This article discusses all of The Force Awakens, but avoids specific spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film, proceed cautiously.
As millions of people stampede into theaters like herds of Banthas this weekend, an equal number of opinions are pouring out after the screenings. Did J.J. Abrams pull it off and deliver a Star Wars movie worthy of the original trilogy? Or did it fail to live up the hype? Of course, it’s a purely subjective question, and your personal verdict may vary based on whether or not you’re cool with The Force Awakens being essentially a remake of A New Hope. (Full disclosure: I’m totally all right with that.) But there are four words that you’re likely to hear over and over again.
“Better than the prequels.”
It is the one objective that really mattered for Disney-owned Lucasfilm, right? The production company needed to prove that they could make a tentpole film of the grandest scale that didn’t leave people traumatized and questioning their childhoods. And it’s actually safe to say that The Force Awakens does that, at the very least.
But how did it do that? Abrams and his co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt engineered The Force Awakens to tap into what made the original trilogy important and course correct from the prequels in some very specific ways.
Exposition With Moderation
Thirty years have passed, and The Force Awakens wants you to know that. The galaxy is a different place from when we last left it, and while some of the key players look familiar, the specifics aren’t exactly clear. What is the First Order, and how does it relate to the Empire? So there is a Republic, but then, what is the Resistance?
A lack of clarity on a the political level is a genuine complaint about The Force Awakens, but it’s to the film’s credit that we don’t slow down to talk logistics, like for example — and I’m just pulling this out of the air — trade blocks and senate votes. Or get into too much detail about what transpired in the intervening 30 years, for that matter. All Kylo Ren’s past needs is a couple lines od dialogue, not an entire trilogy. It’s hard not to see The Force Awaken’s light touch for filling in the blanks as a direct response to the prequels’ obsession with answering for every little detail about its world. Instead, the new film uses the mystery to its advantage and understands that a joke about C-3PO’s red arm is better than an explanation for it.
There’s a moment early in the film that telegraphs pretty clearly that we’re in for a lighter adventure than Episodes I, II, and III. After Poe Dameron is dragged before Kylo Ren, he waits for the masked figure to speak. “Who talks first?” he asks after a beat. It’s genuinely funny, but more than anything, it’s human. Within five minutes, The Force Awakens is already speaking a different language, and that exchange sets the tone for the rest of the film. Han Solo got all the clever lines in the original trilogy, and it’s as if his spirit was sprinkled throughout this film so that multiple characters enjoyed idiosyncratic moments that make us laugh, like BB-8’s butane torch joke or the Stormtroopers backing away from Kylo Ren’s temper tantrum. These are small moments that add up to a feeling of warmth that was completely absent from the prequels.
Relatable Characters Who Want Things
In Red Letter Media’s instant-classic, feature-length takedown of The Phantom Menace, three people are given a seemingly easy task: describe a character from the films without mentioning what they look like, what kind of costume they wear, or their profession. All three easily navigate Han Solo: He’s a rogue, a smoothtalker, a criminal with a good heart.
But what about Qui-Gon Jin? Not so easy.
Putting the Force Awakens characters through the same test yields much better results. Rey is lonely, smart, and tough. She’s afraid of further abandonment. Finn is a man without an identity, and he’s scared but with a strong moral compass. Kylo Ren is lost, conflicted, angry. Hell, I can tell you that BB-8 is loyal. These are characters who yearn. They’re driven. They want things. Those seem like such simple concepts, but when a character doesn’t have a clear motivation, you’ll never get the cheer-in-your-seat moments we see in The Force Awakens, like that lightsaber moment.
Chemistry Between the Actors
There’s more to casting than finding great actors. The prequels are full of them — Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee — but that couldn’t keep scenes between them from being so dry and wooden that you’re almost hoping something catches fire.
Aside from being a brilliant cinematic mimic, J.J. Abrams’ true genius is his eye for casting. Along with his casting directors, Abrams has assembled exciting talents, who are even better together than they were alone. It’s easy to see even in early moments, like when Rey and Finn first meet and she lights up at a single mention of the Resistance. And there’s a reason that we feel something when Poe Dameron and Finn are reunited, despite having seen them together for all of five minutes.
One Last SPOILERY Thing
As any Darth Maul fan can attest, you should definitely not kill your badass new villain at the end of a trilogy’s first chapter.