Movie Review: 'The Force Awakens' is the Star Wars You've Waited For

Read our (spoiler-free) review of the new Star Wars film before you head to the theater.


 

Tonight’s rollout of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is the most culturally dominant premiere I’ve encountered. The fervor with which the series’ dedicated fans — and, obviously, moviegoers in general — have approached the film’s release is paralleled in recent memory only by the 1999 launch of the last “Star Wars” trilogy.

If anything, the lukewarm-to-awful reaction to the three prequel films only increases the anticipation piled upon “The Force Awakens.” This new journey to George Lucas’ cinematic universe does not merely represent more content, but content set to right the wrongs of the prequel trilogy. Early press for “The Force Awakens” seemed to promise a renewed focus on classic storytelling, an increased reliance on practical effects over computer-generated imagery and — vitally — the return of some of the franchise’s most beloved characters.

Can a film stand up to this amount of hype? Can a 135-minute movie not only satiate legions of long-suffering fans but also deliver on years of media focus, more than $100 million in pre-sold tickets and enough tie-in merchandise and marketing material to envelop the Death Star?

To put it simply: Yes. “The Force Awakens” is the movie you’ve been waiting for.

Given fans’ widespread desire to avoid reading any plot information whatsoever before seeing the film themselves, I’m going to proceed without stating even the most basic information about the story of “The Force Awakens.” It occurs a few decades after the events of “Return of the Jedi,” and you’re likely well aware the main characters from the original trilogy are reprising their roles.

Instead, let me stress that the tale told here feels worthy of the original trilogy. “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” are not held up as classics simply because of their popcorn appeal; cribbed though some of their plot points may have been, they were masterpieces of storytelling, character development and world-building. Many science fiction films feel like trips into a writer or director’s imagination; the original “Star Wars” movies felt like trips to a real galaxy far, far away.

The same can’t quite be said of the prequel films, which were too sterile to feel genuine and too poorly structured to match their predecessors’ scripts. “The Force Awakens,” however, checks off every box: Its story is compelling, classic and direct. Its characters are instant icons, nearly (if not quite) as memorable as Luke and Leia. And the worlds we visit over the course of the film are as complete and as believable as any planet that appeared in the original trilogy.

If anything, “The Force Awakens” feels so close to “A New Hope” that it might be called a bit derivative. In what is undoubtedly a savvy move, “The Force Awakens” seems to have been designed to recall the series’ debut film in as many ways as possible; it is very eager to assure fans that they are in good hands. It may go too far in these efforts, though; quite a bit of “The Force Awakens” treads on ground the series has previously covered with slightly altered players and circumstances. A cynical viewer could make the argument that this tendency undermines the importance of the original trilogy in the series’ overarching mythology.

There will be few cynical viewers at the theater this weekend, however. And even skeptics and casual fans will likely be swept up by “The Force Awakens,” in large part due to a near-perfect cast. The returning players slip easily into their roles, and Oscar Isaac, John Boyega and Adam Driver thrive. It is undoubtedly Daisy Ridley who shines the brightest; the young actress not only steps up to the task of carrying the most hotly anticipated chapter of a gargantuan franchise, she stands toe-to-toe with some of cinema’s most iconic characters without flinching.

The worst thing that one can say about “The Force Awakens” is simply that it is imperfect (although I’m sure some diehard fans will find other points to needlessly nitpick). It is not the best film of the year. But it is a first-rate entertainment and a careful, beautiful work of science fiction. More importantly, it is a movie worthy of being the sequel to “Return of the Jedi.” It is fun, satisfying and almost moving. And I’m willing to wager that viewers of all ages will walk out of the theater this weekend having regained some amount of the wonder they felt upon viewing “A New Hope” for the first time.

My Rating: 9/10
 

 

Categories: After Dark