Star Wars is a film franchise that has practically transcended itself, a series now more myth than movie.
Star Wars is an idea, a culture, a joke religion, a real obsession and a galaxy unto itself. Now, coming on nearly 40 years since the first film’s release, the movie spawned not only a spate of sequels but billions in toy sales, countless Wookieepedia pages and scores of wildly devoted fans.
So it’s understandable why Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, Girls) — the tri-bladed-lightsaber-wielding baddie of the latest installment — carries around the hollowed mask of Darth Vader and is so preoccupied with legacy.
One can imagine director J.J. Abrams going through something similar, perhaps touting a George Lucas flannel in his closet or looking to a collectible Kenner action figure for guidance.
The original films were a long time ago now, and the memories of the prequels are still fresh enough to inspire the fear of what could go wrong. You don’t need to be C-3PO to know that the odds of a critically successful sequel are dire.
Yet, the kid hits the one-in-a-million shot: Abrams has made a Star Wars sequel that not only wipes the slate clean from the prequels but even holds its own against the cosmically vaunted original series. Not touching the heights of A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back, it is better than Return of the Jedi. While not perfect, it’s very good, close to great, and satisfies on all fronts.
The Force Awakens has the same pure fun that made the first movies excellent. Learning from the sins of its fathers, the movie shies away from annoying side characters and galactic politics to instead focus on the good stuff: namely, lightsaber fights and ships blowin’ stuff up.
After an uncertain start, the movie reaches a frenetic high-point about a half hour in. The rest of the movie never quite keeps up that potential but still skirts greatness, sometimes as close as the Millennium Falcon against the surface of the desert planet Jakku.
Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are both standouts, Ridley playing the tough and inventive scavenger Rey and Boyega, in one of the most interesting choices of the new trilogy, gives humanity to the faceless stormtroopers.
Kylo Ren is temperamental and, in the grand tradition of Star Wars males, pretty whiny, though it works to make his insecurity a compelling aspect of his malevolence in a way that Anakin’s fall never seemed entirely convincing.
While there’s the right amount of rolly-polly robot BB-8, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina) turns out to be more glorified Wedge Antilles than Han Solo Redux, and one might want more from some of the other new big names (Max von Sydow, The Letters), but the stage was a bit crowded anyway.
As far as the returning characters from the original trilogy go, I’ll avoid going into any detail for spoiler purposes (Disney is holding these cards close), but I will say that this turns out to be a surprisingly affective turn for Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), whose role is still subtle, yet funnier and fuller than any of his other appearances. Also, yes, Admiral Ackbar is back.
The movie is rife with endearing callbacks to the originals (and maybe even an occasional one to the prequels), but it still explores new territory and isn’t beholden to its predecessors.
Then again, there’s some dialogue that feel phony and exposition that needs to be aired out and scenes that don’t quite have the spark but whatever, whatever, whatever; this is a Star Wars movie, and as much as we fans might not like to admit it, none of them are flawless.
There may also be some new Force powers that apparently no one else thought to use before and a couple instances of wonky physics, but so what? Star Wars was never known for its galactic verisimilitude either — leave the sci-fi-realism to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Trekolytes.
Even if you somehow haven’t seen any other Star Wars movie, this one works on its own as a categorically entertaining space romp.
But for the rest of the fans, this may be the movie that could bring balance to the franchise.