Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens is a welcome comeback movie for the franchise, and fan love will be enough to propel most viewers past its flaws.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens takes us back to that galaxy far, far, away, where we find a much different playing field than the one we left at the end of Return of the Jedi. The Jedi Order is all but a myth, and in its absence, a dark new threat has risen to threaten peace in the galaxy: The First Order, which looks to finish what The Empire had started decades earlier.
The First Order has a new super weapon that will tip the balance in their war against the noble Resistance - but the true heart of their terrible power lies in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a fierce wielder of the dark side of The Force, who is bent on stopping The Resistance from locating a significant clue to gaining the power of the light side. Into this impending fray stumble three unlikely heroes - hotshot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), defecting Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and lonely scrap collector, Rey (Daisy Ridley) - who take up the mission to get vital information into the right hands, before The First Order seizes it first.
With The Force Awakens, we finally see the Star Wars franchise moving past the creative control of George Lucas, landing instead on Disney and Star Trek reboot director J.J. Abrams to deliver a new (but still familiar) Star Wars experience to both old fans, and an entire new generation. With that small task facing him, Abrams manages to meet most of the challenge; he provides us with a fun and adventurous Star Wars saga - or at the very least, the strong beginnings of one.
On a directorial level, Abrams does a good job of steering the Star Wars franchise away from the hollow, CGI-filled aesthetic of the prequel trilogy, and back toward real locales, props, costumes and some great production design (inspired by original Star Wars artist Ralph McQuarrie) that helps to both reestablish the familiarity of the Star Wars universe, but also advances things along, so that it's fun for the eye to rediscover certain Star Wars tropes all over again (ex: vehicles like TIE Fighters and X-wings, or various alien species in the backgrounds of shots).
While the aesthetic of the Original Trilogy is mostly recaptured in this new episode, there are inevitably some sequences and characters that still fall into the realm of "too much CGI." However, even in such moments, the design of the material and the directorial passion keep things feeling authentic, kinetic, and exciting enough to look past flaws in the execution. In short: Abrams and his team create the sort of Star Wars movie that OT fans have been hoping for, while taking the sort of restrained approach to utilizing current film technology, in a way that many detractors of the prequels wish Lucas had.
For those worried that J.J.'s Star Wars wouldn't fit the mold: you need not worry at all.
On a narrative level, the script by Abrams and Empire Strikes Back / Return of the Jedi writer Lawrence Kasdan leaves a lot to be desired. Like, literally: The Force Awakens will leave fans with more desire for answers and closure, than actual answers and closure. It's a somewhat confusing mismatch, as the premise, pacing, and composition of the primary (new) characters - Finn, Rey, Poe, BB-8 and Kylo Ren - are all handled well enough to create an exciting sci-fi adventure with compelling and interesting characters. And yet, at the same time, actual character and thematic development is not handled well at all in the film - to the effect that even after two-plus hours of following these characters, they somehow remain as enigmatic as when we met them.
The reason for this lack of development is clear: Abrams (and Disney) are approaching The Force Awakens as the first chapter in a new trilogy - and like every other cinematic universe out there these days (Marvel), the old paradigm of a film having to tell a complete standalone story has given way to a new system, in which narrative completion and development is stretched out over any number of sequels and spinoffs.
The Force Awakens is undoubtedly built to allow room for expansion, leaving a lot of gaping holes of mystery that won't be surprising to see explored in some later project (a book, comic, movie, game, etc.). In other words: the film is made to be the keystone piece in a much larger puzzle, and as a result, it feels incomplete as a standalone. (More like the pilot episode of what is going to be a great TV series.) Of course, since Abrams (a TV veteran) does a good enough job getting us onboard with this new adventure, the opportunity to flesh out the characters and mythos in later installments has already been secured.
In terms of performances, The Force Awakens certainly picked well for its lineup of new primary characters, and manages to rekindle some sweet nostalgia from the OT characters who make an appearance in this new installment. Daisy Ridley is the big breakout from the ensemble, evoking a gravitas that legitimizes a lot of the wild fantasy around her, while combining wit, physicality and some doe-eyed beauty to make Rey a captivating female lead.
That's not to take away from John Boyega, who does a great job as Rey's foil, Finn. Boyega manages to nail that comedic hero balance that made Han Solo crucial to A New Hope - including having a great banter and chemistry with his leading lady. Some of The Force Awakens best moments are when Boyega and the actual Han Solo (Harrison Ford) are onscreen together; Ford brings back the iconic smarmy charisma like no time has passed at all, including his timing and chemistry with Peter Mayhew's Chewbacca, or Carrie Fisher's Leia. The new guys definitely had big shoes to fill, but between two fine actors like Oscar Isaac and Boyega, they manage to get the job done.
On the villain side, Adam Driver continues to be a surprising (if not idiosyncratic) performer, and he delivers a villain in Kylo Ren who is a worthy successor to Darth Vader, while still managing to be distinctly different. Kylo Ren provides a lot of the actual "force" behind The Force Awakens, and it's Driver's smoldering intensity that makes it happen.
The downside is that other than Kylo Ren, every other major figure in The First Order is grossly underserved (Gwendoline Christie's Captain Phasma, Domhnall Gleeson's General Hux and Andy Serkis' Supreme Leader Snoke). Like with the heroes of the story, it seems that the filmmakers didn't feel the need to fully flesh things out in this one installment, as much development is skipped over, with hints that we'll get to know more, eventually. But from what was seen in this installment, there's at least the potential for some great future stories to be told using some or all of these First Order villains.
Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens is a welcome comeback for the franchise, and fan love will be enough to propel most viewers past its flaws. However, now that this new Star Wars creative group has succeeded in the basic "proof of concept" for their new era of the saga, perhaps the next chapter can delve deeper into some richer story, while it delivers a satisfying blockbuster adventure experience. But in the end, it matters not, this review. See the film you probably will. Strong enough, The Force is, to compel and entertain you.
Please refrain from posting SPOILERS in the comment section of this review - or other non-spoiler posts on the site. If you'd like to discuss Star Wars 7 spoilers, head over to our post on the Biggest Force Awakens Spoilers and Reveals!
Star Wars: Episode 7 - The Force Awakens is now playing 2D, 3D, and 3D IMAX theaters.