Note: This review is spoiler-free. Really.
There will be naysayers, and nitpickers, and pedants. There will be those who are disappointed, those who are underwhelmed, those who feel it necessary to point out—with an air of sophisticated superiority—that they never liked this franchise. There will be—as there always are when the heart of nerd culture finds itself in the disorienting position of pumping the lifeblood of popular culture—offended purists, and former acolytes fallen from faith, and spiteful, sniping trolls.
There will, in short, be critics. And those critics will not all be wrong. If you choose to wear one of those hats, I will not judge you. Tell me you take issue with a plot built on frequent coincidences and what appears to be a conveniently small galaxy far, far away, and I probably won't argue with you. Complain that you found the recycling of narrative and emotional beats more ham than homage, and I'll begrudgingly recognize the validity of your arguments. If you were predisposed to hate this movie, based on your previous experience with the franchise, you have my understanding. If your adoration of the franchise led you to expect far more from this film than it could realistically deliver, you have my sympathy. If you're completely neutral about Star Wars, and are able to just judge it objectively on its merits as a movie—well, I don't really believe you exist, but, by all means, have at it.
But I'll tell you what I saw in—and took from—Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
I saw a beloved franchise rescued from its own creator, who had demonstrated—in his last three films—a mystifying lack of understanding about why his creation was ever beloved in the first place. My own personal theory about how the Star Wars prequels went so disastrously wrong is that the unprecedented breadth of George Lucas's success gave him the mistaken impression that his films had—or should have—actual depth. There were ideas, of a sort, in the original trilogy—ideas about good and evil, about friendship and loyalty—but those ideas were compelling precisely because they were neither new nor sophisticated. They resonated because they were simplistic and universal, and because they were couched in an audience-identification fantasy with the improbably cascading fun and adventure of chapter plays. When it came time to do the prequels, however, Lucas forgot about fun, forgot about adventure, forgot about identification, and tried to cram a fundamentally silly premise to the point of choking with nonsensical philosophy, incomprehensible politics, and a college sophomore's flawed insights about human psychology. The result was a cold, turgid, tiresome three-film mess—somehow both overblown and boring—that is best forgotten.
In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I saw the reins handed to a talented journeyman filmmaker who does understand the love, because for him that love was not only formative but precious. I have had very mixed responses to the films of J.J. Abrams, who throughout his career has straddled a very fine line between reverence and regurgitation. (For example, I found his channeling of his childhood obsessions touching in Super 8, but slavish and cynical in Star Trek Into Darkness.) Abrams is not, and has never been, a visionary: he is not the man to light the fire, but he is a trustworthy and conscientious and nimble carrier of torches. The Force Awakens is made with love, to preserve the love: Abrams remembers exactly what it was in the original trilogy that gave him chills, and thrills, and a sense of awe, and he perfectly delivers those moments here. If there will be those who say he too closely mimics the earlier magic—that this is filmmaking as fetish—I can only respond that I found this to be the best directed and most visually gorgeous of any of the Star Wars films, and that the feelings I got from watching it were exactly the feelings I hoped to have. If it were only a remake—and it most assuredly is not, except in a spiritual sense—it would be one that improves on the original in almost every way.
What's more, Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan—author of the best of the original films, The Empire Strikes Back—understand that a film needs to be about people. This is another thing Lucas forgot when he made his prequels, which began their monstrously slow crash with an opening screen-crawl about taxation and trade embargoes, and went on to deliver one tepid, off-putting, unrelatable character after another. The opening crawl in The Force Awakens, on the other hand, is about people: some of them are familiar to us, some of them are new, but they are all heroes, and we are invested in their adventures right from the beginning. From these first words on-screen, Abrams announces his intention to make Star Wars personal again, and that spirit infuses the entire endeavor.
Heroes are important, and here Abrams reverently brings back the best of the past while solidly building the future on a new generation. Nostalgia is fine, nostalgia is good, but what I found unexpectedly moving in The Force Awakens was the new characters, representing a more diverse and empowering idea of who a hero can be. I saw a beautiful young woman (Daisy Ridley) who is nobody's princess, one who is very capable of saving herself and anyone else who happens to need it. I saw a handsome young man (John Boyega) of African descent, literally stepping out of the anonymous ranks of background actors and taking his rightful place at the head of the adventure. This is not tokenism, or diversity for diversity's sake: the new characters are likable and compelling, and played by—let's be honest—much better actors than those Lucas tapped the first time around. But diversity is important. I have no intention of arguing for the Star Wars franchise as high art, but its prominence in popular culture is undeniable. If we recognize these sorts of legends as formative at all—if we admit that they helped form our own concept of who we could and should be—then representation matters. Here, in what will almost certainly be the biggest blockbuster of all time, these two engaging and capable leads are more than important: they are thrilling, and almost revolutionary.
None of that would be enough is the film did not deliver the fun and adventure, but it does. The set-pieces are sometimes too familiar, but they are thrilling and beautifully realized. The fight scenes are well-choreographed, and infused with a genuine sense of danger and personal stakes. The story is slight—even under-explained—but in a way that recognizes plot as simply the skeleton on which all the living material hangs. Yes, it is all formulaic, but what I realized watching this is that I wanted it to be formulaic. That, too, is something Lucas forgot about his own creation: that it was built on the archetypal rhythms of storytelling; that it was designed to tap into universal truths and basic emotions; that its evocative magic lay in the primal power of myth, and childhood dreams, and fairy tales.
There are valid criticisms to be made of this film, and I have a few quibbles myself. Yes, we can hope for more originality in the next few movies. We can hope a few characters who are underused here get their proper due there. We can hope this cinematic universe keeps expanding ever outward, to new possibilities and adventures, rather than looking quite so much to its own past for inspiration.
But those quibbles are beside the point: there is much to hope for from future installments, but that new hope—if you'll pardon the pun—is exactly what J.J. Abrams has given back to us here. At the end of the two hours and sixteen minutes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens I would happily have sat and watched it again. (In fact, I'm going back to see it again tomorrow with the missus, who history tells us may have a different reaction.) But what I really wanted was the next chapter in the story, in that greedy way I had not experienced since I was a ten-year-old boy, collecting trading cards, and playing with action figures, and arguing with my friends about whether Darth Vader could really be Luke Skywalker's father as he had claimed. I'm 46 now, and that excitable boy is someone I thought I left a long time ago, and far, far away. But there he was, right there in the theater, sitting on the edge of his seat, all the way from the familiar opening chords of John William's iconic theme until the perfect final shot.
Age and distance and three wretched Star Wars prequels had put that boy soundly to sleep. But now—thanks to Abrams and company—there has been an awakening.