One can’t begin to imagine the amount of pressure that fell on J. J. Abrams’ shoulders when he agreed to direct a continuation of “Star Wars,” one of the most famous, successful, and influential cinematic series of all time. The original trilogy (released from 1977-1983) has garnered a massive cult fanbase, with each generation adding millions of fans along the way. Where does a writer/director even begin to pick up after a trilogy that had pretty much wrapped up all the loose ends and have it be anywhere near as powerful? Despite the massive pressure, Abrams boldly took on the challenge with everyone cheering him on. After all, he had brilliantly revitalized the “Star Trek” film series in 2009, so why not let him have a crack at a series that many felt had been mishandled by George Lucas in the last couple of decades with his three prequels? In order to get some ideas as to how to tackle the franchise, Abrams started from the beginning by revisiting the original masterpiece, but as we see with his take on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” he just might have taken a little too much inspiration.
As the film opens, we are informed that the last remaining Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), has gone missing, and that Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a pilot for The Resistance, has been dispatched to retrieve a map that supposedly leads to him. However, his mission is ambushed by the First Order, a group that has risen from the ashes of the fallen Empire, forcing Poe to give the map to his BB-8 droid for safe keeping. Poe is kidnapped and interrogated by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a member of the First Order who is particularly strong with The Force. Luckily, a stormtrooper who is struggling with his conscience, Finn (John Boyega), decides to escape and take Poe with him to help complete the mission.
They steal a fighter, but are shot down, crashing them on the planet Jakku below. With Poe supposedly killed in the crash, Finn carries on, coming across the BB-8 droid in the possession of a young woman, Rey (Daisy Ridley), who decides to help out as well. In their desperation to get off the planet, they steal a very familiar ship, which catches the attention of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his right-hand Wookie, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Together they must try to get the map into the hands of The Resistance before the First Order gets to them, or else the Jedi might truly be finished once and for all.
There’s not a single doubt that J. J. Abrams is a true “Star Wars” fan. He poured his heart and soul into this project to give the fans exactly what they wanted. He, along with fellow writers Lawrence Kasdan (“Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,” “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi”) and Michael Arndt (Oscar winner for “Little Miss Sunshine”), fill the film with amazing action sequences, and more importantly, a great blend of old and new characters that help bring it to life. Finn and Rey, as played by John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, breathe new life into the franchise, while getting to see Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher as their classic characters after so long gives the film an amazing nostalgic feeling.
The film also comes with a grand sense of fun and excitement as our heroes get out of one scrape, just to fall into another within a few minutes, but that’s not to say that the film is all action. These new characters that the audience is unfamiliar with are first given a chance to breathe (in more ways than one) as we are introduced to them, Finn being a man who has known nothing but his training as a stormtrooper from birth and is considering making a change, and Rey being a young woman who is barely scraping by on Jakku as she waits for her family to return. However, as the film goes on, their characters are given the chance to develop further, especially as we come to unravel the mystery that is Rey. A film that just had the old “Star Wars” characters might have been interesting, but it would have also felt a little stale, making an injection of new blood most welcome, particularly as Abrams and co. work to expand upon what it already a fascinatingly-populated universe.
All of this truly does help make this a rather fun and entertaining experience, but there’s one major thing that’s holding it back from being as great as it might have been, and that’s the fact that Abrams has basically done a remake of “Star Wars: A New Hope.” If you follow along the plot of this new film, you can easily see that he followed Episode IV mostly beat for beat, featuring elements like a droid with top-secret information that needs to get The Resistance with a little help, a young hero who is forced to leave their home and fight for an important cause, a villain clad all in black that wears a mask and is trying to hunt down out heroes as part of an Empire-like group, and a big finale that has The Resistance trying to blow up the villains’ main base (complete with a big lightsaber battle). Because of all of this, it gave me the feeling that I had already seen this film before, which made it slightly disappointing that they didn’t take the time to come up with something a little more original. Perhaps Abrams just didn’t want to leave the comfort zone of what fans were expecting, which led him to lifting much more than just some of the characters from the original classic.
With a little more originality, this could have been even more exciting, and while what Abrams delivers here is still a pretty good start to this new trilogy, you can’t help but think how great it might have been if they had done their own thing and given us something new (though speckled with certain elements from the classics, of course). Still, Abrams has given fans what they were hoping for, even if a lot of it is overly-familiar, and so, for those that were disappointed by the prequels (let’s be honest, they’re not THAT bad), you could say he has rejuvenated yet another classic franchise. In that sense, he and his crew have truly delivered. 3/4 stars.
Now playing in theaters everywhere.
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic and be sure to subscribe for the latest updates.