A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...
George Lucas ended his Star Wars saga with a bang with the terrific Revenge of the Sith, but the damage to the franchise from the prior entries had already been done. Midichlorians, dull attempts at political intrigue, CGI storm troopers, abhorrent dialogue... what was once a fun, breezy romp through the galaxy and an accessible tale of good against evil was now a muddied, muddled, and somewhat joyless franchise complicated by unnecessary additions to canon and a baffling inability to understand what made the originals work so well.
Perhaps it's for the better, then, that the start of the new trilogy is sparse on details and heavy on inference. Instead of exposition that goes nowhere, The Force Awakens leaves the complexity of the lore for fans to debate and, instead, focuses on delivering an action-driven picture that's easy enough to comprehend, yet invites heavy discussion after the credits have rolled.
What is the motivation of the villains? Where have all the old characters been? What's the larger conflict, and how does everyone fit into it? Instead of explaining any of this, The Force Awakens is content to drop viewers in smack-dab in the middle of it all, forcing (ha!) them to pick up on any details they possibly can as the plot barrels on. In some films, this might come across as a weakness, but here, it plays to its advantage. In a way not dissimilar to this year's fantastic Mad Max: Fury Road, it is very clear that a larger canon exists. It's clear that the lack of exposition isn't lazy writing, but a deliberate choice in order to maintain intrigue, and a masterful usage of the classic "hierarchy of knowledge" technique in storytelling.
For the sake of people who want to go in totally dry, I'll keep narrative details sparse, but to put it simply: it's the classic hero's journey. Hero is home, has a call to action, has to leave home, encounters struggles, has to overcome struggles, and comes out a changed person. Only, this time, the "hero" is a heroine. Her name is Rey, and she is, by far, the best protagonist in series history. She's affable, charming, and tough, aided by Daisy Ridley's committed and minimalist performance that brings her to life.
In a landscape where movies like Star Wars are considered "boys' stuff" by stuffy executives, Rey is a middle finger to that idea entirely. She's a fantastic role model for girls, women, and, yes, boys and men as well. Her journey... well, this first leg of it, anyway, is a compelling yarn that filled me with more whimsy, more hope, more enthusiasm than anything else Disney's put out in the past decade. I'm genuinely excited to see where Rey and company's journey against the elusive and ominous First Order goes, and if the next two outings thrill this much, they'll be quite the spectacle.
Some might say that the narrative in The Force Awakens is just a retread of A New Hope, but for reasons you'll understand when watching it, that simply isn't the case. Is it a riff on that basic formula? Sure. But that's ignoring the fact that A New Hope itself was a riff on a formula that existed for decades prior. What this entry does is take Joseph Campbell's classic "hero's journey" set-up, put a lady in charge, and let the rest unspool, letting a few late-game plot twists (some exhilarating, some heartbreaking) kick us in the teeth right when we least expect it.
Even when The Force Awakens is at its most familiar, however, the visual spectacle of it all is nothing short of spectacular. Having cut his teeth on two middling Star Trek films, the third time truly seems to be the charm for JJ Abrams here when it comes to space-based actioners, as he delivers high-flying space battles, tense shootouts with lasers, and the franchise's signature lightsaber duels with the flair, panache and gusto of a seasoned expert. While I do sort of miss the martial arts-inspired duels that Lucas gave us in the prequel trilogy, there's no denying that Abrams is simply a better filmmaker, and thus, takes a scene with less flips, kicks and Jedi tricks and makes it infinitely more compelling than 90% of the encounters seen in previous films. That's not even getting into the masterfully choreographed dogfights, which had me on the edge of my seat every time.
Oh, and of course, John Williams' score is nothing short of miraculous. His stuff for this is some of his best work in years, if only because he's back to making epic, sweeping scores for epic, sweeping adventures again, which is what he's best at.
Without the ability to get into plot details, there isn't much left to say about The Force Awakens other than that it's nothing short of a Christmas miracle. I went into the theater expecting a predictable, formulaic kickstart to an endless barrage of sequels that, due to brand recognition, would get lapped up and adored by fans for simply existing. But as I was watching, I became completely and totally lost in a movie for the second time this year (the first being Fury Road.) Every second of every minute had me transfixed and made me forget that I was even watching a movie. It felt like I was skimming the ocean in an X-Wing, feeling snow whip on my face during a lightsaber duel, and being bombarded with explosions during an assault on a desert marketplace. I laughed, I cried, and I clapped several times, and as the credits rolled, I knew it was something I needed to see again. Several times, preferable.
JJ Abrams has bested George Lucas at his own game here, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens fills me with the belief that wherever this trilogy goes will be interesting, wild, and completely new. At the very least, I know that I'll be going wherever it takes me.
It being the holidays, I've been home with my parents, and as we walked out of the theater, my dad, having seen all of the original films growing up in the 70's and 80's, exclaimed, "that was better than the original ones!"
I couldn't have said it better myself.