(J.J. Abrams, 2015)
I am one of Generation Star Wars.
Seeing the first two films in a double-bill around 1982 was a formative event in my childhood and, lame and corny though it sounds, helped to turn me into the person I am today. I accept the value of the myth created by George Lucas, I understand how it has shaped and turned popular culture, and in some ways, I've been waiting for this film for thirty-odd years. I know I brought a few metric tons of baggage into the cinema with me when I went to see The Force Awakens.
With that said, this is a good piece of genre entertainment, not a great one. The narrative is a bit of a mess, but so many other elements are excellent that they offer no little compensation. The story focuses on the search for a vanished Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), a quest which involves both sides of a conflict in a galaxy now overseen by a Republic. Those sides are the Resistance, led by Leia (Carrie Fisher), now a General; and the First Order, an Empire-worshipping army led by Supreme Commander Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis) whose leadership includes a new version of the Darth Vader-Grand Moff Tarkin duo in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Commander Nux (Domhnall Gleeson). That suggests one of the issues with this film: it has a karaoke feel to it, with almost every single element recalling or referring to one from the original trilogy.
Take the heroes: Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a scavenger who we first encounter alone and shiftless on a desert planet, just like Luke at the start of Star Wars. Finn (John Boyega) is a scrapper who makes one decision after another and winds up up to his neck in the Resistance, despite starting the film as a Stormtrooper. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is a cocksure, witty X-Wing Pilot, seemingly blustering and improvising his way through sticky situations, just like Han Solo when we first encountered him.
Speaking of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), he and Chewbacca show up too, going about their roguish smuggling business and drawn back into a conflict centred around the Force, just like they were in Star Wars.
Not only that; there is basically a new Death Star. There is a climactic light sabre duel. There is an X-Wing dogfight with Tie Fighters. There is a snowy planet. There is a cantina scene, complete with odd music. There is a wise old alien who knows more than she lets on and dispenses advice, informed by her awareness of the Force. There is the death of an old, mentor character at the hands of a younger character, who was once close to him.
Abrams takes Star Wars itself as a sub-sub-genre; sci-fi by way of space opera, and as all that quotation and repetition suggests, he is extremely faithful to the conventions of that sub-sub-genre. Perhaps too much so, in that this film is never really surprising, with even its twists reminiscent of twists from the original trilogy. But then a massive part of the pleasure here is that this film feels like Star Wars in a way none of the prequels really did.
And then there are the virtues that Abrams brings: he has always been good on character, and the characters here are fascinating. Take Kylo Ren's volatile brattishness (he is just the way Anakin Skywalker should have been in the prequels), soulfully played by Adam Driver. Or Daisy Ridley playing Rey and her gradual awakening to who and what she may be (accusations that her character is a "Mary Sue" seem ignorant of the "hidden Prince" trend which has been popular in the fantasy genre for decades, and of which she seems a prime example) as a frightening and then exhilarating journey. John Boyega's Finn, meanwhile, is the most entertaining of the three, finding himself while wisecracking and double-taking the whole time. The older characters, meanwhile, show up just like old friends, the changes in them moving and amusing in equal measure. Harrison Ford in particular seems to be having a good time as Solo, and he manages to play a few difficult moments with a lot of emotion and wit.
Abrams other chief strengths are aesthetic - his films are usually incredibly pacy, and The Force Awakens whips along throughout its two hour twenty running time, never really pausing for breath. That is useful, when the story is as messy and occasionally stupid as this one is. Another compensation is the visceral physicality of his storytelling. There have never been moments in Star Wars films like some of the shots here - Tie Fighters appearing against the sun, Storm Troopers waiting in a shuddering drop-ship.
Above all, Abrams knows how to make his films fun. The Force Awakens is stuffed with gags, great action beats, nice character moments and rich detail, and it is entertaining from start to finish, with a few passages which have resonance and emotion throbbing through them. It also sets up Rian Johnson's Episode VIII in a manner which suggests it has a great chance of becoming another Empire Strikes Back. Lets hope so. For now, The Force Awakens is a definitive statement - Star Wars is back, and it's good again. Whew.