Though I try to avoid placing my biography and personal preferences at the fore when it comes to reviews (critical preferences sure, but this goes beyond that), I feel any review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens carries with it, at least initially, a responsibility on behalf of the reviewer to declare his or her loyalties (or lack thereof).
To that end, I’ll admit—I’m a child of Episode IV. Standing in line to see Star Wars as a nine-year-old remains the last time I can recall standing in a line that long where the payoff was fully commensurate with the wait. (It’s also one of the only unadulterated happy experiences I can recall sharing with my dad—I’m sure there were more, but this one stuck.)
I loved the first, adored the second, and gradually (mostly) got over the Ewok- and Boba Fett-related decisions that marred the third.
And then the Prequels happened, reversing the usual—or at least, the preferred—relationship between my fandom and the universe that had given it birth. From about the time of young Anakin’s first “Yippee!” in The Phantom Menace and extending all the way through to the freshly minted Vader’s cry of “Noooooooo!” in Revenge of the Sith, what had started as great expectation nursed and nurtured in the 16 years between Return of the Jedi and Phantom Menace dwindled to modest hopes and then to lingering, irrational optimism before transitioning to sad resignation and a funereal determination to see it all through.
For me, at least, The Force Awakens undoes that unfortunate inversion. Finally, I’m able to watch a new chapter of the Star Wars saga and actually look forward to the next film.
And man, that’s nice.
J.J. Abrams and company have accomplished this act of restorative cinema primarily through a return to the “dirty future” aesthetic that made the Original Trilogy feel so real (no matter how absurd the dialogue being delivered by the characters). That’s not to say CGI is lacking, but whereas budget and technology constraints helped the first three films and an overabundance hurt the next three, the balance between practical and special effects in The Force Awakens feels near perfect. I say “primarily” not to take away from other factors, such as casting. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver are all solid, and Oscar Isaac brings a palpable vigor to his role. But the Prequels had plenty of great actors, too. (Though I suppose there should be a separate category for “green screen presence.”) But ultimately, The Force Awakens just feels right in ways the Prequels never did.
As much as The Force Awakens will remedy the near-terminal Prequel-itis of some fans, it’s hardly without its flaws, many of which can be recognized as signature of the very man who will be justly lauded for reviving yet another sci-fi franchise: director and co-writer Abrams. As much grief as the man has gotten for lens flare, a more troublesome failing can be found in how cavalierly he disregards the need for an underpinning consistency to the “science” of the universes he revives. I cannot help but picture him as that friend who, after listening to a buddy complain about how Superman’s “S” symbol was suddenly used as Super Saran Wrap in Superman II, interrupts with a, “But dude, it’s about an alien from Krypton who can fly … it’s all made up, so what does it matter?!” As a result, just as he played fast and loose with transporter technology (and much more) in his Star Trek reboot, Abrams allows the “ridic” meter to hit 11 more than a few times in The Force Awakens. (I’m looking at you, galaxy-spanning superweapon.)
Likewise, and again, pretty much as expected with Abrams, the film takes its fair share of shortcuts with some of the character arcs. (In order to remain spoiler free, no “showing my work” in terms of scene reference will accompany this particular observation.)
Still, Abrams’ foibles as a filmmaker have always been rather polite ones—they don’t so much jump out and derail enjoyment as stand quietly to the side, ready to engage the viewer’s attention after the credits have rolled. And in this film—arguably the most anticipated film since the last time a new Star Wars trilogy launched—no degree of negative Abramic tendency will overshadow the achievement. Star Wars is fun again. Fans whose love for the series was forged with the Original Trilogy will see too much they recognize (and, later, missed) not to love this effort. Those poor souls who have never known a Star Wars without Jar-Jar, General Grievous the Coughing Robot, and so, so little more, will find this film pretty damn exciting. And for all those who have never seen a Star Wars film? Now is an excellent time to start. (Though feel free to skip the Prequels.)