Resurrect a beloved name and attempt to relaunch a franchise? No sweat. Extreme pressure was riding on co-writer/director J.J. Abrams’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Expectations are more than high for the film, and while this sequel doesn’t quite recapture the glory of the old days, if often comes very close.
“The Force Awakens” is both a retread and a callback to “A New Hope.” Rey (Daisey Ridley) follows in the footsteps of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill): she’s an orphaned scavenger on a desert planet, Jakku, and she’s torn between her home and exploring the galaxy. Her life changes when she meets the adorable BB-8, a droid hiding a secret for the best damn Resistance pilot in the sky, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). A conflicted Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) crosses paths with both Poe and Rey, but most of “The Force Awakens” is about those two, as well as the pair of recognizable faces they team up with along the way: Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).
Even before Han and Chewie appear – and what a wonderful reveal it is – “The Force Awakens” is undeniably a “Star Wars” movie. The film recaptures the spirit of the original trilogy, as it should. The tangible environments, practical creatures and stakes are “Star Wars” through and through, but more than that, it’s the sense of joy, pain and adventure that Abrams and his co-writers, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, bring to this sequel that makes it “Star Wars.” This series has always been about friendship and family, and “The Force Awakens” doesn’t forget that, even if some of the relationships aren’t very well defined.
“The Force Awakens” leaves you wanting more, which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes a bad thing. As a standalone experience, it’s not always completely satisfying. For example, you don’t see enough of Finn and Poe. There’s more to come from these two, obviously, but the script doesn’t give us enough time with them to make their emotional beats connect. Rey and Finn are friends and like each other, but why? Why do they care so much about each other? Both are lonely, but their friendship rarely goes beyond banter.
As the film sometimes rushes to set pieces, it feels like some much-needed character beats were left on the cutting room floor. And if you’re expecting to see a new badass female villain with Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), that’ll have to wait, because beyond her promising introduction, she’s underutilized. The real villain of the film is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a mysterious and menacing figure. Right from the start, he doesn’t show mercy, but he’s more than a bloodthirsty villain. Kylo is conflicted in some ways, making him a fascinating and (at times) surprisingly funny antagonist.
The real stars of the show are Han, Chewbacca and Rey, and the three of them are a delight. Their banter and connection is believable and real. “The Force Awakens” is kind of a road trip movie, and spending time with these three is hardly a chore: Ford hasn’t been this charismatic in a while, jumping back into the role of Han Solo without any trouble; Chewie is as lovable as ever; and Rey is a compelling protagonist, as she’s strong but not without fear.
“The Force Awakens” introduces a new band of characters that you can’t wait to spend more time with. While Abrams doesn’t give each one the attention they deserve, this is still a fine introduction for the new trilogy. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” delivers when it really needs, too. The big moments in this movie – which should go unspoiled – are immensely satisfying, and for a lot of fans, Abrams’s sequel will be a heartwarming experience.