I have one very basic question after seeing any movie: was I entertained? It's not often I leave a theater saying, "No," though it does occasionally happen. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, however, my expectations were much higher. I grew up watching the original trilogy (on laser disc!), and saw them many more times as they were remastered and rereleased in theaters. Needless to say, the anticipation for Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been incredibly nerve-racking; what if the movie sucks? What if this is the prequel trilogy all over again?
Warning: there will be mild spoilers in this review. I recommend watching the movie before reading on.
Under the watchful eye of Disney, writer-director J.J. Abrams has managed to do the impossible, creating a new Star Wars movie that builds on the lore of the original films while pushing us in an entirely new direction. The great thing is that you won't need to have seen any of the prior films to enjoy Star Wars: The Force Awakens, though the abundance of nostalgia will be lost if this is your first Star Wars experience. What Abrams does well with Disney's new property is put audiences right into this great big universe without dwelling too much on the past.
Does that mean The Force Awakens is a clean break from what we've seen before? Not even close. If you are familiar with the original trilogy, you'll recognize the new film to essentially be a loose remake of A New Hope, which saw Luke get introduced to the Force and the Death Star get destroyed; I mean, that scene at Maz Kanata's home base was essentially the Cantina on Tattooine; the plot for Abrams' interpretation is essentially the same thing, but with a new band of characters in addition to the old favorites fans grew up loving.
People might find the reliance on nostalgia a little overbearing at times; it's a reverence that's clear from the opening shot. But I don't blame Abrams for taking this approach; it's the easiest way to ease new and returning viewers back into the Star Wars universe. It wasn't overly complicated, and it didn't bore us to death with politics or mission planning. From the get-go Star Wars: The Force Awakens is frenetic and light on its feet, on the rare occasion dialing back as we get more intimate with the new characters. After the opening sequence with Poe, Abrams quickly introduces us to Finn and Rey, and it's nonstop action from there. To that end, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a rousing success.
The movie excelled most when these new characters were onscreen and interacting with one another. It's very believable that Finn would renounce the First Order in search of redemption, while Poe's commitment to the Resistance is infectious. Meanwhile, Rey is incredibly strong and independent, whip smart and more than capable of handling herself in dangerous situations; spending time alone on a desert planet will do that to a person. Kylo Ren, on the other hand, adds a believable layer of emotional complexity, and there are moments when he's truly terrifying; you never know if he's going to lash out in anger.
Outside of the action, I was thoroughly impressed by how funny Star Wars: The Force Awakens was. When Finn first meets Rey, for example, he constantly tries to "save" her from the incoming attack from the First Order, but it becomes clear that it's him who needs saving. There are many other moments like this; when Rey first starts accepting her Force sensitivity, she uses a Jedi mind trick on a Stormtrooper guard to escape. The scene is so well done; these funny moments never seem forced or out of place.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a visually beautiful film, too, blending both practical and CG effects to create a believably lived-in world. The original trilogy so successful because of how normal the universe felt, yet there was an impressive grandness to the overall story; the prequels relied way too much on computer graphics, to the point where it became a distraction. Star Wars: The Force Awakens successfully brings us back to the Star Wars universe without trying to drown us in special effects.
My reaction to seeing The Force Awakens is mostly positive; I loved the new characters, and I'm glad we're moving in a new and mysterious direction. Now that Abrams has laid the groundwork for a new trilogy, we can start exploring where Luke has been, and why Kylo Ren was drawn to the Dark Side. I had many questions going into The Force Awakens, and now that I've seen it, I have even more walking out of the theater. Where did Snoke come from? How did Maz get Luke's lightsaber? Etc., etc.
That's perhaps my biggest issue. Typically we want movies to move along at a brisk pace while trimming the fat; Star Wars: The Force Awakens does this, but we wind up powering through without really learning much at all. I get that this is merely the beginning of a new trilogy, but there's a frustrating convenience to how the story plays out that, which means some big beats were just glossed over.
We'll get many of these answers over the next few years. Remember, Episode VIII has already been scheduled for a May 2017 release. Until then, I'm ready to get back in line for a second, third and fourth viewing.