Star Wars: The Force Awakens ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

It's hard to know what to do with The Force Awakens. The failure of George Lucas' prequels somehow manages to set the bar both high (Please don't disappoint us again!) and low (Just don't be terrible). My own expectations were hardened rather early when Rian Johnson was announced as the director of Episode VIII in June 2014. Reminded that VII would serve primarily as a first act, I wrote "All [J.J. Abrams] really has to do now is feed [Johnson] good characters."

Abrams did that, and three days after seeing it, I still think that's all that matters. As a standalone film, The Force Awakens has a lot of problems. As a launchpad, a pool of resources for the next artist, it is more or less everything I could have wanted.

Let's start with the bad. The plot is a lazy, messy recreation of A New Hope: stuff hidden in a droid; wistful hero in the desert; Millennium Falcon; setpiece; genocide; setpiece; sneaky base infiltration; trench run; lightsabers; explosion. There are countless on-the-nose moments typical of an Abrams film. One particularly silly scene, where the old and new Death Stars are compared side-by-side, is betrayed by a preceding trailer for Independence Day 2, which features Jeff Goldblum achingly declaring "That is definitely... bigger than the last one." I remember thinking in 1996 that Independence Day could never touch Star Wars, no matter how badly it wanted to. The world is different now, and I'm still mourning it a little bit.

So it's flawed in ways that are annoying and disruptive. But it's not all bad. The character work - both the writing and the acting - really shine. The banter between Poe and Finn during their jailbreak is good, honest fun. Han's job offer to Rey ("I'm THINKING about it.") is classic Han. It's even Chewbacca's best film, and his heaviest: he fires on what is effectively family, against his old friend's clear wishes, because his pain is too great. And the final shot of the movie is as good as it gets.

There is a solid and refreshing emphasis on the new characters, who are as human as any of their predecessors. Finn is by all accounts an ordinary person whose only superpower is his conscience. Our hero, Rey, is solitary, yet adept and special in a way she doesn't quite understand. And, crucially, she happens to be a girl. It's the simple decision to cast a woman as the main character that propels this film into a number of places and conversations that it would not otherwise go. The relationship between Rey and the villain, Kylo Ren, would be unquestionably different if both were men. The young Sith-wannabe is angry enough when people get in his way, but when his biggest obstacle turns out to be a GIRL of all things, he really comes unhinged. When he leans towards a shackled and vulnerable Rey and softly tells her "I can take anything I want," it's as real and as dark as any other moment in the entire saga. It stands far out from the other 14 hours of footage we've watched across four decades.

And then, in the very next moment, the ostensible damsel in distress turns the tables, surprising not only him, but the audience, proving just how much this casting matters. His insecurities and flaws suddenly on display, we see the villain for what he is: Kylo Ren is the sad, frothing, social-media-patrolling fanboy who worships decaying symbols of a selectively-edited past; who throws tantrums when reality fails to meet his bizarre worldview; who hates the idea that a woman could be his equal; who, in one scene, tells another person they are unworthy of possessing Star Wars memorabilia. We barely know Ben Solo, and yet his petulance is already so much more palpable and believable than Luke's or Anakin's, because we have seen it so many times before in our own world.

Looking back at this dynamic, I can hardly believe it was filmed. It explains away the lazily recycled plot as an element of broader self-commentary: Episode VII bites the hand that feeds, telling the oppressive and overzealous fans that they are in fact everything that's wrong with the franchise. I got this impression after seeing the high-spirited cinematic trailer: that we would see a parable about how, through decades of poisonous self-selection, everyone has forgotten how Star Wars is supposed to work. And the public appears to have taken the bait and missed the point: over opening weekend, the Internet has been rife with claims that Rey is "not believable," "a Mary Sue," and on and on. It's as if these armchair canon scholars didn't even watch the movie. They still don't realize that they are, literally, the bad guy. The Force Awakens certainly isn't the best film of the series, but it might end up being the most important.

So what can I say? There are problems. But the good parts, the parts that matter, are really good. And I am extremely anxious to see the next one.