by Noah Foster-Koth
Come on, baby, don’t let me down! Han Solo shouts in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, the newest installment of George Lucas’ epic space opera franchise. Solo, played by Harrison Ford, is talking to his starship, the Millennium Falcon, but his demand comes close to breaking the fourth wall — at this point, “don’t let me down!” is the thought on many moviegoers’ minds with the each new “Star Wars” release. Like the Millennium Falcon, the “Star Wars” franchise has gathered some serious battle scars over the years. After three mediocre prequel films and an abysmal TV show (the animated “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”), it seemed unlikely that one of cinema’s most iconic franchises could ever return to its former glory.
To satisfy audiences, the seventh “Star Wars” film has a long and somewhat contradictory list of expectations to fulfill. It has to tell an original story while staying consistent with the previous six films. It must introduce compelling new characters, while still finding time for the original cast. And it has to do all of this while providing moments of spectacle and wonder, without overwhelming the humor or character development. That’s a lot to expect from any film, but “The Force Awakens” achieves it all. The film isn’t perfect, but it is far superior to any “Star Wars” movie released within the last twenty years — I’d even put it above 1983’s Return of the Jedi. The core of the “Star Wars” films has always been the cast of characters, and that’s where “The Force Awakens” excels.
This is the first “Star Wars” film to give individual personalities to the stormtroopers, adding a layer of depth to the otherwise black and white struggle between good and evil. John Boyega plays a stormtrooper named Finn whose sense of decency compels him to defect from the evil regime he serves. Despite his integrity, Finn is easily flustered, and the interplay between him and the calm, confident rebel Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) generates some of the funniest scenes in the movie.
Boyega also has great chemistry with Ford, who, at 73, is still believable as Han Solo. Solo has aged, but he hasn’t mellowed much, and Ford’s performance here is very different than his wiser, gentler turn as Indiana Jones in “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” If that weren’t enough, the film also introduces an adorable droid named BB-8, who’s like a cross between R2-D2 and a soccer ball.
All of these characters are great, but the best of the lot is Rey, the most compelling character to enter the series since Yoda first hobbled onscreen in “The Empire Strikes Back”. Rey is a young woman whose family abandoned her on the desert world of Jakku as a child. In her cinematic debut, actress Daisy Ridley manages to convey Rey’s vulnerability and loneliness without downplaying her self-sufficiency or prowess as a warrior. As a result, Rey is the strongest character in the film — not in spite of her tenderness or her femininity, but because of it.
The bad guys aren’t quite as effective. Adam Driver seems miscast as the villainous Kylo Ren, especially when he’s required to remove his imposing, Darth Vader-inspired mask. Similarly, the new supervillain, Supreme Leader Snoke, is too cartoonish to be truly threatening; he feels like a reject from a goofy Marvel movie. And while we’re on the topic of half-baked appearances, some of the film’s locales look like video game levels, which is surprising considering that director, JJ Abrams, has previously voiced interest in providing real sets and practical effects. Most of the time, he delivers on that promise, but there are a few moments where the characters look like they’re walking through a computer program.
These are ultimately minor complaints, though. The overall tone of the new film is more comical than the original trilogy, but the actors seldom overplay the humor. The high-flying action scenes are excellent, and many of the film’s quieter moments pack an emotional wallop that the prequels almost never had.
“The Force Awakens” has been criticized for borrowing too many plot points from the original “Star Wars” trilogy, but the callbacks to the previous films are balanced by the original characters and unique scenes. Abrams, in the tradition of his TV show Lost, leaves many plot points unresolved, but the final scene (no spoilers!) manages to successfully settle the story’s main conflict, while marking a clear path towards a sequel.
Regardless of where it heads next, “Star Wars” has returned to greatness. “The Force Awakens” won’t let you down.