“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is the “Star Wars” sequel we have been looking for: a classic adventure that harkens back to the glory days of 1977's "Star Wars" and 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back." Brimming with the heart and star-gazing wonder that made the original a classic, and the dark, brooding struggle between good and evil that solidified “Empire” as a masterpiece sequel, “The Force Awakens” passes the test the prequel trilogy did not: This feels like — and is — a genuine "Star Wars" film.
From its liberal use of practical effects and sets to rip-roaring space battles and a humorous, emotional script by “Empire” and “Jedi” scribe Lawrence Kasdan and director J.J. Abrams, it is evident “The Force Awakens” was made by artists who cherish the “Star Wars” universe and worked hard to restore it to George Lucas’ original vision whilst taking the Skywalker saga in a brand new direction.
“The Force Awakens” takes place 30 years after the events of “Return of the Jedi.” The Empire has been destroyed but a new sect called The First Order has risen, led by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), his protege Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the Hitler-esque General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).
When the first trailer and poster for "The Force Awakens" were released, the Internet went into a frenzy asking: Where's Luke? Little did the world know that life was imitating art. Within the movie, the Resistance — now under the command of General Leia (Carrie Fisher)— and the evil First Order have no idea where Luke is either. Both light and dark forces fight against each other to find Skywalker and their search brings them to an unassuming but extraordinary young scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), ex-First Order stormtrooper Finn and Han Solo (Harrison Ford).
Abrams and Kasdan took great care to return beloved original characters to their full glory, while also creating brand new identifiable and lovable heroes. As Rey, Daisy Ridley is the driving force behind the film. She takes Princess Leia's wit and Han Solo's brawn to a new level, creating the franchise's first true female action hero. It's about time. In a year that saw many strong female action roles, Rey is a welcome addition to the genre and the series. And Ridley’s vigor and command of every scene shows that she is going to be the next big movie star.
John Boyega's disillusioned stormtrooper-turned-resistance fighter Finn brings levity to the action, reprising that sense of boyish wonder and adventure that we once saw in Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker so long ago. The chemistry between Boyega and Ridley is the key to the film's success. Without it, the “Force” would slumber instead of awaken. But the two immediately have a rapport that is so palpable, it immerses the audience into their story. This is what was sorely missing from the prequels and it's thanks to Lawrence and Abrams' wonderful script that there is a new generation of "Star Wars" characters to champion.
Oscar Isaac, while lacking Ridley and Boyega's screen time, brings a wild energy as the hotshot resistance pilot Poe Dameron. George Lucas' original film was an homage to classic science fiction and adventure serials and Poe is this film's embodiment of Lucas' original ideas. Hopefully, we will see more of him in later installments.
Adam Driver is one of this generation’s best actors but he is an interesting — and possibly divisive — choice to play new villain Kylo Ren. He is unquestionably lethal, but he also skulks around the film like Darth Vader with a spoiled child’s temperament. With his mask on, Kylo Ren is almost as menacing as Vader. With his mask off, he is just Adam Driver and that may take some getting used to.
Also making brief appearances are Max von Sydow, Lupita Nyong'o and Gwendoline Christie as the series’ first female villain. There are also plenty of new aliens, bounty hunters and scoundrels to make fans giddy.
With all these new characters, Abrams and Kasdan have increased Disney's merchandising and licensing potential tenfold. People already are enamored by the new droid BB-8, who is an absolute delight in the film. It’s a cross between R2-D2 and a lapdog, though it is never as cloying as C-3PO and certainly not as annoying as the dreadful Jar-Jar Binks. Abrams and company did right with BB-8 and it is a welcome addition to an already crowded bench.
Even though the new characters take up the majority of the screen time, all eyes will be on Ford's Han Solo and Peter Mayhew's Chewbacca. For those who grew up with these characters, seeing them back in action again — completely unchanged except for age — is like a dream. Ford comfortably slips back into his smart-aleck character as if the film took place a year after "Jedi." Solo's story is more involved and emotional this time around and Ford adds new depth to the famous smuggler. Han again gets some great lines and many a laugh. Even Chewbacca has a few moments to shine.
It should also be no surprise that five-time Oscar-winner John Williams has created another masterful “Star Wars” score. At 83, the composer hasn’t missed a beat, and maintains his genius for creating memorable themes, complex layered action cues and the soul of the “Star Wars” universe. The new themes for Rey and Poe are classic Williams but his new theme for the Resistance is the true catch: a fugue-like march that harkens back to Williams’ late '70s oeuvre. Without John Williams there is no “Star Wars”, and “The Force Awakens” finds its center through his brilliant music.
Not all is golden. Supreme Leader Snoke is a massive CGI man-beast voiced by the great Andy Serkis. While Serkis' voice may induce chills, Snoke's appearance makes him as ambiguous as every other giant man-beast in the genre today. For a film that has painstakingly worked hard to recreate the feel of the originals, this was a major step backwards.
With his “Star Trek” films, Abrams created a schism within the Trek fanbase between those who are fine with his changes and those who cry blasphemy. While “The Force Awakens” may not please every “Star Wars” fan with lofty expectations, one thing is certain: There is a new hope that classic “Star Wars” is back for good.
Walt Disney Pictures. Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes.