In theory, a critic isn’t that dissimilar from a Jedi: You have to keep your emotions in check. The Jedi are taught not to give into fear, as that leads to hate, which leads to the Dark Side. Critics should let go of fear when reviewing horror movies, because you don’t want to be known as the critic who wrote that The Happening was the scariest movie of all time. Jedi are banned from romantic love and attachments, as that leads to fear, which leads to hate, which … you see where this is going. No critic wants to be the one that wrote “it brought me to tears” in every review of the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation. For both Jedi and critics alike, there’s a delicate balance of objectivity and compassion that must be kept in order to do their jobs well. That being said, it’s nearly impossible for any critic to objectively review a new Star Wars film because, well, it’s fucking Star Wars.
Since George Lucas’ original Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope premiered in 1977, the franchise has grown to be the one of the biggest and most influential of all time. And despite Lucas’ attempted self-sabotage of the original trilogy with atrocious “Special Edition” updates and the much maligned prequel trilogy, the cultural adoration for the Jedi, the Force, the Rebellion, and the Empire, hasn’t waned one bit over the years. Which puts all the more pressure for The Force Awakens — the first new Star Wars film in more than ten years — to not suck.
As Yoda would put it: “Suck, The Force Awakens does not.” In fact, the newest chapter in the saga isn’t just a refreshing palate cleanser for the sour taste of the prequel trilogy, it’s the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. It builds on the legacy of the original trilogy while deftly introducing fresh characters and worlds for a new generation. Still, it’s not without its flaws.
Set thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, all is still not well in a galaxy far, far away. Gone are the Empire and the Rebellion, but, as the iconic intro crawl explains, the battle between good and evil still rages between the ominous (and enormous) First Order and the meager Resistance, led by Carrie Fisher’s General Leia Organa. There’s been a lot of speculation as to why Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker has been largely absent from the trailers and, as the crawl reveals, he’s exiled himself in hiding somewhere in the galaxy after he lost one of his young protégés, the villainous Darth Vader-worshipping Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, doing his best to shake off any millennial ennui acquired from Girls), to the Dark Side. Kylo Ren and the First Order believe that finding and killing Luke — the last Jedi — will put an end to the Resistance for good. Leia is hellbent on finding him first and the film opens on the desert planet of Jakku, where she’s sent her top pilot, the cunning and quick-witted Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), on a secret mission to retrieve what’s believed to be a map to Luke’s whereabouts.
Cue the John Williams score — Star Wars has returned!
It’d be easy enough for Abrams to mine the nostalgia of the original trilogy (“Holy shit, it’s the Millennium Falcon!” “Oh my God! Han and Chewie!”) all the way to the bank, but that’s not his style: He’s immensely respectful of the source material and his craft. Abrams doesn’t just want to make any Star Wars movie, he wants to make his Star Wars movie. And so, he — along with his co-screenwriters Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) — smartly keeps the nostalgia in check. Yes, Han and Chewbacca and Leia are back, but this isn’t about them, it’s about introducing the world to a new crew of promising leads.
It was something of a big deal when casting began, and Abrams said he wanted to cast relative unknowns in the lead roles; a noble callback to the production of the original Star Wars, in which all of the young leads were fresh and untested. It’s also tremendously risky to cast relative unknowns to lead what’s easily the most hyped film in more than a decade. Fortunately, both John Boyega and Daisy Ridley — as Finn, a rogue Stormtrooper with a strong sense of morals, and Rey, a tough and tactile scavenger orphaned on Jakku, respectively — carry the film with both grace and gusto.
Along with young newcomers like Driver and Domhnall Gleeson, the new characters in The Force Awakens speak in the same reverence of the characters in the original trilogy that most fans do. “Luke Skywalker, I thought he was a myth,” Rey says, wide-eyed and in arresting awe, to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo shortly after the two initially meet. Their enthusiasm for being cast in a Star Wars film is apparent and somewhat magical, and watching how much fun they have on screen is downright infectious.
But no one is as enthusiastic as Abrams is behind the camera. Along with cinematographer Dan Mindel, Abrams has given a lush, expansive, and gorgeous new makeover to the Star Wars universe, with sweeping, painterly landscapes of new planets (and lens flares, I’m happy to report, are kept to a bare minimum). Moreover, Abrams — already a proven action director, especially in space — manages to shoot the epic air battles between squadrons of X-Wings and Tie Fighters with masterful agility. God only knows how those scenes would play out with Michael Bay behind the camera.
Where The Force Awakens stumbles is in its rushed third act, which seems to be more focused on setting up the sequels than it is with landing on its feet. The stakes are higher in The Force Awakens than they ever were in the original trilogy, with The First Order in control of a monstrous weapon-planet called the Starkiller Base, which makes the Death Star seem as obsolete as a first-generation iPod. And the Resistance is far more scrappy than the Rebellion ever was, which makes their one-shot-or-we’re-all-fucked plan to take out the Starkiller Base half-assed, predictable, and all too familiar.
There’s a lot I can’t say about The Force Awakens. Disney did a stellar job of keeping the spoiler-y twists out of the trailers (which has only fueled fan speculation to otherworldly levels) and you’d have to be an agent of the Dark Side to spoil those surprises to unsuspecting readers. But Abrams, Arndt, and Kasdan get too preoccupied with delivering twist after twist — setting up what’s to come in Episode VIII and Episode IX — that it’s hard not to feel cheated when the credits roll. Still, the world has a new Star Wars film, and it doesn’t suck. That’s cause for celebration.