[This is a spoiler-free review.]
I’m glad I waited.
Not to see The Force Awakens, mind you. I saw it as soon as I was able to, and I’m glad I got into a showing in which everyone was seeing it for the first time. No, instead I’m glad I waited to write this review until I saw this newest Star Wars a second time. If you’re a fan of the series, merely hearing John Williams punch you in the feels is worth the price of admission alone. Seeing the opening crawl, drinking in what exactly has happened to our old friends after 30 years, and having a nostalgia overload when familiar props and objects appear? That’s icing on the cake, and enough to make even the most jaded reviewer toss out a high score.
Not that I was ready to do so after the first viewing.
In fact, I was ready to write a somewhat negative review of The Force Awakens. The first viewing was a nostalgia love-in, and I wasn’t quite sure if the film itself had truly earned the goodwill it engenders. Why? Because at first blush, it seemed to be living off of the original trilogy’s magic. Yes, we get some new heroes to go alongside some new villains, but the highest points of the movie seemed to be the sugar rush of seeing artifacts from the originals, or watching the old guard inhabit their old roles with the same charm. The plot seemed to be a contrived tribute to George Lucas’s early works.
Not that director J.J. Abrams tribute isn’t sturdily constructed, and a must-see on a big screen in a crowded sea of people. The cinematography pays loving homage to its forebearers without being chained to them; the prequels’ sheen of CG fakery is mostly eliminated here, replaced with an updated take on a dusty, lived-in galaxy. Likewise, the music fits with this galaxy and propels it at light speed, even if the score is a bit less memorable than in past Star Wars. It’s all well-lit, well-composed, well-engineered, and well-tempered, but I thought that it was all part of a melody that was once played better, long ago and far away.
However, upon viewing a second time? The pacing that once seemed skittish and rushed feels a bit more streamlined. The plot, while guided by old hands, is more assuredly pushed by the new. The nostalgia call backs melt away, their shock value a one-time only event, and in their place is a more firm ground for a film of considerable merit.
The cast is pitch-perfect. Fin and Rey, our new generation of heroes played by John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, are endearing from the moment they step on screen; they have an uncommon chemistry and tenderness. Oscar Isaac’s turn as Poe Dameron is memorable in its own right, but he plays a bit more behind the scenes here. And, of course, a new generation of heroes needs a new foil, a new challenge. A new villain.
The less said about Kylo Ren here, the better. His is a character more adequately discussed in a far more spoiler-filled discussion, which will come in due course. Suffice to say that what could have been a Darth Vader ripoff ends up being a good deal more interesting than that.
There would be nothing less interesting than by-the-motions nostalgia for our returning heroes, Han and Leia, but both Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher carry The Force Awakens to emotional depths heretofore unknown in this corner of the galaxy. Perhaps it’s the years, or perhaps it’s a new director, or maybe it’s the utilization of more actual sets instead of green-screen sorcery, or maybe it’s all of those factors put together. Whatever you’d like to chalk it up to, there is more heart in this Star Wars than nearly any of the preceding six movies. I didn’t expect to walk into a theater where lightsabers ignited and walk out with a lump in my throat and tears on my cheeks, but that’s what occurred. Twice.
And really, is there anything else that matters? We go into movies to be pulled into a picture show, to feel something we aren’t quite able to describe in print form. The Force Awakens, as huge a blockbuster production as such movies come, succeeds in a wide stretch between levity and pathos, light and dark. Where other special-effects extravaganzas fumble the crucial balance between outright spectacle and personal intimacy, this Star Wars walks the tightrope. In doing so, it stakes its claim as a tale that will outlive us all as part of our greatest pop-culture mythology.
If Episode VIII delivers on this promise, of course. As good as Episode VII is, it leaves a lot of open plot threads. Those threads may lead to a tale worthy of the redemption we are all hoping this franchise receives. Or they could lead off of a cliff.
That’s a story for another day, though. For today, we have an excellent first step in Disney’s Star Wars reclamation project.