The hype could not have conceivably been higher for the seventh entry in the Star Wars series, the first of a “sequel trilogy” that was launched after Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012. Amid unprecedented pre-order ticket sales and massive expectations from insatiable fans, it almost seemed as if Star Wars: The Force Awakens was doomed to disappoint audiences before it was even released. Despite these circumstances, director J.J. Abrams has tapped into his most formidable skill set of nostalgia commodification and delivered an immensely entertaining blockbuster that should thrill both hardcore loyalists and newcomers alike.
We pick up about 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, where the disappearance of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has driven remnants of the Republic and the Empire, now called the Resistance and the First Order respectively, to find him at all costs. When Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) recovers a portion of a map that leads to Luke, he stores it in a roaming droid unit that finds its way to a parts scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley). After Poe is rescued by a rogue Stormtrooper nicknamed “Finn” (John Boyega), the two travel back to seek out Rey with the First Order and their leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in constant pursuit.
It’s clear that there’s a lot at play here that correlates strongly with the original trilogy but what’s most important is how effective the new material is by comparison. What makes The Force Awakens work so well is that at its foundation, this is a truly character driven movie. The focus is wisely put on the young cast of mostly new faces and rising stars, who provide plenty of personality in their performances and ground their roles in a kind of realism that has previously been lacking in other Star Wars films. The sly bits of fan service and self-referential humor also give things a modern update without alienating the audience or getting too cheeky.
Top-notch special effects have always been a key component to the franchise and the breathtaking visual prowess of The Force Awakens is a testament to how far computer generated effects have come even in the ten years since Revenge of the Sith. This is especially evident in the scenes involving Resistance and First Order spaceships, which move through the air with a kind of nimbleness that can’t be achieved in the same way with miniature models. The X-wing and TIE fighter battles are choreographed at a breakneck pace with thrilling precision and just watching the Millienium Falcon speed through the corridors of a downed Star Destroyer was enough to make me feel like a kid again.
So many filmmakers have tried and failed to capture that feeling in audiences before but Abrams has proven once again how well he can transform the old into something new once more. He and his team have laid the groundwork for an already promising addition to the Star Wars legacy while also leaving unanswered questions and tantalizing cliffhangers for Episode VIII. The already announced writer and director for that film is Rian Johnson, who most recently directed the fantastically imaginative science-fiction film Looper in 2012. Regardless of what he accomplishes in the next chapter, The Force Awakens has already set the bar high for this new trilogy.