Well, let’s get to it. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is neither better nor equal to the classic trilogy, but it’s a helluva lot better than a few prequels that shall not be named. J.J. Abrams has made sure of that with a welcome return to the whiz-bang charm and practical sets of those older flicks, as well as a healthy dose of nostalgia in the form of Han, Leia, and Luke. When Han and Chewy stalk on board their old stomping grounds, the iconic Millennium Falcon, with the irascible Harrison Ford exclaiming “we’re home,” it’s enough to make everyone in the audience feel like a kid again. More importantly, Abrams has introduced three new heroes who are all fascinating and likable in their own right.
John Boyega is a ball of nervous energy as Finn, a former Stormtrooper reluctant to play any part in the ongoing war between the Resistance and the Empire’s descendant, the First Order. Regardless, he friends easily and finds himself playing the hero (or trying to) anyway when his pals are in danger. Daisy Ridley is a joy as Rey, a young woman stranded on a desert planet who lives out her days scavenging for machine parts she can sell for food, until fate traipses along and takes her on an adventure. She’s so good she makes you forget that Rey has no discernible arc over the course of the movie. Much to Finn’s surprise, Rey can take care of herself, and Ridley carries that physicality and resourcefulness with a screen presence not often seen in actors her age. “The Force Awakens” hints at a potential romance between Finn and Rey, and while I don’t buy it just yet, their thrilling meet-cute friendship has laid the right foundation for it in future installments.
Solidifying himself as the most versatile actor of his generation, Oscar Isaac is perfectly charismatic if woefully underused as Poe Dameron, a certified Star Wars archetype: the sublime fighter pilot with a soft spot for his droid. Speaking of, besides Rey, the little orange-and-white BB-8 is the film’s breakout character, somehow topping R2-D2 as the cutest robot in cinematic history. Adam Driver brings surprising complexity to the dark-sided Kylo Ren, the chief villain and an emotionally unstable cannon harboring some complicated family history. Less successful additions to the mythology include an Emperor-ish puppet-master who looks like Voldemort and sounds like a cartoon, and a tiny, goggled creature named Maz, an attempt to recreate Yoda without actually bringing him back and a relative waste of the great Lupita Nyong’o’s talents.
Even for a Star Wars movie, suspension of disbelief is paramount to enjoying “The Force Awakens” without nitpicking. Take Rey’s quick aptitude for wielding a lightsaber versus one of the Knights of Ren, or that a very familiar MacGuffin is once again utilized for intimidating and climactic effect. For the third time, in fact. If there’s anything you can fault Abrams for, it’s perhaps hemming too close to the classic trilogy, rehashing and remixing props, planets, creatures, dialogue, and entire plot beats from “A New Hope.” What starts out as a fresh spin on the lore we know and love for the first half eventually devolves into something predictable, at least once General Leia enters the fray.
But J.J. knows character and he knows action, and when he shoots a simultaneous display of Finn battling stormtroopers on the ground and Poe battling X-wings in the skies above, it’s balletic, maybe even poetic. And it’s hard not to smile while Han and Chewy remind Hollywood how to sell banter in the midst of intergalactic chaos, their funny bromance the best and brightest part of an already light-hearted picture. Regardless of narrative flaws, the supposed heir to Spielberg passes the test by giving his audience people they can root for or root against in Rey, Ren, and the rest. “The Force Awakens” isn’t God’s gift to cinema, but it lives up to its rollicking brand, conjuring childhood memories and insuring the fun it inspires is quite infectious.