I paid attention to the little things in The Force Awakens. Some of these were visual — the small creature with eyes set apart like a hammerhead shark poking its head out of the sand, the vulturous creature picking at the remains of a ship as if it were a carcass. Others were musical, like the marimba-influenced tune that plays when we first meet Rey (Daisy Ridley) that suggests a much wider world is in store for her. It’s nuance that gives The Force Awakens its edge: the object just out of focus, the roaring bass of the Force.
These accents draw a fine border around the centerpiece of the new era of Star Wars. Everything new in The Force Awakens works in a way we perhaps have never seen in this franchise. Rey and Finn (John Boyega) have a chemistry I would argue trounces any repartee in the original films. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a wave of unhinged darkness; he takes what worked with Darth Vader and amplifies it with new depth and strength of will.
Side characters we’ve never met, locations we’ve never been to—I felt like I was meeting Star Wars all over again. Only this time, it was bigger, more stunning and more lived-in than ever before (thanks in large part to inspired, painterly work from cinematographer Daniel Mindel). This is the Star Wars of the 70s and 80s imagined with the scale and beauty of The Lord of the Rings. And one gets the impression John Williams feels the same way; the attention to detail he puts into his score this time around gives a sense of genuine affection I never felt from him in the prequels. I can just imagine him watching the final showdown in The Force Awakens utterly motivated to bring every emotional undercurrent, every piece of footwork, and every injury and triumph bursting to life.
It is a shame, then, that J.J. Abrams falls back on the past to bolster his story. I was having so much fun with BB-8, Finn and Rey that when Han (Harrison Ford) and Chewie (Peter Mayhew) showed up, I thought, “Great — here come references to the other movies.” And that’s what we get — coy winks and too many visual and narrative callbacks to count. Yet credit is due to Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt whose careful attention to dialogue largely keeps these moments fluid, rarely breaking a scene to wink to the audience.
In fact, most of the film’s power is in its dialogue. Humor is fast and wildly engaging and the plot drives forward in a way none of the previous films managed to nail. Oscar Isaac is particularly snappy in his all-too-brief appearances as Poe Dameron. As the first Hispanic lead in a Star Wars film he makes an impression quickly and left me desperate for more.
Yet the movie’s real treasures are in its debut talents. Adam Driver has done some fine work in both film and television but it’s here that he finally gets to take on the role he was born to play. With the aid of a bone shaking bass track that emphasizes every Force move he makes, Kylo Ren outstrips all other Star Wars villains with his entrance.
But he’s more than menacing: he’s troubled, a broken fragment of a human being that shows from his quivering lip down to his bizarre crackling lightsaber. We learn more about Kylo Ren and his motivations than we ever did about Vader until the prequels, and The Force Awakens didn’t take three movies to deliver its punchline.
Even more impressive are Daisy Ridley — a relative unknown — and John Boyega, whose superb performance in Attack the Block was a harbinger for great things. They play off one another as if they’ve been friends for years. No one in recent action history — not The Avengers, not Katniss, Peeta or Gale — has struck such tangible gold onscreen so quickly. Regardless of the breakneck speed that pushes Finn and Rey together, their companionship is wholly moving as they compensate for each other’s faults and push one another to do better and to be better.
And in that companionship J.J. Abrams introduces a biting theme new to the franchise: predetermination and agency. While the Force keeps dragging the same old players into conflict, the next generation of protagonists are faced with different decisions. Do they leave their old lives and explore the universe? Are they who their caretakers say they are, or are they worth more than a few bits of scrap? This is a question even Kylo Ren must deal with, and it brings up profound and, importantly, universal ideas about personhood and self-worth.
Abrams wrote a conciliatory note to fans with The Force Awakens, hewing close to the original trilogy as he explored both old and new aesthetic and story to form something unique. Though a welcome return to form for the series, this comes with a caveat: there is little surprise to the plot of Episode VII. An over reliance on what has worked keeps Abrams from realizing what might have been if he’d left himself unanchored to legacy — a lesson he might have learned from his plucky young leads.
And yet — and yet — this is truly a film he should be proud of. Abrams, Arndt and Kasdan have set a tone for the new trilogy that captures the series’ essence. They reimagine a world where nothing is random, where a transcendent sense of oneness binds all things in good and in evil. Coincidence gives way to destiny and with that comes a renewed sense of hope — for our characters, and, perhaps, for Star Wars itself.
Movie Verdict: Win