felt like, or what it will feel like to those who haven’t seen it, to have the large title scrawl appear on the screen indicating the proud return of one of Hollywood’s most cherished franchises. Even the title, The Force Awakens, offers a promise that things will be different from the dreaded prequel films and that the series itself will awaken and voyage back to its former glory. There’s a pride to Star Wars, a mystery to its reboot, and the internet has been ablaze with the fires of speculation for months. Disney refused to have the film screened ahead of time for awards, and outside of some good-looking trailers, we were going just on a hunch that it would be what we wanted as fans, but also something new that we can dig our hands into. That’s what’s most impressive about the nearly flawless Episode VII.

There’s plenty of fan service to be seen, sure, and the plot is riddled with familiar tropes and sequences from the original trilogy, but J.J. Abrams has done exactly what the series needed. He manages to backtrack just enough to capture the nostalgia of fans, making us love how familiar and lived-in the world feels again, but he also crafts brilliant new characters that we can’t wait to see again. It’s the perfect mix of past and future, creating an ‘in the present’ new film that completely blew me away. It’s gorgeous, funny, and nearly perfect.

I will not spoil the plot, in fact, there may be a podcast put on this site where I delve into the spoilers of this film at some point next week, but for now, let’s talk about what we knew from the trailers:

The Empire is gone after Vader threw Palpatine down the reactor shaft of Return of the Jedi, but all is not well for the new Republic led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher). Democracy is crumbling, thanks to the new sinister enemy of the First Order, the remnants of the Empire’s wit and Storm-trooper-led brute force. The First Order, run by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his two main generals, Sith wannabe Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), is strong with the Dark Side, and still interested in building up the former glory of the Empire.

Our story begins with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his cute little BB8 droid carrying a critical piece of information for the Republic/Resistance. When the First Order shows up to deal with them, one storm trooper (John Boyega) defects, realizing that the First Order’s tactics and aggressive frisking are inhumane. He ends up on the desert planet of Jakku where he runs into Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who is stranded on the island ‘waiting for someone.’ When the First Order comes looking for them and the little BB8 droid, now with Rey, they decide to flee and start an adventure together, eventually running into the much older Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his first-mate Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

The first thing to note is how excellent the new characters are. As far as speculation about their origin, or parentage, you won’t get any of that from me, but just know that the characters that are involved here make sense with the chronology of the other films. This is not a complete departure from the grouping of people that kept the saga together. The real stand-out, by far, is Rey. Daisy Ridley crafts a protagonist of a kind-heart, tough personality, and emotional demeanor that cuts to the core of what this series is all about. She begins our story alone, and clearly is resourceful, wise, and powerful beyond her years, but she also is lonely and more emotive than we would expect. Her lineage, and who she is related to remains undiscovered, and we know that it’s an important puzzle piece that will eventually be filled in, but as an independent character, she’s the best that we’ve seen in the series in years.

Part of it is the fact that she’s very much connected to the way we associated with Anakin and Luke, especially Luke, but she’s a resourceful character who comes from nothing. We see her scavenging for parts on Jakku, and her knowledge of spacecraft ends up coming in very handy later in the film. She brings with her both vulnerability and charisma, and the scenes where she is alone with BB8 are nothing short of adorable. Then, we watch her and Finn grow together as their friendship blooms. Finn’s character is the embodiment of all of us. He’s scared of the world he’s been thrust into, and although he has a solid moral compass, he also isn’t particularly powerful or wise. He’s along for the ride in a story that’s bigger than him, and his befriending of Rey, someone much more attuned with the mythology of Star Wars, is the beginning of a really nice relationship.

In terms of other characters, the main original cast that we spend the most time with are Han and Chewy, as Leia is stationed back with the rebels through most of the film. We understand that from the trailer, and in terms of a lead performance, this film is very much a ‘Harrison Ford’ movie. He has a ton of screen time, and his performance as a much older, world-weary Han is excellent. He manages to create a mix between the youthful bluster of younger Han and a seasoned war veteran who has seen too much. Chewie, BB8, C3PO, R2D2 and other supporting characters really aid the main three characters, who are Rey, Finn, and Han.

The other main players are an excellent, and quite funny, Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, Domhnall Gleeson as a Naxi-Esque war general with a great monologue in this film, Andy Serkis as the intimidating Supreme Leader Snoke, and Lupita Nyong’o as Maz Kanata, who really is the one to help set a large subplot of the film on its path. These supporting players, mostly from better known actors, really do a solid job, leaving the unknown Daisy Ridley and John Boyega with plenty of solid actors to fall back on. It doesn’t hurt that Harrison Ford plays the Alec Guinness role of being the anchor for the young performers.

That leads us to Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. There’s so much that can be spoiled about his character, but we find out that he’s not quite a Sith. His emotional arc is a big part of what drives this film, and also the decision making that drives him. The evil characters in here have real motivations, and like any good adventure film, a solid villain adds to the movie tremendously. That’s no different here with the unstable and very interesting Kylo.

In talking about Rey and Kylo, even without giving spoilers, the film is very comfortable to allow itself to unfold even without any true exposition scenes. This leaves many plot devices left unexplained and for some, that might be problematic. There are going to be times during the movie where you will wonder how a certain character got a certain object or to be familiar with a certain place. Eventually, it will be explained, but for now, any cliff-hanger plot elements will be left for you to think about while we wait for Episode VIII. Don’t let the frustration of not knowing pieces of information stop you from enjoying the way the film concludes, and in speaking about the conclusion, the only flaw in the film for me is the other plot of the film that feels like a ploy to get the characters in a singular location together. The new ‘Starkiller Base’ isn’t that exciting, and it’s not much different than what you’ve seen before. The final battle is about the important characters, and less about ‘saving the world’ like in A New Hope.

The practical effects and real sets make this very unique looking, and it’s clear that this film has a very new ambiance compared to the others. This is very much a showcasing of the Star Wars films in a new light, and the way that the battles and world-building are done in a real-world setting are just amazing. It may follow a similar path that the originals took, but it was made with such care by a director in JJ Abrams who loves Star Wars, and not only does he love it, but he understands it. He understands it in a way that George Lucas never did. This is a loving homage to the originals, but improves upon them with newer (and often better) characters and a more robust and grounded universe. With an amazing Daisy Ridley as Rey along for the ride, the next few movies could be truly incredible, and not only did the force awaken, it also came to remind you how it really feels to be a part of it.

 

5 stars

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