PERHAPS the greatest achievement of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is how it harnesses the nostalgia factor by paying homage to all that’s great about the original trilogy and yet also giving the franchise a brand new direction with dramatic storytelling choices. It’s a brilliant balance.
After all, “Force” had one huge plot challenge. When “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi” arrived in 1983, it clearly was meant then to be the ending. There were no hanging plot threads, no mysteries left unsolved. “Force” would have to unfinish the finished, open what was already closed.
This is why J.J. Abrams was the perfect choice to redirect “Star Wars.” As he had done with the “Star Trek” series, Abrams knows how to take what’s good about an existing property and then inject new life into it.
It’s exhilarating to finally be able to put all those fragments from the trailers into some kind of order. “Force” begins 30 years after “Jedi,” when the rebel alliance—now called the Resistance—still battling the hateful remnants of the fallen Empire—now known as the First Order. Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished, and now both the Resistance and the First Order want to find him for their own reasons. On the desert planet Jakku, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his droid BB-8 have run into the First Order and their masked dark sider Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). In short order, BB-8 manages to bump into a smart scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and a deserting Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega).
Then “Force” jumps into lightspeed, with the big battle between the Resistance and the First Order coming to fruition. There’s a lot of running. Some old friends show up, and the stakes for the new “Star Wars” series are raised very high, very quickly.
While the preceding “Star Wars” films began with a slow burn and then comes to an action-packed conclusion, “Force” is pretty much go-go all the time. “Force” actually feels like Abrams condensed the entire original trilogy into one movie—and then decided to tell his own story after it. It’s what you have to do in order to honor the fandom surrounding the original material but also allowing a new generation of fans access to the story. “Force” almost feels jubilantly rushed at times. Abrams infuses urgency and energy into the mythos by making the familiar faces and objects do new things. Expect Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and the Millennium Falcon, for example, to be doing things you didn’t expect.
“Force” also works because of its new faces, both unknowns. Ridley is very much a classic “Star Wars” actor, all determination and precociousness. Boyega, however, is far more indicative of the new school “Star Wars” actor—and is funnier than anyone knew. It goes without saying that BB-8, the new-generation R2D2—is just adorable.
The most interesting thing about “Force” is how it is earnestly a love letter to the very first film, 1977’s “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.” The new film serves as kind of a shiny new mirror to the old one. But that’s when Abrams decides to go in a different direction, shaking up the “Star Wars” canon with status-quo-changing events for major characters.
That’s why “Force” is really a beginning, a fantastic beginning that feels exactly what it’s supposed to be: The evolution of a fan-favorite franchise done right. Abrams will make you whoop out loud. He will make you cry. And he will make you wish 2017’s “Star Wars Episode VIII” was opening the next day. To be sure, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is better than the three prequel films put together and very much true to the spirit of the original trilogy, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens. To quote what many others will surely be saying: This really is the “Star Wars” film you’re looking for.
Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens on December 17.