Those big sounds you hear booming through the galaxy are a bunch of people exhaling. The first exhale no doubt comes from Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams, who had just a little bit of pressure on his shoulders with this one. The other, larger exhale comes from the legions of Star Wars fans, who were eager for a new film that had the excitement, scope, and heart of the originals. And a tiny exhale comes from types like me, non Star Wars evangelists who were just hoping for an enjoyable couple of hours at the movies.
“Three stars for regular people,” I told a friend on the way out. “Four stars for Star Wars die-hards.”
After three prequels that were largely wooden and dull, director Abrams has finally given us a Star Wars sequel that will appeal to all, especially those invested in the series’ mythology. Better still, in its own way, the film is quietly radical. Its two biggest heroes are a reluctant Stormtrooper named Finn played by John Boyega, who is black; and Rey (Daisy Ridley), a wily scavenger from the planet Jakku, who is female. It’s wonderful to see the Star Wars universe opened up like this—for it to embrace new fans and give us new kinds of heroes to root for.
Reviving old sci-fi franchises seems to be Abrams’ special gift. He did wonders with the Star Trek films—they were funny and fresh and exciting. The key to a good reboot is that it has to play on two levels, much the way an animated film should appeal to both kids and their parents. In this case, the film had to contain enough nods to the deep and rich (and seemingly bottomless) Star Wars mythology, while also telling its own discrete and entertaining tale.
So while it’s wonderful, of course, to see Han Solo (Harrison Ford), his loyal sidekick Chewbacca, plus R2D2, and Princess—now General—Leia (Carrie Fisher), it’s also great to meet the new characters, who are given their own mythologies, their own inner lives. Even the new droid, BB-8, is adorable—a kind of cuter, roly-polier version of R2D2. (Have one under the Christmas tree for your pint-sized Jedi, or feel their wrath.)
I won’t tell you too much about the plot, but I’ll give you a rough sketch: Luke Skywalker, believed to be the last remaining Jedi on the side of good, is in hiding, but is needed to help the rebels (now called the Resistance) defeat the Empire (now called the First Order). The Resistance’s best fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) has been given a map to Skywalker’s whereabouts, but when Poe is captured by Stormtroopers, he hands the map over to his trusty droid (BB-8), promising to return to him. Poe is then rescued by Finn, who has been raised to be a Stormtrooper, but simply has too much good in him to carry out their evil marching orders. Together, they go after BB-8, who has been taken in by Rey. Eventually, Finn and Rey team up with Han Solo and Chewbacca, with the First Order—and whomever Han happens to owe money to—fast on their heels.
Star Wars may be serious stuff, but Abrams and his fellow screenwriters—Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt—don’t forget to have fun, also true of the originals. “Stay calm, stay calm,” Finn says, as he sneaks Poe away from the First Order. “I am calm,” Poe replies. “I was talking to myself,” Finn mutters. And the humor, much like the film itself, plays on two levels: There are (relatively) sophisticated puns and one-liners and there are sight gags, like one involving BB-8 bouncing off spaceship walls. Both work.
As for our old favorites, it’s great to see Ford having fun as the rakish Han Solo again—and there’s something enormously and unexpectedly touching about his enduring bromance (Wookiemance?) with Chewbacca. Fisher’s part is smaller, but she’s nixed the braid-buns (“You changed your hair,” Han notices) and infamous gold lamé bikini for a general’s sensible duds. As for her and Han, it’s clear they will always love and be exasperated by each other, in equal measure. And while it’s perhaps unfair to compare, this film feels connected to the three originals in a way that the prequels weren’t. The Nostalgia is Strong with this one, you could say.
The newcomers are a solid bunch—with Isaac particularly dashing as the swashbuckling Poe and the baby-faced Boyega instantly loveable as Finn. Ridley is great too as the resourceful and nimble Rey, although her resemblance—both in voice and facial expressions—to Keira Knightley was a bit distracting to me.
And because Abrams is obviously a fan of all aspects of the series—not just the characters or the mythology—he gives us kick-ass light saber battles, fierce space fights, and space ships that whiz at breakneck speed through the galaxy.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens honors the series and takes it in exciting new directions. Both The Millennium Falcon and millennials, it would seem, are in good hands.