Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the WIRED Review
WARNING: Mild spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk.
About two thirds of the way through Star Wars: The Force Awakens, all seems lost. The evil First Order, a sleeker version of the Empire, has found our heroes, and TIE fighters are air-striking a beautiful temple on a beautiful planet into dust. A new, even more raucous version of the Cantina from A New Hope (with music by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda and better puppets) is going up in smoke. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is on the run, while her newfound allies Finn (John Boyega), Han Solo (come on), and Chewbacca try to hold off First Order ground troops. It’s hopeless.
But then, from across a misty lake: a noise. Music swells. Shapes emerge from clouds, skimming fast across the water. Finn asks what it is. Han looks up, with that same Han half-smile that marked just about everything he said 35 years ago, and says: “The Resistance!” It’s a squadron of X-wings, ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in the lead, and they slam into the stormtroopers and the TIE fighters. The camera loops and whirls alongside the fighters; the good guys are here at last.
It feels good—better than good—to see them. It feels familiar.
In fact, it’s hard not to see the metaphor here. For decades, since Return of the Jedi, it has seemed like everything good about Star Wars would be consigned to live only in our memories. Three lousy prequel movies and ill-conceived “special editions” of the original films marred the legacy. Enough books and comics to warrant entire sections at Barnes and Noble continued the tale, but they were empty calories. Legos didn’t help. (OK, maybe they helped a little.)
But now, at last, JJ Abrams and his Resistance have flown to the rescue. Star Wars—the real Star Wars, with grand destinies and planet-killing weapons and black-masked villains fighting young people who yearn to see the galaxy—is back. The Force is strong with this one.
Realistically, nobody thought Abrams would make a bad movie. Backed by OG Star Wars screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, eleventy bazillion dollars, the visual prowess of Industrial Light and Magic, and the fully armed and operational firepower of the Walt Disney Company, it would be nearly impossible to fashion a dud.
But The Force Awakens has to do more than not disappoint. It has to redeem. It has to clear out the chaff of decades of misfires, to evoke not the reality of the first three movies but the memory of how they felt. It has to let a whole demographic of Gen-Xers reclaim a singular master narrative while simultaneously bringing a new audience into the fold. That’s heavy stuff.
The movie, thankfully, bears the weight.
The Millennium Falcon rides again, in full daylight, looping and swirling so close to the ground it kisses the landscape, and occasionally plows through it. The aliens, puppet and computer-generated, are convincing, and blissfully free of coded, noxious ethnic stereotypes. Every new planet, and I lost count of how many the movie has, looks like a real place that you could visit if your hyperdrive was working. Kylo Ren’s quillon-equipped lightsaber spits and hisses red, and somehow, magically, the very first lightsaber any of us ever saw—the one Luke Skywalker’s mysterious father wanted him to have when he was old enough, according to old Ben Kenobi—lights up blue for a new wielder. And the sabers aren’t for show, for cauterized wounds and sterile zaps; they wound. This is a Star Wars with blood and guts and pain, of villages massacred and children abandoned. Stormtroopers are no longer clones; they’re brainwashed human. And they’re monsters.
Abrams and Kasdan—credited as co-writers, with original screenwriter Michael Arndt on story—play the hits, and they do it with a practiced hand. Harrison Ford is reliably smart-assed as Han Solo, even to the point of voicing the audience’s skepticism that the Resistance’s plan for defeating the First Order’s Starkiller Base is basically the same thing the Rebels do all the time. There are winking references to Kessel Run parsecs and trash compactors; one character makes their home in a downed AT-AT. C-3P0 is still expositional comic relief. Jumps to hyperspace still pack a visceral impact, and whenever something doesn’t quite seem to make sense, TIE fighters blow it up, so whatever. The team cycles through so many of the same themes and tropes from the first trilogy, in fact, that at times The Force Awakens feels less like an Episode VII and more like a remake of Episodes IV through VI. You can almost visualize the screenplay being mapped to A New Hope, beat for beat.
What a relief it is, then, that the best parts of the movie are actually the new parts. You already know that the new droid—carrying the MacGuffin for the movie, just as the Maker intended—is cute, and a preposterously good practical effect in many shots. But the new kids seem just as pleased to be there as we are. Boyega as Finn, a stormtrooper who grows a conscience and defects, actually conveys emotion with his face. This never used to be allowed in Star Wars movies. As Poe, Isaac has a killer line staring into the face of the masked, evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)—Poe pretends not to be able to understand Kylo through his apparatus. And Ridley, as Rey, takes on the hero’s journey with such aplomb that it’s hard not to imagine a generation of girls and boys alike pretending to be her at recess.
Just like us, Rey and Finn only know Han Solo and Luke Skywalker as legends. Just like us, they can’t quite believe they get to meet them and have adventures at their side. It’s terrifying, but it’s also fun. (Boyega and Ridley have a little Indy-Marion magic, if I might cross the streams a little bit here.)
I’m not going to give away any big secrets here. You’ll find them elsewhere on the Internet, if you want them. But you’re probably going to see the movie either way; why not be surprised? Trust your feelings. I’ll just say this: If you loved Star Wars once, everything you loved is back. And if you’re new? Welcome home.