Let me take the mystery out of this review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens is good. It’s really good. You’re going to see it regardless of what I say, but trust me, you’re going to enjoy the heck out of it!
Anyone who has been alive in the last fifty years knows the story arc of the Star Wars franchise, starting with 1977’s Star Wars IV: A New Hope, a film that introduced us to the great cinematic universe and prescient vision of director George Lucas. You know the story, about young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who’s stuck on a sleepy planet called Tatooine, but dreams of joining the Rebel Alliance so he can fight the evil Empire.
Along the way we meet his sister Leia (Carrie Fisher), his Dad (David Prowse) and his buddies the irrepressible Han Solo (Harrison Ford), furry sidekick Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and ‘droid pals R2D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). Two more films were made in this original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), and together they did a great job expanding on the epic good versus evil storyline with fun, verve and wit.
Then there was a long lull after which Lucas and his creative team gave us The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005), all of which are technically far superior to the original films, but their storylines and performances are inferior, sometimes quite inferior (not to name any names, teen Anakin!). For Star Wars fans, it felt like The Force had just run out of the franchise, even as it remained successful with children’s programming, animation, books and graphic novels (not to mention a staggering merchandising universe that’s produced billions in revenue).
The latter trilogy did add an interesting origin story to the Star Wars universe, however, as we met a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his budding young Padawan Anakin (Hayden Christensen), who is lured to the Dark Side by the evil Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Anakin turns out to be Luke and Leia’s Dad: After he turns to the Dark Side he is renamed Darth Vader.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, what does this Star Wars history have to do with The Force Awakens? Because the more you know of the mythic universe and story of the series, the more you’ll be able to appreciate the neat job that the writing team of Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote two of the original films), J. J. Abrams (who also directs) and Michael Arndt have done weaving this new film’s story into everything we already know.
The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after Return of the Jedi, focusing mostly on an orphaned salvager Rey (Daisy Ridley) scraping by on a barren, desert planet, the charismatic Rebel Alliance pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Stormtrooper with a conscience Finn (John Boyega).
When the Empire attacks, cute little droid BB-8 is entrusted with a secret message for the Alliance, a message that inexorably draws the droid and its human companions into the Alliance vs. Empire conflict as bad guy Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) desperately seeks to recover the hidden information.
A lot of characters from the original movies show up in The Force Awakens, and it’s a delight to see them back on screen. In particular, Ford delivers an entertaining performance as an older, wiser, but still roguish Han Solo. A lot of original storylines show up too, however, including the aforementioned droid with a secret message, story elements that seem rather derivative at times.
The story spans many planets and introduces quite a few new characters, including the leaders of a Dark Side-fueled totalitarian military group born out of the ashes of the Empire, and the new Rebel home planet with hangers full of X-Wing fighters, droids wandering the halls, and a fun mix of old and new alien creatures.
But the film’s called Star Wars: The Force Awakens and that’s exactly what is happening as the story unspools, including one of the characters learning that they have great prowess with The Force, including the ability to use a rather famous light saber to extremely good effect.
Having said all that,, there are some problems too, the most important of which was Carrie Fisher’s performance, which I found lackluster at best. With such an important role as now-General Leia, it seemed more a nod to her history with the franchise than a credit to her acting. Still, no Jar Jar, no Ewoks, no Salacious Crumb, viewers will still be counting their blessings.
There were a number of moments during the film where I was grinning and many of us laughed in delight as certain dialog was repeated from older films. Seeing X-Wing fighters battle Tie fighters, having huge Star Destroyers fly across the screen and even the satisfying zwwwhiirrr of a light saber powering up were all really terrific. The fact that there’s also an interesting storyline is a great bonus. It’s what was missing in the second trilogy of films and gives me hope for the next few Star Wars films that are on the slate.
Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens is easily one of the best science fiction films of 2015 and is a splendid addition to the franchise, offering considerable homage to the original films while expanding the universe in new and interesting ways. I’ve already bought tickets to see it again in a few days, and might well see it a third time while it’s still on the big screen. It’s that good.