“This will begin to make things right.” So begins Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and more than a plot point, it is a promise from director J.J. Abrams. For the director has been tasked with a dangerous mission: to relaunch the most beloved series of all-time without incurring the wrath of fans. After the prequels left many (myself included) feeling disappointed and the core of the series, George Lucas, absent from even the creative of the project, Abrams must do more than pull off a Jedi mind trick; he must make us all believe once again.
It would be a disservice to any viewer to give away major plot points because part of what Abrams has accomplished is to make the journey of watching a Star Wars film fun again. Unlike Phantom Menace, which was basically Star Wars Episode One: C-Span, The Force Awakens captures much of the exhilaration of New Hope. The comparison is completely intentional, with the new installment wavering between a next generation update and a throwback. The goal would appear to be appeasing older fans and indoctrinating newer ones.
Central to this is the film’s young heroine, scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley). Smart, spunky, and full of heart, Rey is the character for all the little girls who grew up noting that Leia was the best shot of the group and wishing that someday she too would be trained in the ways of the Force, like her brother. Unlike Leia or Padme of the previous films, Rey is not weighted down with the physical trappings of costumes (even her hair is the space version of throwing your hair up in a topknot because you have real work to do). Abandoned as a child, Rey lives a solitary life scavenging the desert planet of Jakku, which is littered with cool visual references like abandoned Imperial Walkers and the most iconic hunk of junk in the galaxy. She’s got guts and heart, which make her a fantastic character to anchor the next generation.
As for the other ladies, Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma is delightful. Sadly, there just isn’t enough of her. The character looks and sounds like the perfect villain, so hopefully more screentime is headed her way. And after the abomination known as Jar Jar, I am generally skeptical of all digital characters, but Maz Kanata, the motion capture performance of Lupita Nyong’o, is more Yoda than Jar Jar.
And finally, regarding the first lady of Star Wars, Carrie Fisher. Leia has become a general, continuing her good fight. Her scenes in the film are limited, but her grace and connection to the material is evident. The years that have passed have taken a toll on Leia and Fisher plays this with a grounded elegance. Perhaps the only unfortunate thing is that she and long-time scenemate Harrison Ford are saddled with the most wooden, heavy handed dialogue of the film. It is almost as if the writers or Abrams did not trust that Leia and Han Solo could showcase the nature of their relationship without soapy dialogue. Yet it is in the looks that pass between them, even the body language in their performances, that reveal the truth of that relationship.
Late in the film there is a moment between Rey and Leia, the first time they meet, when they stand and regard each other in silence. It is the past and future of the franchise standing together in the present. With Rey at its core, we certainly have new hope.