This is not going to be an impartial, unbiased review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
It is also not going to be one that dwells on the blemishes and imperfections, the "issues" and "concerns that some may justifiably have with the film. I'm not going to pick nerd nits about it. Director J.J. Abrams, his cast and his crew have given us (and longtime Star Wars fans in particular) a very special, joyful and celebratory gift this Holiday season. It absolutely deserves a joyful, celebratory review free from the kinds of deflating cynicism and narcissistic sarcasm that tend to greet even the best genre films in the Internet age.
In a year in which we already had one major genre masterpiece that took us back to a time when films were made on film instead of in ones and zeros, there is another. Another film that makes us remember when characters were created by actors instead of being created in postproduction, through performances on sets- when there actually were sets. Another film that made me feel like I was a kid again in all of the best possible ways.
You've likely already read other reviews or heard from others everything that I could probably write here. The new characters are practically iconic out of the gate- Finn, Poe Dameron, Rey and Kylo Ren all live and breathe as bona fide Star Wars characters thanks to stellar performances by young actors bringing a surprising level of nuance to their roles. John Boyega's Finn is nervous, jokey and was obviously more than just too short to be a Stormtrooper. Poe makes a huge impression with an easy-going swagger befitting the top X-Wing pilot in the Resistance. Rey will make a star out of Daisy Ridley. Adam Driver's Kylo Ren is a genuinely scary, psychotic creation that could wind up with the most compelling (and tragic) character arc in the entire series.
Performances. Human performances by actors interacting with other actors and physically present elements, executing surprisingly well-written dialogue that is among the best Star Wars has ever had to offer. It's up there with Empire, and it is very telling that Lawrence Kasdan is one of the screenwriters. You can't help but wonder why Lucas didn't call him up to help out with the forlorn (and now more or less nullified) prequels. Or why he somehow forgot all of the things that made Star Wars great to begin with.
The specter of those three films' disappointment looms large over The Force Awakens but it is clear that JJ Abrams and his team didn't forget what Lucas did before he lost heart. And in many ways, this film feels like a back-to-one refreshment, getting back to where it once belonged so to speak. Some may chafe that it is almost a sort of remix of A New Hope, but it kind of had to be that to win back the world after the damage done by the series' own creator.
There is one point, no spoilers, that really struck home with me where a character talks about the Force. She closes her eyes and touches back to the mysticism of Ben Kenobi and Yoda. Not to the rightfully maligned, pseudo-science of "midchlorians" espoused by Qui-Gonn Jinn. That moment really moved me because I remembered being a kid, in wonder with what the Force is and it really being a more important spiritual concept for me than anything I heard in church. And it felt good to have the film acknowledge it as an unknowable, vast force rather than cynically dismissing it with some kind of microbiology.
I was moved over and over again to the point where it almost felt exhausting. It's easy to go on and on about how emotional and great it is to see Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher together again (and it is), it's easy to point out any number of incredibly moving, powerful moments of action and emotion in the film. There are lots of them. You could almost say that Abrams' manipulation of our Star Wars-loving hearts borders on Spielbergian. But when two beloved characters that if you are like me you have had on pajamas, underwear, T-shirts, in toy boxes and on your desktop at work meet and one says to the other "my old friend, how I've missed you" I defy you to feel anything other than pure love and joy, tempered with the bittersweet passing of years and the growing distance from youth. When Han and Chewie declared "we're home" in that amazing trailer earlier this year, that set the tone for the whole production.
It is a homecoming. But it isn't just facile nostalgia like some have suggested. Instead, I think where The Force Awakens transcends being just a new, great Star Wars film is that it is actually the richest in subtext. The postmodern kicker is that this film is about Star Wars and what it means culturally as much as it is Star Wars. The young characters in this film grew up thinking that Luke Skywalker was a myth- just like we did. Kylo Ren idolizes Darth Vader and the traditions of the Sith. The events of the Original Trilogy made a huge impact in this world and its characters, and on Jakku we see the remnants of the war between the Empire and the Rebellion. When Finn gets into the gun turret on the Falcon, Luke is there with him. And we are too, because we have always wanted to be there too.
This film is positively haunted by the first three films, but it is telling us that what we have felt for all of these years about them is real. It's telling us to believe in those heartfelt feelings about the Force and Luke and Chewbacca again. This film is about Star Wars- the great cultural myth of our time- and how it affects us. How it can inspire us and move us, how it can remind us of heroism, love, goodness and light in times of growing darkness and hatred. It is a genuine Star Wars film for our time, our children and for those of us who can't imagine a world without X-Wings and lightsabers, the light side and the dark side, and all of the tactile wonders of a galaxy far, far away.