A quick note. This review is spoiler free. Star Wars the Force Awakens has some pretty major plot twists and I talk about those in the spoiler edition review. Be sure to check back for that once it’s out as I share some additional thoughts and observations about the movie that are not included here.
Anyone who has read my Star Wars vs. Star Trek series knows how much I enjoyed the first three Star Wars films (episodes IV-VI). So when the latest installment in the Star Wars series, Star Wars the Force Awakens hit the theaters, I, along with seemingly half the planet, was on the edge of my x-wing wondering if this series reboot would be worthy of is vaunted successors. Would a new filmmaker learn from the mistakes of Episodes I-III? Would we finally find the droids we were looking for?
Let me just say up front that Star Wars the Force Awakens is an iconic film. With the return of the likes of Princess Leia, Chewbacca, Han Solo, and the Millennium falcon, it packs quite a nostalgic punch. In many ways this is a homage to the first three films and a throwback to the great cinematic stories which swept us all up into a galaxy far far away long long ago.
A Film of the First Order
But there are new additions to the Star Wars milieu as well. New heroes, new worlds and of course new villains. No longer is the galaxy threatened by the all pervasive Empire or the plotting sith. A new force for darkness has arisen in the galaxy in the form of the First Order. This nazi-like organization is darker and certainly more fanatical than either of its predecessors. And they possess a weapon that makes the Death Star look like a wannabe, Starkiller base. This massive device is itself a planet, a large portion of which has been converted into a weapon capable of destroying several planets with a single blast.
Much like the secondary leadership role Darth Vader played in episode IV, the First Order’s second in command is a jedi converted to the dark side, Kylo Ren. Ren possesses more than just a stylized claymore of a lightsaber. He secretly struggles to resist the call to the light side and we get more of a window into this character’s makeup and background throughout this film than we did when we first met Vader. This character’s brooding intensity is greatly enhanced by the powerful performance given by the actor playing Ren, certainly one of the most riveting portrayals in any Star Wars film to date.
The force’s alarm clock finally goes off
But the forces of good are not without their heroes. We’re first introduced to Poe Dameron, an ace pilot for the Resistance. It’s been some twenty years ago since the defeat of the Empire and apparently the new Republic isn’t up to the task of opposing the First Order, but they are quietly supporting the efforts of the Resistance to remove the threat. Poe is on a quest to find none other than Luke Skywalker who has gone missing.
On his mission he stumbles across Finn, someone who has seen the First Order’s atrocities first hand and wants nothing to do with them. Finn alternates between being scared for his life and high-fiving his friends whenever they get out of their latest scrape. He also adds some welcome humor to the plot with his odd combination of naiveté and “we’re all gonna die” frankness.
Poe and Finn are soon separated and that is when we meet the film’s main heroine, Rey. A scavenger from a desert world, Rey has no aspirations other than surviving day to day and hoping to be reunited with her long lost family. But when she stumbles across Poe’s lost robot, BB-8 the cuter and rounder cousin of R2-D2, she gets dragged into the intergalactic search for Luke and the conflict with the First Order.
But the thrust of this movie is about more than finding Luke Skywalker. It’s about finding a new generation of jedi and new heroes to pick up where Luke and company left off. As Rey and Finn slowly learn about this cosmic conflict, the power of the force begins to take over and a new hero is forged out of the ashes of the old jedi order, one who will oppose Kylo Ren and the First Order and restore peace to the galaxy.
A new hope or no hope?
If this all sounds familiar it’s because it is. If you’ve seen Episode IV: A New Hope, the plot will at times feel very familiar. You’ve got a hero from a backwater desert planet, the search for a missing droid with crucial information, a daring rescue from an enemy base, even an against-all-odds attack on an evil planet-killing weapon.
And yet there is a darkness and a hopelessness that pervades this film that wasn’t there in any of the previous films (except perhaps towards the end of Episode III:Revenge of the Sith). You just get a sense that these are not the plucky Rebels from A New Hope. They will certainly put up a fight, but the rah-rah moments from the first three films are more subdued here, the victories less significant, and the defeats more devastating.
This dark tone is mitigated mostly by the presence of Han Solo and Chewbacca. Though it has taken me this long in the review to get to it, Han’s presence really is the heart and soul of this film, even moreso than Rey and Finn. The wise-cracking smuggler is back in full form and, aged as he is, the moments when he’s back in the driver’s seat of the Millennium Falcon are the best part of this movie.
Stretch out your feelings
Though I have raved about this film’s strengths, it is not without its flaws. But in an effort to keep it spoiler free, I decided not to address them in this review (For my expanded thoughts on the film see my extended review).
Yes, Star Wars the Force Awakens has a pretty big helmet to fill, but this movie shows itself to be more than a mere padawan learner. This is a worthy successor to the original films and captures their spirit in a way that should delight old fans and new.