Review: JJ Abrams breathes new life into ‘Star Wars’ with ‘The Force Awakens’

At one point before the premiere last night, I heard an ardent fan say that it is impossible to review a movie like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” I understand what he means, particularly because he's coming to it as a fan first and foremost, but that's obviously not true. While I am a first-generation “Star Wars” freak, chemically transformed by the experience of seeing the first film in 1977, I am also a working film critic, and at heart, “The Force Awakens” is indeed “just” a movie.

It's a very good movie, I'd say, and should entertain audiences both deeply and casually invested in the ongoing saga of the Skywalker family. Made with a profound sense of passion and respect by an entire generation of filmmakers and performers who were influenced by the original films, this is a deeply affectionate film, and that affection, that honestly felt love, is what is going to make all the difference for viewers.

From the very first line of the film's opening crawl, it is apparent that JJ Abrams, Michael Arndt, and Lawrence Kasdan have pushed the series back onto the right track, and there is an urgency to the story that is propelled by a very simple mystery: Luke Skywalker has vanished. From that simple idea, the film builds an adventure that both introduces us to an entire new cast of characters and re-unites us with plenty of old friends. There is a breathlessness to the film, but it's not frantic. One of the things Abrams gets right is remembering that without quiet moments, none of the frenetic activity is terribly interesting.

The film really is the story of these new characters. When we meet FN-2187 (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley), they're both facing moments of life-defining moral crisis, and the way fate sets the two of them into orbit around one another is what drives the central adventure of the film. They're the ones who are our re-entry points to this story that has long since passed into mythology, and part of what this film does so well is grapple with legacy, both for the characters and for the filmmakers. After all, the prequel trilogy is one of the most controversial and divisive massive blockbuster series of all times. Sure, it made money like crazy, and sure, there's a generation who grew up with the films and with “The Clone Wars” and “Rebels” who absolutely embrace those movies, but they fractured fandom and, in many ways, served as a breaking point for what was an incredible wave of good will before they came out. These new movies are for the kids who have grown up soaked in “Star Wars” just as much as they're for their parents, and in some ways, they're also designed to give a new younger generation their own story now.

One of the remarkable things about “The Force Awakens” is what a difference the casting makes. Say what you will about JJ Abrams, but he has a gift for putting together ensembles. His “Star Trek” cast is, I think, incredibly well-chosen, and I love the way those actors are starting to take ownership of those characters. They had the unenviable task of playing characters defined by other performers, something that's never easy. With Finn (as he is memorably re-named at a key point in the film) and Rey, Boyega and Ridley are able to define these characters for themselves, and they are both absolutely wonderful in the film. Boyega has this great combination of self-interested fear and reluctant heroism that he plays beautifully, and he charts Finn's evolution as a person expertly here. The thing is, thanks to “Attack The Block,” I was already convinced Boyega had the goods. Daisy Ridley is the discovery here, and what a discovery she is. Get ready to see fandom embrace her for a million different reasons. Rey is self-reliant, strong, smart, and absolutely not in need of saving by anyone. She is also completely alone and in some ways a child. Watching the way she lives her daily life, there's a sadness to it that is different from the sort of general longing that Luke Skywalker felt in “A New Hope.” Rey was abandoned as a child, and she still harbors dreams of someone returning for her. In one extended sequence, Ridley does so much to communicate how Rey's carved out something like a life for herself that by the end of it, I was completely onboard with her as a lead.

Oscar Isaac is beautifully utilized as Poe Dameron, a pilot for the Resistance, and while you can point to this trait or that one as familiar, he's not a character we've seen in these films before. The same thing is true of Finn, and seeing that they're not just easy analogues to characters that we've already seen is part of why they work. Yes, this film is built on the skeletal structure of “A New Hope” just as much as “Creed” is built on the bones of “Rocky,” but in both cases, there are inversions and explorations of themes and ideas that make it clear that these are not just remakes. Instead, they are films that are fully aware of the relationships we have with these older films, and they hope that they can tap into what it was that made these stories matter to us in the first place in a way that feels honest and earned. The First Order, which is very different than the Empire, is far more overtly fascist and wasn't created out of deceit. Instead, this is a conscious decision, one that idolizes the work that the Empire did, and it's hard to watch a rally led by barking scumbag General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) talking about how much he wants to see the end of the Republic, seeing this as the continuation of the good work of the Empire, and not see some creepy parallels to some of the people currently pushing world politics towards a new fascism. Some people learn from history, but they learn all the wrong things, and that idea finds its ultimate expression in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a new kind of villain for the “Star Wars” universe. He is driven by a desire to tap into the Dark Side of the Force, fully aware of what he's doing, and Driver does very good work here. He and Hux both answer to the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), and I loved seeing that we're back to bad guys who don't seem to particularly like or trust each other. This is not one big shiny happy First Order, but a tenuous agreement of people with fairly different agendas.

Technically, the film is wonderful. Dan Mindel's photography recalls the original trilogy with fondness, but it's not a slavish reproduction of every stylistic tic. The film has its own visual energy that suggests rather than simply imitating. There are so many things that the movie gets right in terms of production design and score and special effects and costuming that it's almost impossible to detail it all. Suffice it to say that John Williams remains one of the most important players in the “Star Wars” universe, and the way he creates new themes that fit perfectly alongside the instantly recognizable score that he brings back is perfect. A huge nod has to be given to the team charged with bringing BB-8 to life, because a character like that has a huge margin for error. Important to the story, but also an effective pressure valve through comic relief, BB-8 is instantly likable, and it feels like he's always been part of the series. He is also executed so flawlessly that it's often fun just to watch what he's doing in the background of a scene. Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) is an all-digital character, like Snoke, but because of the delicacy of the performance driving the animation, these characters don't feel like gimmicks, and they never come anywhere near being the noisy nightmares of the Gungans. Maz, in particular, makes a sly entrance, asking Han Solo where her boyfriend is before adding as an aside, “I like that Wookiee,” and right away, there's a history suggested, a weight to her.

One of the greatest things about the original “Star Wars” back in 1977 was that we had no idea if we'd ever see another story set in that universe, but it was clear from the script that there were so many other stories to tell, stories that had already happened and that were happening all around the story we we were watching. I've heard this sort of screenwriting referred to as “distant mountains,” meaning the film manages to show us the horizon, where we can see all sorts of mountains, without ever actually going there. “The Force Awakens” suggest 20 new questions for every one it answers, and while there are big giant surprises and secrets, you will not walk out of the film having been given everything with a bow on it. Rian Johnson must have been giddy to see where he was going to be able to start telling his story, and he's got so many wonderful threads he can follow that I hope “Episode VIII” ends up being four hours long.

Finally, let me say that there will be a Second Look piece coming next week in which I'll dig deep into spoiler territory and speculation because there are a hundred things I have to leave unsaid in this review. In particular, you may notice that I haven't said much about the original returning cast, and that's by design. Yes, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford all return to the roles that made the three of them famous, and yes, they are each excellent in their own way based on what they're asked to do. But getting into any real discussion of their work would give away far too much information. For anyone who has been aboard this series since 1977, I would wager it will be next to impossible to avoid some big emotions as you watch this film, and for reasons that take place onscreen as well as reasons that have nothing to do with the film itself. You could argue that “Star Wars” has always been about the way one generation screws up, despite its best intentions, leaving it to the generation after them to fix the problems. When the original films came out, I was the generation being asked to step up and embrace our role as the ones that would have to fix the world. Now, I watch these new films, and I find myself identifying with the older generation, realizing just how much they've done wrong and desperate to see it all redeemed.

It must have seemed like a nearly-impossible task when JJ Abrams and his collaborators set out to bring “Star Wars” back to life, but they've more than done it. They've made something honest and beautiful and, above all, fun, and I find myself energized by the movie and by the promise it represents. Maybe one day we'll climb all those distant mountains, only to see another range on another horizon, one that will be there for another generation of storytellers. For the first time in a long time, I believe wholeheartedly again in that galaxy a long time ago and far, far away, and I am eager to return as many times as possible.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens around the world this weekend.