They finally made a movie sequel to the original Star Wars trilogy. And the good news is? The Force Awakens easily captures the charm and excitement of the first three movies. Here’s our spoiler-free review.
And by “spoiler free,” we mean: zero spoilers. Other than like character names, and the fact that there are spaceships and lightsabers. Honest.
The Force Awakens passes the “grin test”—that is, there were at least half a dozen moments while watching this film that I found myself grinning like a maniac. Director/co-writer J.J. Abrams expertly mimics, at times, the lightness of touch that made the original Star Wars so much fun. There are a lot of cute moments that aren’t milked for their cuteness, but allowed to just happen.
There’s also the fact that we haven’t seen this much spaceship combat and planet-hopping insanity in way too long. Sure, we’ve had Abrams’ Star Treks, Guardians of the Galaxy, and a few others, but this movie delivers a lot more starship explosions for your movie-going dollar than anything else I’ve seen in ages.
And, more than in his Star Trek films, Abrams manages to make all the spaceship technology feel casual, and used, and finicky—there are a number of moments in The Force Awakens where things don’t entirely work the way they should, at first at least, and it’s reminiscent of the Millennium Falcon’s malfunctioning hyperdrive from The Empire Strikes Back.
The number one challenge this movie faced was making us care about its brand new characters: Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron, Kylo Ren, and BB-8. And here, too, The Force Awakens more than passes the test. After seeing this movie, I care about the new arrivals every bit as much as I ever cared about Luke, Leia or Han. Finn, Rey and Kylo, in particular, are given compelling backstories and satisfying arcs inside this movie, and they carry a lot of the film between the three of them. And actors John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver create performances that are instantly sympathetic, often using body language and facial expressions to convey a lot of what’s going on with their characters beyond what’s covered in their dialogue—Boyega, in particular, is a marvel of both comic timing and pathos.
The Force Awakens is at its best when it’s establishing these new characters, and just letting them run, without having to service much in the way of a larger storyline or mythos. So here’s the bad news: At times, the larger plot and wider story ideas don’t have quite as much sticking power, and some of the film’s second half ends up being a bit cue-cardy.
There are tons of ginormous honking spaceships and other massive space things in this film—because that’s one of the hallmarks of Star Wars, the franchise where it’s never just a moon. (Abrams very consciously calls out to the iconic opening shot of the first Star Wars, in fact.) But also, the sense of scale is super important throughout this film, both with the spaceships and other stuff. The characters in The Force Awakens are constantly dwarfed by their environments, and when we visit a desert planet or a snow planet, there’s a pleasing sense of massiveness in the background, with the characters often looking startled in the foreground.
This is a surprisingly well lit film, in fact, maybe because we have to be able to see the goodies at all times. There are no lens flares (that I noticed), but instead there’s a crispness to the image, that only makes the occasional blurry bit of VFX stick out a bit more. And Abrams has gotten a good deal better at shooting action, in a way that’s mostly clear and kinetic.
Many of the most emblematic shots in this film feature a static frame, into which something pops unexpectedly—like the famous shot of Finn’s head popping up in the desert landscape, for example. Abrams’ static lens sees a surprising (or scary, or funny) item lurch into view, and the whole movie is sort of a masterclass in the use of sight-gags as a tool of high adventure.
The visual message is clear: Don’t take anything at face value, because you’re never seeing the whole picture. Abrams loves to surprise and startle his audience, but he also goes into this movie with a laundry list of things that we’re expecting to see, because Star Wars. Instead of simply setting up expectations within the narrative and then playing off them, he’s in a position of having to play off our pre-existing expectations—so he gives us what we expect, but still tries to keep us off guard.
Most of us have seen the Original Trilogy so many times, it’s taken on a life of its own in our memories. Beyond the fact that we can all quote Yoda from memory, there’s also the weird distortion that happens when every single cute moment has become a T-shirt or a meme. You’ve probably attended a Star Wars wedding. The Force Awakens is as much a sequel to our collective memory of those films as it is to the films themselves.
In that context, a lot of The Force Awakens is about revisiting the big ideas of the Original Trilogy through the eyes of a new, younger set of characters, and rediscovering them. There’s no way to strip away the cultural baggage that’s accrued to the first three Star Wars films, and get at the essence of what they actually were—so instead, this film aims to connect to that collective miasma of shared ideas, while making it all new again.
And to some extent, nostalgia for Star Wars has become like the description of the Force from the very first movie: It’s an invisible energy that binds all Star Wars fans together. Nostalgia can cloud your mind, can move large quantities of toys, can go to either the dark side or the light side. It’s hard not to feel at times, watching this new movie, as though what’s awakening is our fond memory of the classic movies, with all the power that goes with it.
There are copious amounts of fan-service and shout-outs to the old movies here—not surprisingly—but at best, these moments just add to the feeling of a world with history, a universe where everything has a layer of grunge. In fact, The Force Awakens very much adheres to the “used future” idea of the classic Star Wars, and technology has both aged and advanced, in ways that feel somewhat realistic and tactile.
But at times, nostalgia definitely overwhelms storytelling, and at times the determination to give us the “greatest hits” of Star Wars is a little too ingratiating.
The Force Awakens is great, as a fun, zippy space adventure about brand new characters exploring a galaxy we already know and love. I’m already a huge fan of these new characters, and dying to see more of them. But when The Force Awakens tries to connect to any larger plot arcs, or to conjure any sense of awe—let alone the wonder and intensity that you might remember from The Empire Strikes Back—it stumbles somewhat. And like I said, the second half of the movie contains some key bits that feel like they come directly off cue cards. The movie seems not to be able to make itself care that much about certain plot points.
That said, the more I think about this film, the more I like it. It’s not in the same league as the first two Star Wars films, but that’s probably not a fair comparison. Nor is it a great film, on the level of Mad Max: Fury Road. But it is an endearing movie that left a strong impression on me. Some of the stuff that left me unconvinced when I walked out of the theater is sitting better with me after mulling it over—which is usually the sign of a film that’s going to reward a second or third viewing.
And at the very least, the brand new Star Wars movie is outrageously fun and entertaining. Witness the awesome power of a fully operational movie franchise.