Yes, it's good.
I don't want you skimming paragraphs trying to find the sentence where I say it's good, so here it is. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a spectacularly good movie.
Now, explaining why it’s good is the real uphill battle. The hype has been ridiculous. If do-overs existed for movies, then The Force Awakens is pretty much the do-over for 1999's The Phantom Menace. It's been a decade since our last Star Wars movie, and arguably three times that since one that wasn’t a heavily-qualified “good.”
So the question looms: can a modern movie capture what made the first trilogy so magical?
That word comes up a lot in any discussion of what makes Star Wars special. It's just got such tremendous multivalence: movie magic, the magical "Force," the magic of suspension of belief, CGI wizardry, et cetera, ad Entertainment Weekly-ish nauseum. Magic, it turns out—in all its meanings—is what makes Star Wars so special, so distinct, so disappointing when it fails, and so thrilling when it succeeds.
Let's back up a little bit, though. The lights dim. Little whoops sound from people unselfconscious enough to do stuff like that, which in the dark is a lot of them. The LucasFilms logo—excitement sounds all around you. The stars of the galaxy lighting up the screen—more excitement. And then all at once, the explosive trumpets and title crawl—this is where your average theater-goer is really going to start losing his mind. Expect a lot of clapping. Don't forget to read the title crawl in the midst of all this clapping (which you, against your better judgement, will whole-heartedly participate in) —you'll be lost otherwise.
We open on the desert planet of Jakku, where Rebel Alliance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is retrieving a key to the location of Luke Skywalker, whose sudden disappearance decades ago has allowed the Galaxy to return to a state pretty similar to how it was before. The First Order (perhaps more accurately called the "Führer-irst Order") has supplanted the defunct Empire, and the Alliance seems stronger than they were at the outset of A New Hope, but the status quo is similar: evil bureaucratic Empire fronted by Sith Lord/Emperor hunts the Alliance through a combination of regular troops and his apprentice.
In The Force Awakens, the hilted-lightsaber-wielding Sith apprentice is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), whose initial similarity to Darth Vader at first seems cheap, until it becomes clear that the similarities are deeply intentional.
Once again, a droid with secret information is dispatched to find help, and is intercepted by Jakku-native Rey (Daisey Ridley). Meanwhile, a First Order Stormtrooper, Finn (John Boyega), decides that the Stormtrooper life isn't so much for him, and defects, taking aforementioned crack pilot Poe with him.
This is essentially what you need to know—and, in my opinion, is almost too much—to understand the rest of this. Going in blind is absolutely the best way to see this film. Star Wars operates on the level of a police procedural, or an oral history, or a Biblical parable (take your pick): there's both the excitement of wanting to see what happens and the fact that you already know what's going to happen.
This is the first instance of magic worth talking about: the way that the plot of Star Wars is both fiercely predictable and somehow both original and even surprising. Even since A New Hope, Luke's path has rigidly adhered to the Hero's Journey as described by Joseph Campbell, to the extent that Star Wars is perhaps the ür-example of the modern Monomyth.
But the rigidity of the structure never diminished the emotional impact that Luke's journey had upon us out in the audience. When he learned that the family he'd dreamed of was there, in a form he'd never imagined; when he lost his hand and father in one stroke of a lightsaber; when, in Return of the Jedi, he smashed away at Vader with less grace and finesse than murderous rage: these are the emotional beats that have kept people coming back to these films (and their tragically remastered versions) for more than 30 years.
Or another instance of pure magic, this kind of the Spielbergian variety: J. J. Abrams's masterful direction. Abrams (Lost, Super 8, the new Star Treks) attracts a weird and unique kind of punditry among movie lovers. If he were any less talented a filmmaker, his flaws, of which there are many, would be mostly unforgivable. Abrams is often compared to Spielberg, which makes sense. The more telling comparison, though, is not to his idol/mentor, but his methodological cousin, Quentin Tarantino.
If you go back through his library, Abrams has not fashioned anything original, at least not recently, and perhaps never at all. His first Star Trek film updated the existing lore, with extensive call-backs to the source material; his second Trek film was lambasted for doing almost the exact same thing, with little forward development.
But where Tarantino's pastiche is the point—directing the eyes of the audience to the "seams" of the film, where "getting" the film is equal to appreciating the references—Abrams ducks the opposite direction. It's what makes his films ooze Movie Magic—it's that self-same Movie Magic that's obscuring all the borrowing, homage, and repetition.
And so under scrutiny, it occurs to you that this movie's trajectory is mostly identical to A New Hope's, and that a whole lot felt familiar. But during the film? Rapt attention, joy, shock, whatever. For the 135 minutes that J.J.'s got you in his theater, you belong to him. How accepting you are of this is going to depend on how much you value being so wrapped up in something that it disables your most critical faculties. (You could compare this to Christopher Nolan, who does to his idol Kubrick what Abrams does to Spielberg.)
I could gush, and will briefly do so, but remember, I do have a thesis: The Force Awakens isn't just a great movie (which it absolutely is), but it is a great Star Wars movie—that it takes part in whatever made the original trilogy so enrapturing. Capturing that feel is the very definition of an art, because you can't just throw together the Six Key Ingredients or whatever and come out with a Star Wars-ian product. It's Special.
(Note that it's this Specialness that motivates people to dress up en masse for screenings, for yearly conventions, that causes people to get married dressed as Han and Leia and gets people to stand around in full Stormtrooper garb for hours in scorching heat. The almost Platonic generality of the story makes it accessible to everyone, but it's the emotional specificity—of Luke, Leia, Han, Vader, and so on—that keeps people coming back. There are similar fanbases for both The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek, but arguably Star Wars has had both the most longevity and consistency of all such groups.)
But if familiarity and consistency are the bread and butter of Star Wars, then the new additions to Star Wars in The Force Awakens are whatever third thing you add to bread and butter to make them really great. (Cheese and pesto, grilled? I don't know, taste is subjective.) For the most significant: Rey, as played by Daisey Ridley, is amazing—her performance, the dynamic the character brings to the film, and the way she modernizes a story that'd been a little male-centric since its inception. (Remember, this is a film series that had its second most prominent heroine die during childbirth because she "lost the will to live." This is really not that high of a bar.)
Rey is strong and sensitive and confident and caring. She's shows emotion and is really good at fixing things. She is the antithesis of what've come to be called Strong Female Characters, who make up for Damsel In Distress stereotypes by doing a 180-degree turn and just aping the qualities we admire in male characters. Rey and Finn, if I counted right, save each other almost the exact same amount of times; both show weakness; both show fear. When Rey and Finn first start fleeing from the First Order, Finn keeps grabbing her hand and running away; the more-competent Rey shouts at him a line that's almost an apology for thirty years of Star Wars: "Stop taking my hand!"
As for the look of the film, Abrams has adopted an overwhelmingly practical focus on special effects, and it pays off. That rough, scuffed-up feel present throughout the first trilogy is on proud display here; bars feel lived in, houses weathered, metal rusted and surfaces grimy. None of the awkward CGI stiltedness and eye-catching digital parallax that defined the Prequel Trilogy is present here: when you see the trees and rocks, surfaces and backgrounds, you know they're real.
There is a lot more I want to praise—Boyega Isaac, and Driver's performances, especially the latter, which is so opposite what you expect of a Sith villain that Driver's petulance and child-like rage are brave acting choices—but all of it has to be subtended to the thesis of this piece, which nominally still exists, as well as my hard limit of a word count.
That is: there is much I find praise-worthy, and what isn't isn't really that big of a deal.
Basically, deciding whether a Star Wars movie is good qua Star Wars is more intuitional and instinctive than critical. You don't sit there thinking, "Wow, these practical effects and classical formal structuring make me believe this is Star Wars!" You believe it. What comes after is secondary. I contend that evoking that feel is Abrams's genius, and it's why he was perfect to direct this film.
Incidentally, I hope he doesn't direct any more of them. Abrams is the ultimate starter, but when he's forced to pastiche things together from his own universe, things start to unravel (as happened with Star Trek). With the bedrock of quality in place for future Star Wars movies, Abrams's continued involvement would simply result in the plot hanging on larger and larger Death Star analogues. When you consider what all ended up in The Force Awakens that calls back to his work on other movies, it seems clear that Abrams has exactly one terrific Star Wars movie in him; I really hope he goes one-and-oh.
Final bit of editorializing: it's a real act of vulnerability to go into a theater hoping to love something, rather than with some protective cover of cynicism or, you know, whatever word best describes the half-interested all-consuming ironic posture that's my generation's "Home Base." Identifying the flaws of this movie is easy—they're the kind that're endemic to Abrams's past films—but not particularly rewarding. You have to be willing to be disappointed to get anything out of this movie; anything less than that, and you can't access the almost childlike wonder/joy/whatever that the movie's uniquely capable of producing.
I'm giving this movie 4/4 stars, but this doesn't reflect the many faults of the movie. It reflects that, compared to the thrilling mix of novelty and familiarity that Star Wars once brought—and the opportunity to re-experience the thrill of discovery—I don't really care about the faults. It's a stupendous movie because it's pure wonder that it works, and that it exists at all. I don't really care that that makes me sound about six years old. The Force Awakens is the kind of movie that will always exist for you as more than the sum of its parts.
That's just magic.
I'm gonna go ahead and head any in-principle objections to The Force off at the pass in saying that there's nothing objectionable about it. We just have to be, as a religion and a culture, more secure than to think that Space Magic constitutes a legitimate spiritual issue. It does not. Or, if it does, so do the spaceships—as the two are exactly as real as each other. It is 2015, so I imagine the vast majority of readers agree with this, but just so we're all on the same page: The Force, not problematic. Sweet.
The Force Awakens is pretty much exactly as violent as A New Hope—so identical in content, actually, that going into the specifics seems purposeless except as a way to sneak in subtle spoilers, which I'm pretty against. I'm actually surprised the film got a PG-13 rating, considering that the PG-rated Phantom Menace had more graphic incidents of violence.
Jackson Cuidon is a writer who lives in New York City with his wife and dog. He Tweets once in a while @jxscott.