The Star Wars saga is complicated and yet so very simple. It is a fully realized epic parallel universe, and it is the myth of the hero told again and again and again. It is a first trilogy of films that has largely defined family entertainment and informed popular culture for the past 38 years, and a second trilogy of films that were so embarrassingly unwatchable they became a worldwide shared joke. That my 12 year old nephew in London is instinctively horrified by Jar Jar Binks, and can simultaneously name every member of Jabba the Hutt’s Max Rebo Band based on an obscure card set that came out years before his birth, is proof that this Star Wars thing of ours is embedded very deeply. Marrow of our bones deep.
So much a part of our nature in fact that reviewing Star Wars is kind of like reviewing ourselves. It is our shared global experience, on a level that transcends Christmas or soccer, maybe even food. So before we dig into a spoiler-free review, a few yes or no questions to break it down.
Is it as good as the first trilogy? Not yet, but it eventually could be. It’s not out of the question, which should provide all the spine-tingling motivation you need to get to a theater ASAP.
Is it better than the second trilogy? Absolutely, no question, and better for all ages. By targeting it to such a young audience, Lucas forgot that timelessness is the key to any great art.
Is it great art? No. The new movie is missing a few things that the first trilogy had in spades, namely the element of surprise, and the underdog factor. Star Wars used to be the Rebels, now it is the Empire. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a juiced baseball built for an audience that wants to cheer for home runs.
What a home run it is. Each returning cast member, and by now no need to even name names, is accorded a magnificent entrance befitting their stature in the universe. There are a few awkward moments between some of the older actors, but these are mostly obliterated by great laughs and non-stop action.
Even more impressively, the new cast is set for stun. Daisy Ridley brings vulnerability and ferocity, in the refreshingly female Luke 2.0 role of Rey the scavenger. John Boyega and Oscar Isaac supply laughs and likability as the storm trooper with a heart of gold Finn, and the ace X-wing fighter Poe Dameron.
Adam Driver pulls off the toughest assignment of all, veering between menace and self-parody as the Darth Vader-worshiping Kylo Ren. Those still scarred by Vader’s unmasking will be shocked and delighted with this updated take. The Ren / Rey scenes are filled with a wonderfully creepy sexual tension, something mostly foreign to the galaxy far far away.
New director JJ Abrams mostly plays it by the book. Much of the plot is familiar, as are the secondary characters. Maz Kanata, as played by Lupita Nyong’o, is Yoda re-imagined as a 1000 year old African mercenary nightclub owner rebel mercenary seer. Some of the lines still induce cringes, with “It would take a miracle to save us now” seemingly intended for maximum guffaws. With one of the greatest script doctors in the history of Hollywood, Carrie Fisher, an integral part of the saga, it seems stunningly obvious that no one ever asked her for notes.
Little of this matters though. Abrams nails the comedy and more importantly, he nails the film’s many emotional scenes. The final shot is a stunner, beautifully nostalgic and so close to Lucas’ original vision. In your excitement to get to the theater, don’t forget to take the kids. Yes it’s an homage and a reboot more than anything else, but wow is it fun to watch.