To call J.J. Abrams's Star Wars: The Force Awakensthe bestStar Wars film since 1980's The Empire Strikes Back may not seem like a high bar, considering the drop-off in quality after that first sequel. But The Force Awakensreally is the best Star Wars film since Empire, and the high point of Abrams's comparatively brief filmography.
The mechanics of the plot are not especially important. It's a Star Wars movie that works from the blueprint of the original trilogy, and more so than any of those films — even Empire, which at the time was a bigger gamble than the first film — The Force Awakens is designed to be followed by a sequel. What does matter is that, of the canonical films, it's the first in which the humans actually behave and talk like recognizable people.
It's appropriate that the first moment released to the public way back in November 2014 was of Finn (John Boyega) suddenly entering the frame from below, sweaty and out of breath. We hear Boyega's heavy breathing throughoutThe Force Awakensas much as if not more than Darth Vader's in the original film — and where that was an affectation of sorts, here it's key to his character. Finn is in over his (mostly maskless) head big time, as he gets involved with the struggle against the Empire-reduxFirst Order, along with scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), and the reluctantly returning Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). There's hints of the Hero's Journey in Finn's arc — it's called the mono-myth for a reason — but his actions seem more motivated by a relatable, character-driven panic than the dictates of the script. Ford seems invested in Han Solo to an unprecedented extent, and he doesn't revisit his actorly tic of constantly pointing at himself. (Re-watch the first film. He did it all the time.)
Carrie Fisher famously said that when she read the firstStar Warsscript, she wanted to play Han Solo because Han was a better part. But even with Ford around as Han, Daisy Ridley's Rey is the new Han, the kind of part that women just didn't get back then. Not that Leia didn't hold her own, but Rey often drives the story — and occasionally theMillennium Falcon.
There are CGI creatures and vistas, to be sure — that instantly iconic beached Star Destroyer wasn't built out in the desert for real — but the advancements in visual effects in the decade since Revenge of the Sith result in a film that feels grounded even in scenes that were necessarily shot against a greenscreen. (That's still easy to screw up, as evidenced by Peter Jackson's Hobbit films.) The actions have weight and consequences, and the screen time given to lightsaber shenanigans is borderline restrained.
The extent to whichThe Force Awakenssticks the landing is something that should be savored before further sequels and spinoffs start piling up. And, for those looking for spoilers: BB-8 is indeed totes adorbs, and Stormtrooper Wilhelm gets his ass kicked again. Poor guy, it happens every time.