kylo ren

My hands are shaking a bit as I type up this review — am I really reviewing the next installment of the popular saga that takes place after 1983’s Return of the Jedi (six years before I was born!)? Apparently I am! I imagine for many of us out there, this is all too surreal and still has yet to hit us that we’ve seen…Episode. Freaking. Seven! Honestly, how does one separate the critic from the Star Wars fan? Truth be told, you can’t, and that’s completely okay as long as you remember one thing: above all else, you’re here to evaluate a movie for its individual merits. It’s with that in mind that I’m so pleased to finally be able to say that J.J. Abrams has crafted the best film of his already impressive career. Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a character-driven, story-charged masterpiece that validates the thirty-two year wait fans have patiently endured. The adventures of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) have continued…but this time a new group of galaxy thrill-seekers aid them on a top-secret (a.k.a. spoiler-free, sorry folks!) mission to preserve peace after tension between the Resistance and the First Order all but escalates into full-scale war.

Unlike the prequels, which were concerned with superficial glossiness and rushing to a predictable dark conclusion, The Force Awakens dedicates itself to upholding George Lucas’ camaraderie-fueled atmosphere without ever forgetting its thematic baseline. My biggest worry with this new trilogy was that it wouldn’t be able to match the progressiveness or moral complexity of its 21st century cinematic peers. Thankfully, Abrams, Arndt and Kasdan’s script more than allayed my deepest fears. The good versus evil dichotomy still drives much of the drama, but those who tap into the powers that define such characteristics aren’t necessarily confined to said behavior. Especially among the First Order, there’s a lot more moral fluidity and, dare I say, personality from the lowliest of stormtroopers to the most opportunistic of figureheads.

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Then there’s the exceptional improvement of female representation in this galaxy far, far away. Daisy Ridley’s headstrong Rey might just be a top-five Star Wars character and easily the most well-written female role to date. Ridley herself is effortless in the part, fiercely tenacious as Rey yet never gloomy or jaded enough to warrant frustration. As far as debut performances go, Ridley’s might be one of the strongest on record simply because you never once question that she’s a newcomer acting opposite some heavy-hitting pros. Speaking of, I can say that Leia isn’t prancing around helplessly in a slave bikini — she’s fully in command of both her body and quite a number of individuals. Carrie Fisher can still turn on the seriousness like no other and is able to mouth zinger after zinger like it’s Shakespeare. Despite only contributing her voice to a computer-generated character, Lupita Nyong’o is a formidable presence as the enigmatic Maz Kanata. Kanata’s all-knowing wisdom could easily veer into the archaically dull, but thankfully Nyong’o imbues this mysterious being with an approachable demeanor that attracts all walks of sentient life her way.

Lastly, we must discuss the trio of men who join the leading ranks of this new trilogy. First up is John Boyega, who’s certainly no slouch or one-hit wonder coming off his star-making turn in Attack the Block. The enthusiasm, humor and dramatic layering he’s able to master as Finn in such a short span of time is pretty astonishing. It’ll take you less than thirty seconds to land firmly in Finn’s camp, cheering and hollering in ecstasy right alongside him as he engages in some of the most epic and exhilarating aerial dogfight sequences the series has ever presented. Next is Oscar Isaac as the dashing Poe Dameron, a key figure in The Force Awakens whose heroism and bravado is always present but never overshadows. Shadows, my anxious fans, are what follow Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, a figure so steeped in secrecy that he immediately becomes the character you ironically miss the most every time the focus shifts elsewhere. Driver’s range knows no limits, his gift for internalization followed by unusual reaction endlessly fascinating.

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I bet you’re wondering why I haven’t discussed much about the original heroes aside from a brief reflection on Leia’s return, right? Although there is plenty (oh yes there is!) to talk about in regards to the OG’s, I’m going to dedicate my final thoughts to a cute little droid by the name of BB-8. That little roly-poly robot is what we all want to be when we grow up in our dreams. BB-8 is such a spark of delight that — and the fans are going to hate me for admitting this — I actually never found myself missing the lovable banter between C-3PO and R2-D2, two characters who have always been the foundation of this entire enterprise. BB-8 fills up my entertainment tank like no other droid in the galaxy, and is worth far, far more than its commercial and marketing value. The fact that BB-8 is able to build totally unique and different relationships with every member of the new cast speaks to his complexity as a character despite only communicating via beeps, whirls and head rotation.

Any more stated and I fear I might give away too much. All that you must remember is The Force Awakens reawakens the original magic of Star Wars. This is actually the first new film of any Star Wars trilogy that doesn’t stall by world-building or using John Williams’ score (which is thankfully a lot subtler here so that its roster of characters can sing on their own two feet) as a crutch. The casting, acting, pacing and screenplay work in perfect unison in The Force Awakens, allowing you to care so much despite knowing so little. One particular Abrams touch that fits like a glove on this franchise is his ability to give us so much interactivity by providing so little in concrete plot detail. Fans are guaranteed to swarm to the message boards to post their endless theories post-screening, trying to fill in the gaps purposely created so that we’ll have plenty to keep us busy between this installment and the highly anticipated Episode VIII. This could frustrate some critics and fans who expect a more succinctly woven first film, but I applaud Abrams for not coddling needy, formulaic-inclined moviegoers at the expense of this trilogy’s emotionally amplified story that will need plenty of room to unfold.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Force Awakens is not only Disney’s best film of the year, but also the first science fiction film in ages that doesn’t rely on any sort of cinematic or narrative gimmick to inspire major awe. While it may not be “breaking new ground” from a technical side, The Force Awakens preserves sacred ground as a means of spring-boarding a new generation of characters that are just as lovably compelling as a farm boy, a princess, and a scoundrel were oh so long ago. The future of Star Wars is finally here and it has never looked more promising. The Force is beyond strong with this film…perhaps even Best Picture strong.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens nationwide this Friday, December 18th. Be sure to check out the final trailer one last time below!