What you really want to know is whether or not J. J. Abrams has worked his magic and saved the Star Wars franchise. The answer is not just yes. But, rather, YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It is perfection. That is all you really need to know and, while I will not do this film the disservice of lessening its impact with spoilers, I will say that if you want to approach it the way we in the press corps did, as a set of tabulas rasas, you can read the rest of what I have to say about STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS after you have experienced this wonder for yourself.
Abrams has done here what he did for the Star Trek franchise, which is to say, he has gone back to its roots to rediscover what made it so compelling to generations of fans. Those old enough to remember the original television commercials for STAR WARS (now known as Episode IV) will recall that the tag line was something like “Never has so much money been spent on so much fun.” And so it was. With all the thrills, the adventure, the romance, and the drama, that first film was first and foremost about using the classic hero’s journey to provide escapist fare that had the virtue of also being emotionally resonant in its use of archetypes. THE FORCE AWAKENS has the special effects, the budding romance, and the action-packed battle sequences, both in the vacuum of space and the intimacy of light-sabre to light-sabre swordplay, but if anything, it builds on those archetypes, making characters that are, yes, fun, but also vibrant and even emotionally vulnerable.
THE FORCE AWAKENS is very much its own film, but the echoes of Episode IV are there for those with eyes to see, and not just the training sphere that pops up as a throwaway shout-out. Our plucky heroine, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is smart, capable, resourceful and refreshingly no-nonsense in her single-minded determination, just like another young, unsmiling heroine from the past. There’s a cocky pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) who is the same embodiment of ironic cool, even when flummoxed, that we first saw, and see again here, in Han Solo (Harrison Ford). The opening sequence has an impossibly large spacecraft, though not doing the exact same thing that the Millennium Falcon did in its first screen appearance, a scene in a cantina where many strata of society and species meet while music fills the air, and a sun (only one) that sets with the same desolate glow on a desert planet that we first saw on Tatooine when Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) lived there. The hero’s journey here is not quite as straightforward as Luke’s. There are several candidates for that role, including Rey, who has been waiting since childhood for her family to return to her, or Poe, who is the best pilot in the Resistance led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher). There’s also Finn (John Boyega), a Storm Trooper who has somehow risen above his life-long programming after being marked (baptized?) with a dying man’s blood. Most tantalizing, though, is Kylo Ren, whose history is a slow reveal, and whose turmoil, in the cold, counter-intuitive brand of intensity evinced by Adam Driver, is a wonderfully subtle thing in a story full of big explosions and a sometimes scenery-chewing, but always delightful, performance from Domhnall Gleeson, as General Hux of the First Order, which is the evil the successor to the evil Empire.
As for the Jedi, and The Force, the former has dwindled done to the self-exiled Luke Skywalker, and the latter has a sneaky way of expressing itself, which is another excellent device. The mystery of what is chance, and what is not, never calls attention to itself, but rather waits patiently for us to suss it out.
Make no mistake, as much as this is a bigger, more potent successor to the original film, much as its heinous weapon is the more potent successor to the Death Star, it is a film very much about the characters who populate it. Even those with little screen time (please tell me Max Von Sydow will be back), or appear only as holograms (Andy Serkis triumphs again as Supreme Leader Snoke, the unofficial lord of gloom), or are droids (the spherical sidekick BB-8 that can get out of tight situations with aplomb as well as give a glowing thumbs-up) are key components in a story that isn’t afraid of metaphor, but prefers to focus on a well-told, perfectly acted, and dynamically directed action-adventure film for the ages. And, bonus, not an annoying Ewok in sight.