This is a spoiler-free review.
I asked my 14 year old daughter if she wanted to see the new Star Wars movie and she said that she didn’t because she hadn’t seen any of the previous ones in the series. I don’t know if that’s a sign of bad parenting on my part or a measure of the cultural schism created by age, but it shocked me to think she’s been blissfully unaware of something that was a part of my growing up. Anyway, I went to see the new film by myself. And she was right in the sense that you really need to have seen at least the first three films in the series to have a fair chance of fully enjoying this most recent entry. That’s in part because the film makers assumed that everyone who will see The Force Awakens is already aware of certain plot points, like Darth Vader’s familial relationship with the series’ original hero, Luke Skywalker. So, there’s quite a bit of exposition left out, or mentioned only in passing.
That having been said, The Force Awakens is sure to satisfy Star Wars fans, though I suspect that the extent to which they love this film will depend in part on their expectations going in. In my opinion it is the third best entry out of the lot, exceeded only by The Empire Strikes Back and the original Star Wars, which was subsequently titled A New Hope. My opinion may change after repeat viewings. One thing for sure is that it is orders of magnitude better than all the prequels, and that is due in large part to the casting. There are two new heroes, a disenchanted Stormtrooper named Finn, played by John Boyega, and a scrappy scavenger named Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. There are also old friends brought back from the original series, with a stand out performance by Harrison Ford reprising the role of space scoundrel Han Solo. But the best thing about this film, in my opinion, is the performance by Adam Driver as the villain Kylo Ren. Ironically, his performance is the emotional heart of the film and packs the most punch. There is also a new droid character named BB-8 that is a fine addition to the series.
The plot echoes the original film, which seems like a conscious compromise intended to ground it in Star Wars lore so the stage is set for subsequent installments. It will be interesting to see whether the next film can break out and offer something fresh.
Viewers may be struck by the same feeling I had of consuming the film as comfort food, rather than a fine but perhaps more palette-challenging gourmet meal. There is a lot to like in the visuals, with fantastic vistas and complex battle scenes that seem more real than other installments due to less reliance of computer generated images. There’s also the pitch perfect score by John Williams, which complements the action and keeps things moving along. It also struck me that this film gives itself permission to have fun and pierce the seriousness that over-saturated the prequels.
Another thought I had watching the film is the seeming difficulty the film has creating a sense of dread and menace when it comes to the bad guys, who in this installment are called The First Order. They are presented in a Nazi motif reminiscent of a Nuremberg rally, but in the context of recent events they seem quaint by comparison. Not to say that the Nazis weren’t menacing, but there is a certain lack of explanation as to what is driving their actions, other than a will to power. The film plays more on the eternal balance between good and evil and those forces being functions of each other; one not being able to exist without the other. My guess is that the next film will explore that theme more deeply, but what do I know.
If you like action adventures this should be on your list for holiday viewing. Have fun and may the force be with you.