Review: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

There was a time when songs used to come packaged together as things called “albums” that you had to listen to in order. This created an indelible link between the songs placed near each other on a record, tape or CD. To this day, if I hear Aerosmith’s Magic Touch — off of the still incredible Permanent Vacation — I expect to hear the familiar strains of Rag Doll coming in close on its heels.

Watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens is like listening to one of those beloved albums. It’s at turns comforting, thrilling and full of feeling. But it’s also very, very reminiscent of both A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. So familiar that you will find yourself listening for the strains of certain plot points to come wafting in, and they always do. As a reset of the franchise and a rebirth, some familiarities are both expected and not unwelcome, but the tributes are so thick on the ground that they could trip up long-time lovers of the series. Not so thick, however, that they will much bother newer viewers, or those raised on the prequels.

The Force Awakens somehow manages to be fresh in a way that feels nostalgic, but the freshness never quite turns the corner into innovation outside of a few pivotal scenes. And yet, it works.

Characters, At Last

Where The Force Awakens does shine incredibly well is the strength of its new characters, which are the best Star Wars has had in decades. Aside from the handful of principals that people had to keep track of in the prequels, it was sadly lacking in new characters that we were able to latch onto and really care about. This new Star Wars delivers four that absolutely destroy every time they’re visible on screen. And the actors that play them can all act their asses off.

Rey, a powerful female force in Star Wars that requires no white knighting, is in full possession of her own agency. She is the culmination of what Leia could have been in the original trilogy if they weren’t so busy seeing what the men were up to. Rey, abandoned on a desert planet that is not Tatooine even though it basically is, waits for the return of her family and scrapes by an unbelievably tough existence, without ever complaining a bit. She’s a loner, a pillar of her own strength, and never loses sight of her goals. Not only that, but throughout the film she teaches herself the skills she needs to survive and executes on them (mostly) without assistance. Not out of stubbornness or anger, but out of sheer competence.

It doesn’t matter that I have a daughter, I love to see this kind of purpose-driven parts for women either way — but it does warm the cockles of my heart to think that she will be able to grow up with a Star Wars that features a character like Rey at its core. Her journey is the most fully realized in this film, and it’s made very clear to us that she will be the pivot point for episodes to come.

Daisy Ridley portrays Rey with a willful, physically adroit capability — open emotionally, but not naive. This is a girl who has been stuck on a backwater, but she’s no neophyte. Ridley manages the balance between street tough and caring friend in Rey so cleverly. She’s absolutely magnetic on screen and got the biggest crowd reactions of any character in our preview screening. Ridley is a discovery, captivating at every turn, whether she’s emoting or in the thick of combat.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens..Ph: Film Frame..©Lucasfilm 2015

John Boyega as Finn, originally a Stormtrooper with a number for a name, is equally delightful. Funny, cocky, unsure and chivalrous even when he doesn’t need to be. A black main character with a lightsaber and a leading-man charisma is a second welcome nod to a more diverse Star Wars universe — and it pays off in spades because Boyoga is even more entertaining here than he was in Attack The Block. Sporting a slightly broad American-ish accent, Boyega holds his own in scenes with Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Ridley.