Note: This review contains significant spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Luke Skywalker has vanished. So says the first sentence of the opening crawl of Episode VII: The Force Awakens. For the first time since Star Wars began nearly 40 years ago, George Lucas is officially, completely out of the picture and Disney is now running the show. But do not worry (even though I suspect some of you were cheering), because Luke Skywalker has vanished, and the franchise stewards very much care about that fact. Right at the outset, J.J. Abrams' new entry into the saga announces its intentions as a tale still ultimately about the Force-filled fate of the Skywalker bloodline.
Interestingly, the movie then spends its entire first act suggesting exactly the opposite, as a plucky little droid named BB-8 turns up on the desert wasteland of Jakku and becomes the subject of an intense search by the First Order, the evil remnants that arose from the ashes of the Galactic Empire. They have star destroyers and TIE fighters (and a base; more on that later) and they want that droid, which has been given a map revealing the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, but mostly functions as the plot's MacGuffin that draws everyone into the fray. We see none of the familiar characters for quite some time.
That's a wise choice. This is a movie that easily could've collapsed under the weight of its history, but by spending the first third establishing its new players, it allows the film to create its own identity (up to a point) and move things forward even though we know we're eventually going to be pulled back into matters of the past. It does such a good job of getting us into the narrative thrust of the new characters, in fact, that when Han and Chewy finally do show up, it feels like a surprise.
BB-8 has been given the map from a man in a Jakku village that the First Order, led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), promptly burn to the ground. They take prisoner Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), an ace pilot for the Resistance. A First Order stormtrooper designated FN-2187 (John Boyega) but quickly renamed "Finn" by Poe, experiences a crisis of conscience from his part in the mass murder at the village and, intending to defect, agrees to break Poe free in exchange for his help in piloting a ship off the star destroyer.
Meanwhile, BB-8 crosses the desert and ends up in the hands of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who spends her days searching through the ruins of destroyed ships for anything she might be able to sell for food. She lives in the remains of an Imperial Walker. (Wouldn't that get awfully hot in the desert sun?) Poe and Finn escape the star destroyer and crash in the desert, Poe appears to have died in the crash (no body is seen, so that should be a clue), and so Finn ends up crossing paths with and joining Rey and the chase begins, with everyone wanting that droid. It just so happens Rey's employer has among his lot of junk the Millennium Falcon, which Rey and Finn use to flee Jakku, but not before an exciting sequence where TIE fighters chase the Falcon across the desert sky, including through the ruins of a star destroyer. (Watching the Falcon take flight after all these years has got to be a thrill for any Star Wars fan. I know it was for me.)
These opening scenes establish all the new characters with amazing economy. What's immediately obvious is that these characters are dynamic, interesting, and grounded in a way reminiscent of the original trilogy. J.J. Abrams, along with this very good cast, have pulled Star Wars back to Earth more than 10 years after a prequel trilogy where the biggest problem of all was that the characters were too often rendered inert by their Sophoclean predestination. More to the point, Abrams does a much better job of getting good performances out of actors and striking a more relatable tone. There's humor, humanity, and a natural cadence that was oddly amiss in the prequels. I say this as someone who generally defends the prequels, but this movie rights many of the things those movies got wrong.
Take, for example Kylo Ren, the movie's chief villain. He's immediately intimidating, demonstrating great power of the Force and cruel actions. A big part of his ominousness is the mask, but he later takes it off, revealing a normal face that suggests he's merely trying to make himself in the image of his mentor, Darth Vader. (Vader is his grandfather, we learn, because Ren is the son of Han and Leia, and Ren turned to the Dark Side when wiping out the new Jedi that Luke was attempting to train.)
Ren has Vader's molten mask and speaks to it (promising to finish what Vader started) like Yorick's skull in Hamlet. Ren has anger issues and much internal angst (he slices up walls with his lightsaber), but Adam Driver's performance finds the right notes of fearsomeness mixed with immaturity that Hayden Christiansen never could for Anakin. This character is what I believe a young Darth Vader could've been. His conflict is that he feels calls from the Light Side of the Force while trying to remain in the Dark, essentially the opposite of Luke and Anakin. Ren works alongside General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), and they have sort of a Vader/Tarkin relationship, albeit at much younger ages. Both work for Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis in motion capture, appearing only as a massive holographic projection, making us wonder exactly how big Snoke is), and you can see a lot of pieces of the trilogy being set up by these early relationships.
In terms of our new heroes, consider me a big fan of Rey, who I hope carries this entire trilogy as the lead and can maybe someday be the entry point for my kids into the Star Wars universe (assuming I don't just start them at the beginning). Rey is a strong, independent survivor. When Finn grabs her hand and tries to pull her away from danger (a Hollywood trope the film satirizes), she objects. She holds her own in fights. At one point she is shown Luke's lightsaber by this trilogy's version of Yoda, Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o), and when she touches it she has a mind-blowing vision that suggests the Force awakening in her. (Question: Just how did Luke's lightsaber even get here? Who retrieved it from, presumably, the bowels of Cloud City? I look forward to learning all about it in 2021's standalone movie, Star Wars: The Legend of Luke's Lightsaber.)
Rey's past is a big mystery to clearly be explored in the upcoming movies. The obvious answer that would align with the franchise's focus on the Skywalker bloodline is that she is Luke's daughter, but that seems so obviously telegraphed that I wouldn't be surprised to see that assumption subverted. Daisy Ridley is terrific in a versatile performance often sold on intense, expressive gazes. Rey adeptly adapts at will, as when she uses the Force to repel and reverse Ren's mental probes, or amusingly uses a mind-trick to coerce a stormtrooper into releasing her.
John Boyega's Finn is also interesting, and his initial concealment of his true background as a First Order defector plays into much of his motivation. Among the newcomers, he has the Han Solo me-first role, because all he wants is to get away from the First Order and save his ass. But that, of course, changes as the stakes rise. But I also wonder what exactly broke him free of his obedience as a stormtrooper. Was it simply his conscience suddenly taking hold, or was there something else at play here?
All of these characters work well on their own, so by the time Han and Chewy show up to attempt to reclaim the Falcon, we're in good shape. But the great thing about Han and Chewy is that they bring everything home again. They, along with Leia, are the link that connects this sequel trilogy back to the original, and it works marvelously as a passing of the torch. The idea of Han having gone back to being a smuggling, fast-talking, debt-evading scoundrel after gotten his supposedly happy ending in Jedi is perhaps a little depressing but also amusingly appropriate. Harrison Ford plays this role so naturally that the performance is essentially invisible. But because Kylo Ren (born Ben Solo) is his son, the stakes are heightened. Leia hopes Han can bring Ben back from the Dark Side, but how this plays out — with the inevitable death of Han Solo at the hands of his own son, who is trying to purge the conflict of goodness from himself — is very much in keeping with the Skywalker bloodline tragedy. (One wonders exactly what will happen when Luke finally does get directly involved in this trilogy.) Han's death is a major moment in the franchise, and I hope it reverberates through this new trilogy. But it's probably the right choice to have it happen here; it allows the iconic character to pass the torch and step aside, making room for the new generation.
The plot is admirably lean and efficient, as A New Hope's was, but is probably the least impressive aspect because of its abundant familiarity. The Force Awakens has the odd distinction of simultaneously playing like a sequel, a remake, and a reboot. That's by design. Disney is trying to continue a famous franchise while making it accessible to a whole new audience while also pleasing fans who have been thirsting for Star Wars for a decade — and possibly longer, depending on how much mileage those fans got from the prequels. There's a lot of fan service going on here, where telling a story in the tradition of the original trilogy means the new storytellers have either paid it homage or plundered it shamelessly, depending on your level of cynicism. We have a villain who is very much Darth Vader 2.0; we have the familiar messy family dynamics of potential redemption but for now terrible tragedy; we have an obscure desert dweller who may be the heroine who can save the galaxy; and we have Starkiller Base, which is yet another Death Star that needs to be blown up with an attack on a very specific flaw. A lot of this plays like a newly released album of greatest hits.
Starkiller Base, a superweapon built into a planet that makes the Death Star look like a toy ("It's bigger," Han wryly notes), feels like a bit of a rehash. It's even defeated in a way similar to the other Death Stars, and probably too easily. Its existence continues to up the absurd Star Wars scale in terms of insane things that can be built and insane destruction that can be wrought. (I will say that when the weapon is fired that it's hauntingly depicted, but now what threat could possibly top this in the next two movies without looking silly?) The First Order uses the weapon to destroy several planets that include the location of the senate and fleets of the New Republic. I often wonder with such extreme examples of planetary destruction what the villains hope to ultimately accomplish. If you destroy everything, what's left to rule?
In terms of execution, this movie takes a refreshing back-to-basics approach. The prequels were ambitious and pushed the visual envelope to the breaking point, but The Force Awakens takes a more grounded approach with actors occupying more realistic sets and spaces. The visual effects are, of course, extensive and elaborate. But they feel more straightforward, natural, and tactile than the fantastical canvases of the prequels. The result is a movie that feels more lived-in and plausible on its terms.
Naturally we get a major lightsaber battle toward the end. It's notably scaled back from the prequel duels. Instead of being so amped up on Force steroids and stunts, Abrams goes for ominous atmosphere in the snowy landscape. The results are more emotionally resonant and character-based than jaw-droppingly new or amazing. That's a good thing. Still, I questioned how Finn, who had never held a lightsaber before the events here, could possibly survive a minute against Ren. I could possibly buy Rey facing off against him, given her innate Force abilities, but if Ren is such a lightsaber/Force badass, I don't see how either of them could plausibly stand against him, even with his injuries. After all, Luke had to train to learn his Jedi skills.
The Force Awakens is a promising start to this new trilogy. It follows dutifully in the tradition of the original and sets up a lot of new characters and new pieces that should be fun to see unfold over the next few years. In the process, Abrams has re-established an emphasis on actors and grounded characters. It isn't until the last scene where Rey (and the audience) finally meets the self-exiled Luke Skywalker. Just who will this guy turn out to be after 30 years? I look forward to finding out.