J.J. Abrams might not know Star Trek, but he sure knows how to make a Star Wars movie. Despite no Original Trilogy characters during its first act, The Force Awakens is instantly a Star Wars movie and a welcome addition to the franchise.
True, there’s no 20th Century Fox fanfare at the start, but John Williams’ opening title still blares on the screen and “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” opens the movie. The opening crawl gets us up to speed on what happened in the last 30 years between Return of the Jedi and now. The disappearance of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) turning to the dark side has helped the First Order push aside the New Republic. General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is left to lead the New Republic’s Resistance against the First Order, a group lead by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and a legion of Empire fan boys.
But, like the Original Trilogy, The Force Awakens is a story about the underdogs of the galaxy, the people who live on the fringes of society. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a scavenger living on Jakku and thrust into the center of the galaxy’s problems when she meets Finn (John Boyega), a former Stormtrooper. The two, alongside the droid BB-8, head out on an adventure that brings them face-to-face with Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the Resistance and ultimately the First Order itself.
If this sounds a bit like the first Star Wars film, it should. Abrams and The Empire Strikes Back co-writer Lawrence Kasdan (plus Michael Arndt, who still gets screen credit) unabashedly embrace the things that worked in the trilogy. Some things might stick a bit too close - it’s surprising how the final battle sticks to the Battle of Yavin - but the way the new characters get to these beats is very different. Rey is not a young Leia and Finn is not a young Han. Kasdan and Abrams created a new crop of characters that are easy to fall in love with, not because they fit familiar archetypes but because they are their own characters.
Abrams spent most of his time promoting the movie by pushing the film’s practical effects, which are there. He doesn’t completely reject the technical wizardry CGI allows for, throwing in some weird aliens and using two motion capture characters. These elements aren’t intrusive, and it doesn’t look like the actors ever performed on sets made entirely of green screen.
The new cast is also great. Daisy Ridley is one heck of a discovery by Abrams and the casting team. There’s no expectations with her, since she’s never been in a big movie before. She is very good, considering how much is asked of her. John Boyega looks like he’s having the time of his life too, falling into scenes and trading one-liners with Harrison Ford.
Sadly, Adam Driver is a bit flat and Oscar Isaac, who plays star Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, is underused. Isaac is a great actor, but this feels like a role he took just to be a part of Star Wars. Even though Lupita Nyong'o is playing one of those motion capture characters, you still feel that she's enjoying her part.
The Force Awakens thankfully pushes the Star Wars saga without too many nods to the original films. Ford does get to say, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” and there have to be references of what went on in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Yet, there is a sense hovering over the movie that Abrams steadfastly realized that he could not get away with making another movie that chose fan service over telling a story.
All that makes The Force Awakens a bit of a miracle. Cynics can call it an advertisement for more Star Wars toys, but this is actually a film that wants to do more. Star Wars didn’t need to be refreshed completely, it just needed someone to bring the fun back. Well, it’s here.