“I know what I have to do, but I don’t know if I’m strong enough to do it.”
This review contains spoilers. A lot of spoilers.
Kylo Ren’s anguished plea to his father, Han, might as well be the logline for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a movie acutely conscious of its place in cinematic history. J. J. Abrams, a director whose career has consisted largely of repurposing other people’s work and adding lens flare, dials back his house style to pay affecting tribute to George Lucas’s beloved epic. And for all the shit Lucas has taken over the years, it’s his vision and his world that come through on-screen to make the seventh entry in the Star Wars saga such a charming, lived-in film.
Much has been made of the return of the original trilogy’s leads, but it’s the newcomers who really shine. Daisy Ridley is equal parts intensity and joy as the desert scavenger Rey while John Boyega is haplessly, dorkily charming as ex-stormtrooper Finn. Adam Driver is perhaps the film’s biggest surprise, uncomfortably compelling as the seething, self-doubting Kylo Ren. There are few weak links in the cast, the only noteworthy one an uninspired turn by Domnhall Gleeson as a fanatical First Order officer whose kiddie rendition with Ren of the unease between Vader and Tarkin in A New Hope leaves a lot to be desired. The general youthfulness of the First Order personnel feels like a studied choice, an attempt to make them feel cultish and fascist, but their National Socialist-inspired rallies could use a little gravitas.
The chemistry between Finn and Oscar Isaac’s crackerjack pilot Poe Dameron is electrifying, the two actors leaping directly into a hectic buddy cop routine as they escape Ren’s star destroyer in a stolen TIE fighter. It’s the first of many seat-of-your-pants dogfights, the best being Rey’s maiden voyage aboard the Millennium Falcon during which she plunges into a gutted ship to throw off pursuit. The action in The Force Awakens feels at once rollicking and uncomfortable, a difficult balance which the film pretty much nails. The death squad brutality of the opening sequence, the prolonged pandemonium of the First Order raid on Takodana, and the gut-churning awfulness of Kylo Ren’s self-mortification during his duel with Rey and Finn feel of a piece when taken all together. Moments like Finn’s obvious horror at being thrust into battle lend a sense of human cost to the film’s gorgeous set piece battles.
The film’s focus on the twin ideas of self-destruction and self-redefinition is richly imagined and beautifully executed. Kylo Ren’s obsession with living out a fantasy version of his grandfather’s life drives a desire for self-annihilation, something he struggles with over the course of the film and which he makes explicit when he beats his fist against his wounded side to sharpen his focus during a duel. Driver brings the character a peculiar tenderness and weakness, giving him at once the gravitas of a killer and the ineffectual posturing of, well, his grandfather. Han and Leia, meanwhile, discuss their inflexibility and the dissolution of their relationship with time-softened frankness while Rey reaches tentatively for Han as a surrogate father, abandoning her isolation, and Finn runs headlong into an entirely new life, name, and way of being. The conclusion to Rey’s plot is the most moving by far, a crushing juxtaposition of an old woman mourning another in a long line of losses and a young woman grappling with one of her first as she and Leia embrace in the wake of Han’s death.
The movie’s weakest element, the rushed, paint-by-numbers introduction of, assault on, and destruction of the ominously-named Starkiller Base, is at least unobtrusively situated. The sequence mostly serves to frame much more engrossing interpersonal drama and to heighten the stakes of the film. Its introduction is so sudden and its development so minimal that it’s hard to feel nervous that it might pull through the film, nor is much attention given to building tension as the station prepares to fire. The film is never shy about it’s rehashing of A New Hope‘s rhythms and elements, but the presence of a new and bigger Death Star doesn’t even seem like something the movie itself is particularly interested in. The creation of a sun after its destruction is beautiful but unearned. Conversely, shots like Han and Kylo Ren staring at one another with the unspoken yearning of so many broken families across a literal gulf and the ravenous beginning of the movie’s climactic duel capitalize on strong character development and relationship-building to deliver visual punch.
More than any passing reference or easy emotional layup, it’s a sense of incompleteness that brings excitement and joy to The Force Awakens. The film is packed full not just of beautiful images, like the cavernous interior of the star destroyer Rey plunders for parts, or the vertiginous sand slope she sleds down, but of oddities left purposely unexplored. There is no drive to plumb the mechanics of the weirdness, to explain or expand on how Maz Kanata got Luke’s lightsaber or what in hell that enormous pig beast was. In its plot, too, the film is unafraid of leaving its mysteries hanging. Rey’s tragic abandonment, explored in a truly wonderful Cave of the Dark Side sequence, is never resolved, and neither are the explicit reasons for Luke’s disappearance. When Rey tracks him to a remote planet and a rocky and forbidding island in the film’s final moments, it feels not just like a narrative hook but like the first step into a wide and wonderful universe.
One last time, though, the weight of the past freights that wonder. As the camera spins, transforming the water around Luke’s island retreat into a sort of Dore-esque gate to heaven, Rey holds out a lightsaber which belonged first to Anakin and then to Luke. It is a weapon with a bloody history, something used to commit almost unimaginable crimes, and the bare metal of Luke’s hand suggests his father’s own prosthesis as he stares at it with trepidation. The Luke we meet is ravaged and tired, a man whose worst fears have come to pass, whose own nephew repeated his father’s failure while he himself repeated his mentor Obi-Wan’s. Now, like Yoda before him, he has gone into exile rather than continue to exist as part of the world. That long chain of failure, mysticism, and family is a heavy one, but Star Wars: The Force Awakens forges new links while preserving a sense of high adventure and of the boundlessness of George Lucas’s dream of a galaxy far, far away.