The Force Awakens Reinvigorates Star Wars for the 21st Century

J.J. Abrams restores balance to the Force.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) and BB-8 in a scene from The Force Awakens.

Courtesy of Lucasfilm

The summer the original Star Wars came out—the chapter that George Lucas later rechristened Episode IV: A New Hope—I was 11 years old, ostensibly part of the movie’s ideal target demographic. I still remember some images with the whoa-that’s-cool awe they inspired at the time: the oblique angle of the words as they disappeared into space in that opening crawl. The twin suns setting over the horizon of Luke Skywalker’s desolate home planet, Tatooine. But even as a middle-schooler, I never quite warmed to the Star Wars mythos, which seemed too schematic and fairy-tale–like with its white-clad princess and black-garbed, mouth-breathing bad guy. I preferred the cerebral sci-fi riddles and intergalactic do-gooder diplomacy of the Star Trek universe (and if we’re being honest, Trek’s Kirk and Spock did more for my incipient libido than either Luke or Han Solo).

My own preteen predilections aside, it soon became clear that the country at that moment was hungry for something exactly like Star Wars. With astonishing speed, we incorporated its codes and catchphrases—may the Force be with you! Don’t go over to the Dark Side!—into everyday language. Over the next few years, as the sequels (the early, real ones) rolled out, we collected action figures; spun out complementary narratives in novelizations, fan fiction, animated series, and video games; and generally wove the legend of the repressive Empire and the ragtag Resistance into our collective self-image, both as political beings and as consumers of ever more sophisticated entertainment products. What else is the famous “1984” Apple commercial—released the year after we said goodbye to Han, Luke, and Leia at the triumphant Ewok hoedown that ends The Return of the Jedi—but a symbolic re-enactment of the victory of the brave, scrappy individualists against the faceless horde of Stormtroopers?

Passing over Lucas’ three early 2000s prequels in tactful silence (as befits the treatment of the vanity projects of a revered but dotty old uncle), we find ourselves, 38 years after that first blockbuster summer, still living in the pop-cultural world Star Wars built. So director and co-writer J.J. Abrams—having proven his skill at re-energizing franchises with two lively if uninspired installments of the Star Trek series—both has his work cut out for him and doesn’t. Honestly, the man could make a hopeless hash of a movie and still break world box-office records, as long as there were lightsaber battles and adorable beeping robots and exploding space stations and plenty of verbal and visual callbacks to the series’ most famous moments. But to find a fresh reason for Star Wars to exist in 2015—that, truly, would mark Abrams as the new hope.

And with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I’ll be damned if Abrams hasn’t gone and done it—not reinvented the wheel, perhaps (though in the adorable-beeping-android character BB-8, he has at least found some creative new uses for the rolling sphere), but reinvigorated the venerable franchise for the 21st century, starting with a winning pair of heroes that the occasionally sexist and racist Star Wars universe has been in need of for a long time: a black man—and not in a helpmate role like Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian, but playing one of the film’s leads—and a young woman who’s distinctly not in need of even a smidgen of saving.

Sharing a screen with Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill—all of whom come back to reprise their original roles—would be a tall task for any young, relatively unknown actor. And fledgling thespians cutting their teeth on Star Wars dialogue have not historically made for a very pretty sight, as those of us who survived Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman’s leaden courtship scenes can attest. But John Boyega, as a Stormtrooper who deserts his post after a moral crisis, and Daisy Ridley, as a lone-wolf dissident who mistakes him for a Resistance fighter, create mythical personas of their own that are strong enough to stand up alongside the archetypes of Han, Luke, and Leia. (Boyega and Ridley, both English actors, are better known for their work on television than in film, though Boyega made a striking debut in the 2011 sci-fi comedy Attack the Block.) Like their Star Wars forebears, Boyega’s Finn and Ridley’s Rey are brave, funny, and admirable but also imperfect, uncertain, and sometimes afraid. That is to say, they’re genuine, multisided characters with believable motivations—no small victory in a movie designed with the express purpose of breaking world box-office records. In fact, the dialogue and acting in this cast-of-thousands saga are pretty stellar across the board, not a sentence I ever thought I would type in a review of a Star Wars movie, where unforgettable performances tend to exist side-by-side with mediocre ones.

Abrams’ smartest coup (in a script he co-wrote with Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan) was to upend our understanding of the Star Wars moral universe by unmasking a Stormtrooper early and revealing not a soulless killing machine but a conflicted, guilty man underneath. (Only the mildest of spoilers follow—not much more than what you could infer from the many trailers.) It’s FN-2187 (Boyega), who bears only a number instead of a name, because he was torn from his parents as a small child and raised in a hypermilitarized training camp. (Not to push this film’s thematic ambition past where it means to go, but the parallels with slavery are hard to miss.)

The Empire has now been reborn as the First Order, a Third Reich–style fascist state with some seriously stylized public rallies. FN-2187, traumatized by his first experience in battle, escapes the First Order in a stolen craft piloted by escaped prisoner Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who immediately rechristens the young man “Finn” and entrusts him—lack of experience be damned—with the co-pilot seat. Together, the two must reach our old heroes to deliver the movie’s intergalactic MacGuffin (I won’t spoil what it is) before they can be intercepted by Darth Vader revivalist Kylo Ren (black cape and helmet, filtered breathy growl), played by Adam Driver. Ren, in turn, must answer to Supreme Leader Snoke, about whom I will only say that a) he is magnificently voiced by Andy Serkis and b) he looks like he’d be more comfortable in a jar of formaldehyde than on the throne where he sits.

Seeing how the new generation of adventurers hook up with the old guard and what surprising alliances they form along the way makes for the whole pleasure of this solid, satisfying entry to the Star Wars canon. So I’ll say nothing more of the light-speed plot—there are moments of real emotion and wrenching loss, as well as some genuinely thrilling adventure sequences and well-earned laughs. (Kasdan also co-wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, and sometimes The Force Awakens’ wiseacre one-liners feel more evocative of Indiana Jones than any galaxy far, far away.)

The very last shot of The Force Awakens teases the sequel with a tad more brazenness than one might like, but it’s hard to walk out denying your appetite is whetted. The next time around, director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) is getting a crack at Star Wars, and—though it’s doubtful how much freedom this big-bucks operation can allow for individual auteurship—maybe he will take the story and characters down a different, more experimental road. But it’s to Abrams’ credit that he wasn’t satisfied to churn out a glossy, appealing product that would rake in a billion dollars at the box office, as The Force Awakens is predicted to do regardless of its quality. Abrams got in there and crafted a good movie (that is also a glossy, appealing, expertly packaged and promoted product). May the Force be with him.

Read more in Slate about Star Wars: