The story told in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the experience of viewing it exist in near-perfect parallel. Director J.J. Abrams, charged with carrying the Star Wars canon past Return of the Jedi and – let’s face it – with reinvigorating a franchise that has been angering its most loyal fans since 1983, succeeds unquestionably. Fans are sure to be pleased. Abrams’ installment thoughtfully connects the events of Jedi to the present of The Force Awakens, decades on from the destruction of the second Death Star and the death of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader. He finds space for a weary Han Solo and Chewbacca and for a wise, wistful, sad Princess General Leia Organa. He dusts off the Millennium Falcon, locks a few X-foils in attack position and finds a way to make remnants of the Galactic Empire simmer with menace and existential threat.
Some of the familiar faces are used almost like a security blanket – what’s more comforting to a Star Wars connoisseur than the visage of everyone’s favorite fuzzball, Chewie. Others – most notably the hermitic presence of Luke Skywalker still out there in the galaxy somewhere – are the foundation of the film’s mystery and intrigue. Not one of these old friends, not even C-3PO or R2-D2, feels wasted – put on screen purely for the sake of nostalgia.
Old friends are not enough to kick off a full-on revival of this franchise, though, and it is the introduction of new, young, fresh faces that makes The Force Awakens the first entry in a (hopefully) worthy successor to the original trilogy.
To a large degree, Abrams’ new characters are answers to those found in A New Hope. Rey is a feisty orphan barely scraping by on a desert planet with questions about her family and her origins. Daisy Ridley – who, yes, conjures up Keira Knightley after a few months of CrossFit – brings more snarl and world-weariness to her character than Mark Hamill did to Luke Skywalker in Episode IV, but there are more similarities than differences.
The same goes for Finn, played by John Boyega, a reluctant good guy motivated by lovesickness as much as anything else (Han, anyone?). And for the droid BB-8, the souped-up Roomba who steadfastly serves Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). And finally for Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the masked Sith lord reined in by his master and a powerful General, Hux, played by Domhnall Gleeson (Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin, y’all?)
Blur your vision just enough and the new-but-familiar characters fit snugly in to A New Hope-esque plot. I am contractually obligated by Disney and Lucasfilm not to reveal much more in this mostly spoiler-free review, so I’ll just say that if you think about who is chasing who and the places they end up, The Force Awakens and its spiritual predecessor have much in common.
The skeptic in me wants to complain about the overwhelming sensation that while we get a new set of characters in Episode VII, we’ve kind of seen all of this before – to gnash and wail about Abrams’ almost clinical approach to directing as a fanboy, to make me feel perfectly comfortable in a world that feels like someone else’s vision. In this case, though, the cynicism is mostly my problem, egged on to some small degree by the pathological very-goodness of another Disney property, Marvel Studios.
After almost 40 years, it’s easy to fixate on what Star Wars meant to me as a kid and to forget what it actually is – a corny epic space opera that took its place as the greatest movie franchise of all-time because it set extremely familiar characters and story archetypes against a backdrop of stunning visual effects and a lived-in universe galaxy that seems to solve mysteries at a slightly slower rate than new ones are uncovered.
The Force Awakens delivers all of these things. It takes its audience to a bunch of new places in the galaxy – some sandy, some snowy, some covered in moss and vegetation – but it is the likes of Rey and Han – new and old – who make the journey from one system to another so enjoyable. There are flaws if you have a discerning eye. Perhaps the biggest in this one is on the Dark Side, where the villains struggle to live up to Darth Vader literally and figuratively. (It’s a flaw that actually makes perfect sense given the way things ended in Jedi.) The particulars aside, this is something you can say about every single Star Wars film, even those in the original trilogy.
Point is, those films are loved because of what they are, because they are a blend of imagination and familiarity. Their imperfections even seem to give them a little bit of a halo a few decades on. Abrams, if nothing else, understands that perfectly, and imbues his contribution to the Star Wars story with an appreciation for the traits that made them such a phenomenon in the first place.
The Force Awakens takes on a double meaning as the story unfolds. Its title refers to a few of its characters, of course. But it also seems to be aimed squarely at the people watching it in droves – the catharsis of watching a really, really good new Star Wars film after more than 30 years. The spirit of George Lucas’ original creation – dormant through a series of forgettable prequels – is alive and well once again.