6:47 pm EDT, December 16, 2015

Spoiler-free ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ review: The Force is strong with this one

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a non-stop thrill ride, which will make you laugh, gasp and cry — not necessarily in that order.

This review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is spoiler-free.

But if you’ve seen the film, head to our plot breakdown article. There are some huge developments that absolutely cannot go undiscussed. However, if you haven’t yet seen the film, stay right here. You’re safe. I promise.

Yes, this is the best ‘Star Wars’ film yet

The Force Awakens Rey Finn

Like the Star Wars saga itself, allow me to start in the middle.

There came a point about halfway through the movie, at Maz Kanata’s castle, when I experienced something profound: I watched one of our new heroes, Rey (Daisy Ridley), go through something intensely important, confronted with a highly significant object — and I started to cry.

And it wasn’t even a sad moment. It was actually a very, very good moment. Because this was when I realized that not only was The Force Awakens a genuinely good film (I was so worried it wouldn’t be), but I also truly understood, for the first time, that J.J. Abrams made it for me. For me, and you, and everyone else who ever worried that their status, their gender, their race, or anything else they happen to be might make them less powerful, or important, or special.

Because here was Rey — scared, overwhelmed, confused Rey — and she was a hero. She was special. She was powerful. And she was allowed to be all these things, without reason, without exception, without justification.

Now, I know there have been powerful women in the Star Wars series before. But nothing like Rey. Nothing like this moment, when she went through something so symbolic, that left no doubt as to her status in the narrative. And it wasn’t just Rey. It was Finn, it was Poe Dameron, it was the original trilogy’s trio who’d been allowed to age, and still kicked ass. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was for everyone. And that moved me to tears.

The rest of the film was pretty good, too.

…And by “pretty good,” I mean mind-blowing. For so many reasons. I hate to be cliché and call The Force Awakens the best Star Wars film ever, but I’m afraid there’s no way around it: Even if you forget about the whole, you know, Star Wars thing, this is just a very, very good movie. It’s well-constructed, everything looks good — J.J. Abrams managed a perfect blend of CGI landscapes and animatronics, just as he said he would — and the story is full of pretty insane twists that’ll leave you gasping and begging for more.

Meet your new #squadgoals

The Force Awakens Rey Finn

I always judge a film by its characters — and on that basis alone, I’d have to give The Force Awakens top marks.

I could sing Daisy Ridley’s praises all day, and I probably will, but here I’ll just say: Rey is the hero we deserve, and Ridley will make you fall in love with her immediately.

Which brings me to John Boyega: Introduced as a Stormtrooper with a conscience, Finn’s journey is both complex and believable. He’s funny as hell, too.

The chemistry between new leads Finn and Rey was obviously crucial to the success of this film, but Boyega and Ridley strike the perfect balance between buddy-cop comedy and real friendship. The “love interest” factor never really comes into play, at least not in a way that might undermine either of their characters. It’s very refreshing.

The Force Awakens Poe Dameron

Rounding out our new trio, we’ve got Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron. Isaac is the most seasoned actor of the three, and he definitely doesn’t have as much screentime as I’d have liked, but he doesn’t need it. Give that guy five seconds to deliver a funny line and stare at someone with those intense brown eyes, and he’s your instant favorite character.

One of the many things J.J. Abrams managed to balance was making Rey, Finn and Poe echoes of our original leads Luke, Han and Leia, without it ever becoming too overt or hokey. They’re very much their own characters, yet there’s just enough familiarity to bring it all full circle.

I should also point out that Domhnall Gleeson delivers a particularly memorable performance; despite the fact that he’s got a relatively small part to play, his borderline melodramatic General Hux just works.

The Force Awakens Han Solo

And, of course, I’ve saved the best for last: although The Force Awakens mainly focuses on Rey and Finn and their epic (and at times hilarious) adventure, it is very much Han Solo’s film. Separated from Luke and Leia, Han (and Chewie, naturally!) gets to drive the action, reluctantly assisting our new heroes in their quest and doing his best grumpy Harrison Ford impression.

But at the core of his arc is a really deep, emotional story, which allows us to get to know Han Solo better than the entire original trilogy combined. He also gets some of the best lines in the movie, and he and Finn have some priceless banter I really wish I could quote here (but you’ll see it soon enough).

It’s the beginning of the end (and the end of the beginning)

The Force Awakens Kylo ren

Look. I love the original trilogy, and I always will.

But just as the first three Star Wars films were a product of their time, so is The Force Awakens, in the best ways: J.J. Abrams knew he was setting up a three-part story, and he knew that audiences won’t forgive plot holes or shoddy characterization. Nothing slips through the cracks, at least not on first viewing. Nostalgia blends perfectly with new characters and storylines, and even the parts of the movie that aren’t exactly fist-pump-worthy are objectively important and necessary.

Every single character arc in this movie is emotional, and makes sense, and pays off. Not always in the way you’d expect — I certainly had a lot of theories that were proven wrong — but you’ll leave the movie feeling both satisfied, intrigued… and very moved. I think you’ll struggle to find a Star Wars fan who won’t be deeply affected by this this film.

And, although continuity between the prequels and the original trilogy will never be perfect, The Force Awakens and the next two episodes might just manage to connect the first two trilogies in a way they’ve never been before. Certainly, what happens in The Force Awakens pays homage to the entire saga. You’ll feel like you’re watching a continuation of Anakin’s story as much as Luke’s, and believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

The Force Awakens Millennium Falcon

In The Force Awakens, history repeats itself, but with variations: Things will not happen the way you expect, but the story beats will be familiar. It truly does feel like you’re watching a Star Wars film, but it also just feels like you’re watching a very, very good, character-driven action film that can be enjoyed by fans and skeptics alike.

The main issues I had with The Force Awakens were related to wanting more: More character moments, more backstory, more movie. And, in my opinion, that’s exactly as it should be.

J.J. Abrams has successfully reinvented a franchise that was perfect as it is. He has moved Star Wars into a new era, setting up what promises to be an intriguing new story while paying homage to the saga we love. He has tied a bow on the original trilogy, and led fans by the hand into a new era. Abrams has done what countless Jedi before him have tried and failed to do — he has brought balance to the Force.

And the best part? The story has only just begun.

Bonus observations (very mild spoilers):

  1. The reason why Luke Skywalker has been missing from the promotional material is literally explained at the very top of the movie, so you don’t have to spend too long wondering about that.
  2. This might just be me, but pay attention to the first shot of the film. Doesn’t that look like J.J. Abrams giving a giant middle finger to the audience? I wouldn’t put it past him.
  3. Lost fans should have a blast (no pun intended) trying to spot not only cast cameos — including Ken Leung and J.J Abrams’ human rabbit’s foot Greg Grunberg — but also fun, possibly unintentional callbacks. Not only does a character at one point utter “We have to go back” (or something to that effect), but there is, in fact, an island.
  4. If you’re a big Star Wars fan, you will be delighted to spot some old faces, including a gracefully aged Admiral Ackbar and Nien Numb.
  5. A small gripe: Leia isn’t in this movie half as much as I’d have liked. There wasn’t enough Phasma, either.
  6. Although he’s been praised by other reviewers, I actually thought Adam Driver as Kylo Ren was the only potentially weak link in the otherwise great cast line-up. He had some spectacular scenes, but in others, I found him a little hard to swallow. It’ll be interesting to see what fans think of his performance.
  7. Did I mention how fabulous Domhnall Gleeson is? Because he is. Very fabulous.

Grade: A

Already seen ‘The Force Awakens’? Read our spoiler-filled breakdown of the 3 biggest questions raised by the movie!

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