Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens   (2015) dir. J.J. Abrams Rated: PG-13 image:  ©2015  Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)
dir. J.J. Abrams
Rated: PG-13
image:  ©2015 Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The biggest complaint from critics about J.J. Abrams’ 2011 sci-fi thriller Super 8 was that instead of being an homage to one of his heroes – Steven Spielberg, who produced the movie – it slipped into the territory of pastiche. Super 8 was so slavishly devoted to the house style of Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment that it simply became an imitation of it. Thinking about that movie now, it feels like it was the perfect test to make sure the most successful franchise in film history would be safe in Abrams’ hands. George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars universe, and Spielberg worked together on the Indiana Jones series after all, and both men came out of the same “film school brat” scene of the 1970s. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek series also proved he was capable of working on the galactic scale required for Star Wars.

Abrams’ The Force Awakens, the first Star Wars film without Lucas’ guiding hand as either director or producer, is a mixed bag when it comes to that question of homage vs. pastiche. The Force Awakens feels very much like a J.J. Abrams movie. His signature brand of sarcastic humor and penchant for diversionary sequences of action for action’s sake are both present. At the same time, it seems like Abrams was very aware that he was making A STAR WARS MOVIE. There are points when the movie is close to being crushed under the weight of wanting to live up to its predecessors. As a consequence, the story is overstuffed with plot. A large number of story elements borrow directly from Episodes IV and VI of the series. But ultimately Abrams made an exciting installment that included touches harkening back to the earlier films, putting a smile on this Star Wars fan’s face throughout the movie.

The Force Awakens starts with the familiar blast of notes comprising John Williams’ main theme playing over the opening crawl of text, which gives us a brief explanation of events preceding the movie’s plot. Roughly thirty years after the end of Episode VI, the galaxy is in turmoil yet again. It’s hard to be more detailed than that when describing this turmoil, because exactly who’s who and what’s what when it comes to the forces battling for control of the galaxy is terribly confusing. There’s a group called the First Order that seems to be battling against General Leia Organa’s Resistance movement. At the end of Episode VI, Leia’s band of rebels was victorious, but they don’t seem to be in control, either. I walked away from the movie feeling unsure who was in charge of what.

The MacGuffin that gets the plot rolling is a map that shows the location of the last known Jedi knight, Luke Skywalker. The mysterious leader of the First Order is Kylo Ren, a disciple of the Dark Side who does the bidding of the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke. The plans are stowed away in the droid BB-8 by Resistance pilot Poe Dameron. In a doubling and reversal of the plot of Episode IV: A New Hope, the cute droid must make its way to Leia to deliver the important information. Enter characters Finn and Rey, easily the best part of The Force Awakens.

Writers Michael Arndt, Lawrence Kasdan and Abrams himself attempt an unprecedented egalitarianism for the Star Wars franchise in this new chapter, and it’s a complete success. Here is Finn, the first leading man of color in the series. Finn is a Stormtrooper with a conscience, and his character arc brings a breath of fresh air to the Star Wars universe. His blind allegiance to the First Order is challenged when he sees all the death and destruction left in its wake. Actor John Boyega portrays Finn with great emotional depth. You can see the internal struggle all over the actor’s face as his character questions his entire life’s purpose. Boyega also handles his moments of humor in the film with great comedic timing.  

Just as exciting as Finn is Rey, an almost literal force to be reckoned with. Actress Daisy Ridley gives the scrap metal scavenger a sharp edge, but she also infuses the character with the moral center of a true hero. There have been leading women in Star Wars before – Princess Leia in the original trilogy, and Padme in the prequels – but none with Rey’s complete agency and downright ass-kickery. Her character is an excellent addition to the franchise.

In their attempts to get BB-8 back to Leia, the two heroes cross paths with a few familiar faces – to the audience, if not to Finn and Rey themselves.  The legendary Han Solo and Chewbacca intercept Finn and Rey, who have been traveling in Solo’s long-lost Millennium Falcon. Seeing these two in a new adventure is like running into old friends. Harrison Ford expressed reluctance in the past to ever play Solo again, so seeing him step into the role that made him a superstar was particularly poignant. Among other things, the motley team get caught up in a fight between two rival gangs that are united in their hatred for Solo. The standoff leads to a heavily computer generated action sequence that could easily have been left on the cutting room floor.

For the most part, The Force Awakens works. Without getting into dreaded spoiler territory, Abrams and company keep the focus of the Star Wars saga where the earlier films do. This is the epic and sweeping story of the Skywalker family. Their mythic tale of action and adventure plays out against the backdrop of the universe, and The Force Awakens continues the story in grand space opera style.

Why it got 3.5 stars:
- The Force Awakens is as exciting and epic as the original trilogy, but it suffers from an overwritten plot that borrows a little too heavily from that same original trilogy.

Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I felt every bit of the two hour and fifteen-minute running time. In fact, before I checked just how long it was, I would have sworn it was longer.
- The character design for Kylo Ren is just as iconic as Darth Vader. The processing done to actor Adam Driver's voice gives the character a menacing  and sinister tone. And if I can take off my critic hat for just a second, it just sounds damn cool, too.
- Part of what made the original trilogy so popular was the universe filled to the brim with colorful and unique characters on the fringe of every frame. J.J. Abrams' Star Wars universe doesn't disappoint in this regard. The little droid BB-8 screams Star Wars. The creative team responsible for the look of the characters got it just right.