A review of The Force Awakens is inherently a review of the films that came before it. The long-anticipated follow-up, or any Star Wars film for that matter, simply cannot occur in the vacuum of space. The series holds too much cultural and personal significance to not draw comparisons to its predecessors. Enough time has passed for our nostalgia of the original trilogy to outweigh its flaws: wooden dialogue, callow acting, too many white people in space, all pale (heh heh) in comparison to the epic, melodramatic Western we’ve come to love (though we still haven’t had enough decades since the prequels to recognize them for what they are: unnecessary but entertaining flicks, that are, yes, also abominations-that-should-be-killed-with-fire). As such The Force Awakens is put in the tough position of competing with the wistfulness of the past and concurrently correcting its mistakes. Luckily, J.J. Abrams hits the perfect chord to satisfy all of our requirements, deftly mining the original trilogy for what does and doesn’t work, and putting forth the best film in the bunch in 35 years.
The return to form of Star Wars is noticeable within the first few minutes. Previously goofy and harmless Stormtroopers are immediately cast in a new light (literally) as a death squad is enveloped in ominous strobe lighting in their decent from a pitch black Star Destroyer. As they hit the ground running and our first trooper falls to a blaster shot, his helmet jostling loose and blood oozing from the creases in his armor, we are confronted with the hard reality that each white-and-black-clad trooper is more than an action figure. These aren’t your dad’s Stormtroopers (the closest the original canon gets are the charred remains of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru). Abrams literally removes the helmet, revealing them as a living, bleeding, and manipulated people who reach out for meaningful connection when the lasers start flying. Coupled with an obvious love for BB-8, the shocking reveal of a new set of Sith powers, and the ruthlessness of the First Order, there is more emotion packed into that first scene than I have surely felt in any previous installment. The Force Awakens doesn’t let up on that pedal for the next two hours. It is full of both tender and fist-pumping moments, and is without a doubt the funniest Star Wars.
These broad stroke corrections are welcomed, but The Force Awakens never loses sight of its roots. There are just enough references to keep us smiling like idiots. After all, Awakens is practically a remake of A New Hope: a droid carrying secret documents is pursued on a desert planet, picked up by a band of misfits who lead it to a rebel army that must battle the Empire’s most powerful weapon to save us all. But Awakens is so refreshingly self-aware that its blatant copy-paste and other flaws (Leia has lost her wit and ferocity, her relationship with Han is paper thin, Maz Kanata, to name a few) don’t really matter. It leans in to what it knows it really is: a rehashed action movie full of beautiful set pieces and lovable characters. However, the latter is what jettisons The Force Awakens into the stratosphere that only Empire and A New Hope previously occupied (the first nine minutes of A New Hope are jaw-dropping in what the editing is able to accomplish, not to mention establishing possibly the best sound design ever?). Each are independently great on their own attributes: Roger Ebert called Empire “one of the most visionary and inventive of all films”, A New Hope is groundbreaking in every sense of the word, and while The Force Awakens is certainly not at those levels, the acting of Episode VII brings the entire universe to brilliant new altitudes.
John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are big-hearted and explode from the screen from their first encounter forward; they act as if they still can’t contain their excitement of being in a new Star Wars movie. Daisy Ridley is, in a word, magnetic. If I were a 12 year old kid I would surely be crafting my Rey Halloween costume this very minute. Abrams noted what makes Han Solo and Darth Vader so great (they are conflicted, three-dimensional characters) and injects Awaken‘s leads with the same complexity. Finn (John Boyega) is a conscientious objector who dodges bombing runs to save innocents, yet will take the first opportunity to flee to the Outer Rim. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is incredibly adept at everything she does (and for God’s sake, do not hold her hand), but cannot let go of the past nor see beyond what is right in front of her. Adam Driver, who plays the baddie Kylo Ren, is perfectly cast, particularly because he is cast against type. His lanky figure, wavy hair, and goofy profile is not what you’d expect from a ruthless villain (Darth Emo, is one way to put it). But his childlike features play perfectly to the character and its not hard to make the jump that this kid has been warped in to a monster, which makes the shocking culmination of his manipulation that much more believable and the parallel between Kylo and Vader that much more apparent.
Star Wars is the Beatles of cinema. It introduced the world to what the genre could be, pleasing crowds and pushing the form forward, influencing every filmmaker along the way. Similarly, there may come a moment when we recognize the apprentice as greater than the master. With the foundation of The Force Awakens in place, that moment may be in a galaxy not too far away.
(For the record: 5, 4, 7, 6, 3, 1, 2.)