If you’re wondering how much Star Wars there is in Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens, fret not, nerf herders: Disney’s J.J. Abrams-directed edition might just be the most Star Wars movie of all time. Whether that’s a good thing or not, however, will be the subject of debate for years to come.
From its instantly evocative opening credits crawl, The Force Awakens is a relentless space adventure that’s trying desperately to find balance in the force between the nostalgic and the new. It’s perfectly safe and plenty full of the Force to satisfy fans who’ve been waiting for it for a decade—the diehards still nursing the trauma of the prequels in the deepest recesses of their souls.
Written by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan from a draft by Michael Arndt, The Force Awakens opens on a new set of heroes-in-the-making in a future in which the Jedi have faded into the mists of time. Three decades have passed since the Rebels last destroyed the Death Star, and since Jedi warrior Luke Skywalker defeated his father, Darth Vader, in an epic and emotionally fraught lightsaber duel.
The Force Awakens kicks off energetically on the desert planet of Jakku, where Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) has been sent on a mission by now-General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). Both the Resistance and the sinister successors of the Empire, known as the First Order, are after the same thing: the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, the galaxy’s last remaining Jedi.
Here on Jakku, Abrams masterfully weaves a tapestry of narratives as the lives of Dameron, rogue stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) intersect. Filming Jakku’s wide, sweeping Lawrence of Arabia-style vistas, cinematographer Dan Mindel achieves a stunning look that hearkens back to the original trilogy. John Williams’s score swells with exquisite operatic beauty, emphasizing the epic scope and romantic themes that have endeared the franchise to its fans for generations.
But as The Force Awakens unfolds, it leans way into the “history repeats itself” trope, exploiting a conspicuous array of parallels with the original films. Spunky young heroine? Check. Handsome rebel with swagger? Check. Naïve hero who doesn’t believe in his full potential? Check. Episode VII also has a moody ultrabaddie in an ink-black helmet and an interstellar cantina where motley crews of space rabble gather to trade information and stolen goods.
The Force Awakens even stars a lovable droid who’s hiding information crucial to the fate of the universe—only his name is BB-8, not R2-D2. Luckily for the legions of fans who bought their own personal BB-8 before first making sure he’s not some sort of Hitlerbot in the movie, the compact fella is supremely likeable and instrumental to the events that kick The Force Awakens off with a bang.
As one action sequence rolls into the next at a thrilling clip, The Force Awakens throws in plenty of essential Star Wars elements: lightsaber duels, X-wing space jams, TIE-fighter chases, daddy issues galore, reluctant heroes rejecting their destinies, and an abundance of witty repartee. This is a sequel that’s clearly been written for fans who will quiver at every reference line, every throwback nod, even the sight of a few familiar background players brought back just for the hell of it. Dialogue that’s stilted at first loosens up into clever nods and reveals designed to send giddy shudders of delight through the audience.
This is where it becomes apparent what Abrams’s lasting impact on the Star Warsverse will be: As he did with Gene Roddenberry’s nearly 50-year-old Star Trek series, Abrams was tapped to scrub George Lucas’s Star Wars of the stain that was those dreadful prequels, to inject what is arguably the most beloved fantasy property of all time with new blood while retaining a nostalgic connection to what made the original films great. And that’s exactly what Abrams has done in The Force Awakens, the lead-off film paving the way for Disney’s planned reboots: He’s gone and Star Trekked up the Star Wars franchise, for better and for worse.
Star Wars is, as it always has been, about young heroes accepting a higher calling to fight for good as corrupt governments and even shadier politicians foist their oppressive regimes upon the masses. (Or, in this case, threaten to obliterate entire galactic systems to further their agenda.) Part of the mythic power of the saga has always been in its epic face-offs between good and evil—but also in its comforting predictability, the cyclical themes that keep the galaxy running in a yin-yang balance between the light side and the dark.
Where The Force Awakens feels freshest is in its new cast of characters. And, following a tight-lipped press tour that was dominated by the charismatic Boyega, it’s rather refreshing to see that as winning as he is as the redeemed hero Finn, the movie really belongs to someone else: Daisy Ridley.
Newcomer Ridley gives a star-making performance as Rey, a fresh-faced loner still hoping to reunite with the family she lost years ago. Scrappy, intelligent, and quick-witted, she’s possessed of an engineer’s brilliant mind. Alongside Fisher’s still-iconic Leia, Ridley emerges as one of the year’s best heroines, given a destiny that will be a promising one to follow in films to come.
Game of Thrones fans will be disappointed to see Gwendoline Christie’s Chrome Trooper, Captain Phasma, in only a few scenes. Likewise, Lupita Nyong’o’s devotees, for different reasons: Transformed into a diminutive pirate barkeep named Maz Kanata who sports weathered skin and specs that peer deep into anyone’s soul, the 12 Years A Slave Oscar winner is a standout, even beneath layers of CG.
The Force Awakens passes the Bechdel test with solid scores. There’s plenty of male-focused dialogue to be had all around, of course—baby steps when you’re contemporizing a canon that enslaved its female lead in a gold bikini for the objectifying gaze of a fat intergalactic slob, standing in for all slobs everywhere. Who has the time to waste talking only about men when the fate of the universe is at stake? But while it gives voice to a range of female characters both good and evil, one of the film’s most powerful scenes plays out as a surprisingly sexualized tête-à-tête—a literal power play with a gendered subtext involving consent, power, and entitlement that foreshadows the real light vs. dark battle that defines The Force Awakens.
Some of the film’s greatest surprises are also its best original characters. Rey and Finn share a crackling adolescent chemistry together, as do Finn and Poe. Domhnall Gleeson’s tightly wound General Hux comes frighteningly alive in the one moment he’s allowed to unleash inspired levels of fascist fanaticism upon the screen. Adam Driver’s tortured Kylo Ren is a memorably haunted and haunting figure wracked by misguided faith. Shame that Ren’s narrative is marred by a script that tries too hard to re-create the past; even the dark overlord that rules the First Order is a distracting Gollum-like stand-in for the iconic withered puppet master Palpatine. Tragically, because we’re all rooting for a New Hope, not a Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, or Revenge of the Sith, The Force Awakens misses the landing for its compelling cast characters old and new. The moment so huge it will be argued over for years to come is telegraphed so obviously it dilutes what should have been one of the most well-earned emotional impacts of the entire saga.
In its own way, Abrams’s Star Wars does exactly what Abrams’s Star Trek did in 2009: It leans on decades-old geek nostalgia to reboot a beloved property by hitting predictably familiar story beats and character arcs with a twist, necessarily introducing new stars on whose youthful shoulders the next trilogy can rest. Let’s hope as lucrative franchises continue to be revived, rebooted, and exhumed from our pop culture past, moviegoers will catch on and demand more than fan service and collectible merchandising; this sort of nostalgia-trading can only go so far before the gimmick runs dry. As Disney continues to churn out more Star Wars episodes and spinoffs, the next one being Gareth Edwards’s Rogue One, hitting theaters in just a year, we can only have faith that the Force is with us.