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At this point, movie-going audiences have already made their decision whether or not they will buy a ticket, and a majority of them will. As such, I recognize that my role to play here is as a professional expectation adjuster, here to either hype you up, or help you avoid painful disappointment. The truth is that in this review I will do both. In short, the J.J. Abrams-directed film is unquestionably the best Star Wars movie we’ve seen in 30 years, and an undeniably entertaining ride – but one certainly not without a collection of narrative flaws, missed opportunities, and predictable plotting.
Revealing story details from J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan’s script would be doing you a disservice, as everyone deserves to go into the film with the same level of mystery and wonder that I did, but certainly one thing that can be unequivocally stated is that The Force Awakens is passionately and respectfully rooted in the unmistakable and awe-inspring saga of the “Original Trilogy.” After the ugly, CGI-overloaded prequels, Episode VII truly returns fans to the world they recognize and love. It’s thrilling to be riding alongside an X-Wing during a battle with a TIE Fighter squadron, and to listen to the strings and horns of a John Williams score while watching a real droid roll around an expansive sand-covered desert planet. There’s nothing that feels quite like Star Wars, and The Force Awakens captures that particular sensation.
Obviously helping in that respect is the return of legendary characters like Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) – who are wonderfully recaptured and only further fleshed out with three decades worth of mysterious history added to their legacy. What’s more, they manage to be so fascinating that it’s hard not to cling to every bit of exposition that is uttered, then working to understand what it means for both the past and the future. Old chemistry is reintroduced with vigor and really just watching their familiar expressions play off each other as they stand together in a room is enough to spark memories of everything you love about these heroes.
There is a complaint to be levied that the film doesn’t utilize these classic characters enough (one in particular), but the truth is that it’s a hard one to land simply because the new generation of heroes and villains is utterly fantastic. Fighting on the side of the Resistance against the tyrannical and horrific rule of the First Order, Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) all bring unique temperaments and backgrounds to the table, and just watching them connect and their relationships grow is both fun (in that their personalities clash off each other in interesting ways), and thrilling (knowing what it means in a larger context for the franchise). Individually, they’re all personable, relatable, funny and entertaining, and it comes from a mix of fantastic performances and great characterization.
Every actor in the ensemble given the opportunity within the material shines brightly (Gwendoline Christie doesn’t have nearly enough to do as Captain Phasma), but it’s Adam Driver who is the true show-stopper of Star Wars: The Force Awakens - delivering a fascinating and deeply emotional turn as Kylo Ren. All working within context, the character is filled with palpable and painful internal conflict, and it comes out as dangerous rage that disturbingly coexists with his intense determination and drive to complete his ultimate mission. Even through an expressionless mask, Driver is compelling and brings a dark atmosphere to every scene he’s in – very much reminiscent of another notable black-cloaked antagonist.
From a character and aesthetic perspective, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is tremendously on point – but it’s the construction of the narrative and devices that create significant problems (the kind that damage the movie in your mind the more you think about them). These issues exist on both the macro and the micro scale. From the larger perspective, the MacGuffin that’s introduced in the first act and begins the story really has no correlation with the big, dramatic conclusion – and the adjective “remake-quel” is unfortunately relevant. Some of the beats are also far too dependent on extreme coincidence – a flaw reminiscent of Abrams’ Star Trek reboot – and have the effect of thinning the plot. None of these issues entirely derail the film, but they are nagging and notable.
Fans surely want Star Wars: The Force Awakens to be the greatest thing they’ve ever seen grace a movie screen – and while I know many will be upset about me saying this, the reality is that it isn’t. It’s a fun and thrilling return for one of the all-time great science-fiction franchises, and one that’s undercut by glaring issues with the script. If you go in with your expectations adjusted accordingly, you’ll very likely have a blast.