This review contains no major spoilers. I’m avoiding them because I want you to feel the way I feel right now. I came into the press screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens knowing next to nothing about the J.J. Abrams film save for what we’ve been able to glean from the trailers, and I’m glad of it. Freed from that burden and encumbered only by my expectations, The Force Awakens was free to do what I suspect it’s going to do to a lot of us: It made me feel 10 years old all over again.
Like you, I had my doubts. Abrams is a talented filmmaker—everything he’s had a hand in, up to and including The Force Awakens, looks like a million bucks—but his storytelling falters sometimes. (See: the third acts of Star Trek Into Darkness and Super 8, and the entire last season of Fringe.) But with the help of screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan—writer of The Empire Strikes Back, the series’ high-water mark—The Force Awakens succeeds in grabbing your attention in its first few seconds and keeping it until the end credits.
Here is a story you follow greedily, trying to learn as much about the characters and the worlds they inhabit as you possibly can. The Force Awakens rewards these efforts by providing clues, inflections, nuances. There’s a larger story underneath this film—a much bigger story than the one George Lucas told with the prequels. You want to know everything. And for the first time since The Empire Strikes Back, a Star Wars film ends with you wanting more—not because you weren’t given enough to begin with, but because you’re caught up in the wonder and excitement.
The series’ newcomers deliver icon-worthy turns. It saddens me that a whole generation had to grow up with the characters from the prequels—characters who either possessed no personality worth the mention (Qui-Gon Jinn, Mace Windu) or had too much of the wrong kind (Jar Jar Binks, Anakin Skywalker). John Boyega’s Finn, Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron and Daisy Ridley’s Rey step into the narrative completely made; they crack jokes, they show fear, they rejoice in victory.
Kids will want to pretend they’re Rey and Finn and Poe, and they have solidly, emotionally engaged performances upon which to base their playacting. That in itself is exciting stuff: Did any character from the prequels commit to their actions convincingly enough to rate an action figure?
As for the returning class, they’re just what you want them to be. Harrison Ford, in particular, plays Han Solo as if he were resuming the role after a 10-minute break. He hasn’t appeared to have this much fun in a role since he bantered with Sean Connery in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Ford plays Solo as every bit the reckless, likable rogue he was 30 years ago, but adds a warm, avuncular layer to the old pirate. The way he regards his young charges speaks not only to Kasdan’s script, but to Abrams’ deft hand with the actors: he created an environment where Ridley, Boyega and Ford were free to become friendly with each other, and that chemistry shows in their performances.
It says something about Abrams’ craftsmanship that I’ve gotten this far into the review and haven’t said a word about the production design, the visual and practical effects and the camera work. Dan Mindel, who was Abrams’ cinematographer on Mission Impossible III and both of his Star Trek films, shot The Force Awakens and did a first-class job of it. Here, the director and cinematographer cut back on their previous excesses—there are few of the deliberate lens flares and crazy Dutch angles that marked the Star Trek movies—and deliver a film that looks like a Star Wars picture, only better. The only Star Wars movie that comes close to this one in terms of visual richness is Empire, and The Force Awakens surpasses it.
What else? The John Williams score is magnificent. The action beats are terrifically well paced. And that’s it. I don’t want to tell you any more. In fact, if this is the only review you’ve read before seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I suggest you quit now: close your browser, get off Twitter and Facebook, the whole deal. Abrams and Lucasfilm have gone to a great effort to give you a Star Wars film that restores your faith and cuts through your cynicism. It’ll still work on you if you seek out spoilers and the like, but you’ll only be cheating yourself of a chance to feel 10 years old again. Who doesn’t want that, just for a moment in time?
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (PG-13): ★★★★★