Okay, here’s the “first order” of business, Episode VII is good, very good. Any survivors of the great prequel debacle of ’99 – ’05 dreading having to wince and squirm their way through two and a half more hours of farts and “poodoo” and then grade everything else on a curve afterwards will be extremely relieved to meet Finn, Poe and BB-8 and remember when the comic relief in these movies was actually funny. But that’s just a small part of what makes The Force Awakens great. Many optimistic fans figured that when Disney acquired the franchise they’d give it the same treatment they have their can’t miss string of Marvel blockbusters: a giant, crowd pleasing action and special effects romp with a heart and soul that’s just as engrossing and engaging. “Tell your sister, you were right”, indeed.
Spoilers from here on out, I guess, though I doubt anyone who would actually care hasn’t seen it at least once by now, but TFA‘s greatest strengths lie in it’s deft ability to be appropriately self referential to the hallowed original trilogy (specifically A New Hope) without stooping to the cloying, trying too hard pandering of the hated prequels. Only one line is repeated verbatim, the famed “I have a bad feeling about this” uttered in every SW episode thus far, this time delivered with aplomb by Han Solo himself, and if polarizing director J.J. Abrams does one thing to justify his hiring on this project it’s getting the best performance out of Harrison Ford since 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Ford’s spunky enthusiasm is palpable here, shedding his well earned rep as Hollywood’s very own crotchety old Grandpa Simpson, probably because the filmmakers finally let Captain Solo die the hero’s death that Ford had been begging for since Return of the Jedi, in the most extremely well earned, well played and surprising moment in a film full of them.
Shaking off the grim specter of the franchise’s greatest villain, Hayden Christensen, acting performances are near flawless across the board. Joining the seldom better Ford in the MVP column is his (surprise!) son and (gasp!) murderer Adam Driver as former “Ben Solo” and current Vader worshipper Kylo Ren. Driver’s innate ability to instantly transfer from subtle, brooding, mournful intensity to malicious and violent outrage will make you wish he was around when they were originally casting Anakin for Attack of the Clones. It’s not all just gloom and doom though, that wouldn’t be Star Wars, and our plucky trio of new heroes are equally impressive in their roles, be it Oscar Isaac as ace star pilot Poe Dameron, the perfect cross between Han and Luke that Shadows of the Empire protagonist Dash Rendar never got to be onscreen, John Boyega’s amusingly awkward defected stormtrooper Finn or mysterious desert scavenger turned Jedi heir apparent Rey, brought to life with fierce determination and admirable loyalty by Daisy Ridley.
BB-8: More charming that you could’ve imagined. Even if you already have a toy of him you’ll need several more.
Abrams’ most noble edict was that the world these characters inhabit be just as tactile as the then-groundbreaking “used future” ushered in by the original trilogy, and that may be the film’s greatest success of them all as the effects here are absolutely seamless and do nothing at all to detract from the very grounded story at hand. That story, the search for the disappeared Luke Skywalker, self exiled after his failure to properly train the villainous Ren resulted in the wholesale slaughter of his new class of young Jedi, is very simple and straightforward and all the better for it. Any questions it raises and doesn’t satisfyingly answer within its own brisk run time are interesting mysteries sure to be fulfilled in future episodes, as opposed to the lazy plot holes of old involving trade blockades and clone armies.
Complaints? Nothing is ever truly perfect, and TFA exists in an era where a film’s promotion can be its worst enemy. Despite being at the center of said promotion, Game of Thrones favorite Gwendolyn Christie’s silver stormtrooper Captain Phasma doesn’t get a whole lot to do. Christie compared the character to Boba Fett in interviews and that comparison is regrettably apt as despite looking incredibly badass and being sold as a serious threat, she is underutilized and easily dispatched by Han, though the hilarious callback to the trash compactor scene in A New Hope is appreciated.
On the other side of the coin, fans lamented the lack of Luke Skywalker in the film’s promotional material and it turns out that was a proper move on the part of the marketing department as even though Luke’s whereabouts drive the entire plot of the film, he doesn’t show his face until the closing minutes. Anyone expecting to see a lot of the newly fit, trim and bearded Mark Hamill as an Obi Wan-esque mentor figure will have to wait until 2017’s Episode VIII, and Hamill’s presence as the weathered soul of the film will be much appreciated, especially with Ford sadly gone.
But those are just nit picks, and didn’t hinder my wholehearted enjoyment of the film in any way. The bottom line is, for the first time in my life, Star Wars is joyously, genuinely, unapologetically great again. Wear your shirts, jackets, hats, costumes, tattoos and the maker knows whatever else loudly and proudly, count the days until the Blu-Ray release, and get out to the theater as many times as you can.