With The Force Awakens, director J.J. Abrams nails the rhythm and the wit of the original Star Wars films, delivering a majestic and enlightened return to a galaxy far, far away. Abrams also remembers to explore the humanity at the center of conflict, with the seventh episode of Star Wars seeing two orphaned kids fighting against a giant oppressive force to find their rightful place in the universe and a family of their own making. It's an exhilarating journey that hits the ground running with an impressive opening battle scene.
This review is spoiler-free.
Despite The Force Awakens amalgamating familiar narratives from the original franchise, it manages to keep it fresh — for the most part — with the new cast members turning in moving performances, and recognizable faces producing a welcome, if somewhat overwhelming, whoosh of nostalgia. The meeting of old and new provides a respectful middle ground for the spectacular action to unfold upon, and for the characters to fill in the 30-year gap between the events of Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Abrams and his team rifle through the legacy of the grand space opera while cleverly steering clear of the problems of the prequels.
John Boyega as AWOL stormtrooper Finn, determined to make a difference by laying down his arms in a battle he was essentially brainwashed to take part in, brings real charm and charisma to his role. His performance brims with an endearing sincerity, and the introduction to his character is perfectly judged with the events surrounding his decision to leave the squad.
We meet Rey (Daisy Ridley, occasionally channeling Keira Knightley) as she slides down a sand dune on the desert planet of Jakku, her gorgeous but desolate surroundings captured with eye-catching precision by director of photography Dan Mindel. She's a loner, a badass fighter and swordswoman whose integrity is her saving grace. So much so, that she takes it upon herself to join forces with a BB-8 droid, an ex-stormtrooper, a Wookiee and an intergalactic smuggler to save the day. She gives Han Solo a run for his money in the starship pilot department, and is also a dab hand at mechanics.
Boyega and Ridley share great chemistry, as Finn and Rey zing off one another with amusing one-liners and wonderfully directed slapstick. Finn bumbles about trying to find his feet as he admires Rey's ability to take charge, making for a nice flip in the usual gender dynamics — and Finn's self-deprecating humor is winning.
As the stakes are raised — with weapons of mass destruction being released in magnificent style — a symphony of darkness and red laser beams shooting across the skies explodes on screen, bringing with it a real sense of urgency and menace. The sweeping score from John Williams swells to great effect in these scenes.
Abrams loads his film with a few too many in-jokes that intermittently take you out of the moment, but his nods to the past franchise generally hit the sweet spot. Moments like the appearance of the Millennium Falcon, and the unconditional love shared between Chewbacca and Han Solo, are all superbly handled.
The Force Awakens is packed full of giddy energy, grand reveals and invigorating spectacle — but it also remembers to ground itself in the human drama, making it a surprisingly emotional ride.