First thing’s first: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens does not ascend to the heights of the original trilogy. Neither does it plumb the depths of those other three things that happened in the early 2000s.
And that’s a very good thing.
For J. J. Abrams’ vision for the future of this rabidly adored franchise to have any hope of finding its Skywalker-sized place in the warm, gooey, Tauntaun innards of its fans, it would have to find a way to pay homage to the past while forging a new path of its own. The Force Awakens certainly doesn’t shy away from the former, milking every Han Solo one-liner and Wookiee warble for maximum fanboy mirth. But it’s also clear that while familiar faces abound, it’s the new ones who will have the greatest impact on the franchise moving forward.
The four new principal players—scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), reluctant Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and Dark-Helmeted commander nouveau Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)—all bring a welcome breath of new life and what might even be termed “reality” to this space opera. No, there are no references to “SpaceBook” posts or “Tweetwoks,” but when Rey and Finn squabble over how to get a ship going, their interactions feel refreshingly human. For perhaps the first time since Luke whined in A New Hope about not being able to go to Tosche Station to pick up some new power converters, it feels like the characters in a Star Wars film might actually live in the grand world being presented on screen. The scope may be epic and the landscapes fantastical, but in The Force Awakens, day-to-day life is as dire a struggle as that between light and dark.
On the strength of the new faces, which are supported ably by the sturdy foundation built by the old ones, it feels like this franchise might actually be going somewhere new.
In particular, Rey and Kylo Ren convey the extent to which living in this harsh galaxy can tax a person’s psyche. Rey scrapes by as a scavenger on Jakku, stripping the wreckage from decades of dormant Star Destroyers and AT-ATs for scraps to sell in a cruelly fluctuating economy. She camps alone on the desert wastes, marking out the days until a promised but unknown salvation will come. Ridley fills what could be a monotone, somber part with the quiet humor and fiery determination needed to survive and transcend such bleak circumstances.
On the other end of the galactic power structure, Kylo Ren has control at his fingertips, yet struggles to find the confidence to wield it with the authority he knows he should hold. While Darth Vader was similarly conflicted about his role within the Dark Side of the Force, the audience wasn’t privy to such vacillations until the moment of his redemption in Return of the Jedi. Driver captures the petulance and impatience of a confused yet infinitely powerful young man with characteristic aplomb, toeing the line between sympathy and scorn up until the film’s final clashes.
The Force Awakens is not perfect by any means. At times the plot feels achingly familiar to A New Hope—better than achingly familiar to Phantom Menace though, right?—and some of the galactic passport stamping feels unnecessary when the audience is already trying to catch up with so many new faces. However, on the strength of those new faces, which are supported ably by the sturdy (if slightly creaking) foundation built by the old ones, it feels like this franchise might actually be going somewhere new. Rather than playing catch-up to the mythos and trying to keep the nearly forty-year-old franchise on life support for a new generation, The Force Awakens feels like it’s handing the keys of the Starfighter over to the kids and letting them get into a few scrapes of their own.
As for the next two installments? I’ve got a good feeling about this. FL