A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

It’s impossible to review a Star Wars film objectively, and yet that is the task when assessing the seventh installment Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The franchise is part of our culture at the molecular level, meaningful in a million different ways to a million different people, from $27K mint edition Boba Fett toy collecting superfans to the totally Lucas naïve who could nevertheless hum the imperial march theme in a pinch. Any given moviegoer’s feelings about the new film are the result of a complex equation. Certainly it’s a product of age, peer group, inherent interest in space operas, but it’s also a function of time spent swimming in the nearly 40 year old cultural ocean that is the Star Wars universe—anywhere from browsing casting news on social media as an adult to disrupting chemistry class with Chewbacca growls as a teenager to daydreaming about what your own lightsaber would look like as a kid (guilty of all three). It’s easy for most of us to float detached while watching the fanatics go deep sea diving in the Lucasfilm trench, thinking we’ve outgrown this world, only to realize after watching the first trailer for Star Wars 7 that we’re also still submerged, our feet soaked and pruney.

My introduction to Star Wars happened in a local theater during the special edition re-release theatrical run of Return of the Jedi. Later that night at my friend’s 9th birthday party, six of us mimed lightsaber fights with the decorative cylindrical pillows on his mom’s couch and relentlessly force pushed each other until we fell exhausted. We understood none of the film’s Zoroastrian influenced religious principles or historically informed galactic fascism, only the terror of invisibly choking an insolent commander and the thrill of brandishing a glowing sword. Star Wars was and always has been about a particular feeling, and it caught me then as it catches me again now. I might as well have reserved my ticket for The Force Awakens on that day back in 1997.

Reflecting on the movie in 2016, I’ve been made conscious of my past with Star Wars because The Force Awakens is itself so self-aware, surging forward into a vibrant new era of space epic movie-making while also refusing to loosen its grip on the context in which it was made. It’s no secret the franchise has seen several tumultuous decades following the blissfully world-crushing “original” trilogy (aka Episodes IV, V and VI), including three critically lambasted prequels and countless books and video games that have muddied any purported Star Wars canon. In that regard, it made sense to go back to basics, round up our heroes (new and old), and reset.

 

The Force Awakens begins 30 years after the events of Return of The Jedi (aka Star Wars: Episode VI) in a post-Galactic Empire galaxy, where the seeds of darkness in the form of the First Order are again beginning to grow. Following his first battle with Resistance troops, a conflicted young stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) decides that this whole evil-empire-cannon-fodder lifestyle isn’t really his thing, and escapes a star destroyer with the help of captured Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). After crash landing on the desert planet Jakku and losing track of Dameron, Finn joins forces with (or rather, is saved by) a tough young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) who lives in the ruins of the empire while awaiting the return of her long-lost family. Together they embark on a journey to find the Resistance base and return Dameron’s lost droid BB-8, which contains valuable information about the location of the missing Luke Skywalker. Worlds collide when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) shows up after Rey and Finn manage to commandeer his former ship, the Millennium Falcon, and several more reunions soon follow, including those with Chewbacca, C-3PO, and General (formerly Princess) Leia.

Meanwhile, the young Sith lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is hot on their heels, figuratively (and somewhat literally) taking up the mantle of the deceased Darth Vader. Familiar patterns quickly begin to emerge from both Ren and our heroes, tracing storylines nearly identical to those in A New Hope but flipped, scrambled, and sharpened. Instead of struggling with a pull to the dark side, Kylo Ren fights with the goodness inside him. Instead of learning from the wise Obi-Wan Kenobi, Rey is mentored by the ever sardonic, ever practical Han Solo. Imagery and settings are rolled out with deliberate nostalgic precision, while classic details are remixed into familiar surprises, from droid models to alien cantinas to planetary biomes. Even the planet-annihilating doomsday weapon gets a modern day Diplo treatment – wider scale, flashier lights, bigger bass drop. The result is a dazzling thrill ride equally accessible to old and new fans alike.

At first glance, the closeness to which Force Awakens adheres to an established storyline can give the appearance of slightly lazy, slightly contrived reverence. However, the themes explored in the original Star Wars movies were so broadly universal—light vs dark, willpower vs destiny, liberty vs hegemony—that perhaps it was necessary for director J.J. Abrams to revisit them through a familiar lane in order to realign Star Wars for a new generation. When it comes to beloved franchise reboots, Abrams remains the master of tact. The film’s one real weakness comes through its dizzying pace, where friendships form in seconds, losses are processed in minutes, and lightspeed is somehow faster than it used to be. The movie is so packed to the gills with action that I had to take a moment to evaluate if the entire plot had in fact happened in the span of one afternoon (it hadn’t, but it might as well have). As a result, emotional stakes feel overclocked and slightly lean, salvaged only by the incredible star-making/confirming/reaffirming performances by all of the lead actors.

Overall, The Force Awakens succeeds in several ways, from the elegantly choreographed space battles to the charmingly frenetic humor of Boyega. Gone are the dreary trade negotiations and Thomas Kinkade-like gloss of the prequels, replaced by a rusty, lived-in, and practical effect-driven world of gears and grit. However, everything only ties together because of Abrams’ understanding of the feelings that made the franchise special in the first place. When Han tells Rey and Finn about the Force, his tired eyes swell with vigorous conviction. When a lightsaber is lit on screen, the whole world pauses, as if all of the universe’s energy went dark for a split second before being reborn as a single roaring beam. The Force Awakens takes all of the elements we loved about the original movies, dusts them off, and jam-packs them full of renewed wonder. I’m certainly biased, but I can’t think of a better re-introduction to our favorite galaxy far, far away.