Movie magic is the most seductive magic of all. When that celluloid transforms into a vessel for us to disappear into a foreign, fantastical universe, it transcends escapism; we become citizens of this strange, sexy new world on screen. We play by its rules. We forget that there's a finite running time. Movies can hypnotize us to forget the real world outside of the fourth wall, even if it's just for a moment, but that's all we need.
Movies, at their best, can help us reach a particular Nirvana via visual and emotional stimulation. And with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams has administered a potent shot of child-like wonder back into big tentpole filmmaking while reminding us just how magical movies can truly be. (Beware of mild spoilers below).
Picking up about 30 years after the Battle of Endor and in sync with the O.G. trilogy, we're quickly filled in on exposition gaps thanks to a classic Star Wars opening scroll: Luke Skywalker has disappeared. The Empire is dust, but a newer, more evil Fascist regime has emerged as its progeny in the First Order. And then there's the good guys & gals, the last bulwark of hope called The Resistance. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an unalloyed fable of Good vs. Evil.
And what a cast of heroes and big bad heavies we're introduced to. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt clearly love these characters, paying acute detail to their complexities and contradictions and their unique idiosyncrasies. It's a joy to fall in love with them ourselves.
There's Rey (Daisy Ridley), the tough-as-nails space junk scavenger who drifts amongst the dunes of her planet Jakku longing for her parent's return. Rey becomes embroiled in the intergalactic conflict after a defecting Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) crash-lands on her planet, officially going AWOL from his First Order battalion. Finn, overcome by good, helped The Resistance's best pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) escape from captivity, but they're separated during the explosive crash.
Tying these characters together is BB-8, the heir to R2-D2's empathy-inducing droid throne. BB-8 possesses intel that could alter the fate of the cosmos, for better or for worse (depending on whose hands it falls into): the map to Luke Skywalker's location. It's imperative this information returns to The Resistance.
The First Order's Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) will stop at nothing to retrieve that map and vanquish The Resistance once and for all. Black-masked and gravelly-voiced, Ren might be the most richly drawn villain in recent memory. A Vader wannabe, Ren is hyper-violent and much more volatile and capricious than his Empire predecessors. But Driver plays him equal parts chilling and vulnerable, and, without giving too much away, when his Freudian family issues comes to light (playing into the original mythos), fireworks happen.
So now we are strapped in to our fully realized space opera. Abrams keeps the pace breezy and buoyant as we journey through layers of new world-building while colliding with the old established universe. Dazzling set pieces abound as we board the Millennium Falcon once again to zip and zag through space chases and shootouts. Shot on 35mm (and some IMAX format 65mm), Abrams infuses The Force Awakens with a gorgeous yet gritty realism that never overpowers its silliness and morality. Cinema's favorite nerd directed the hell out of this with an unrelenting jock-confidence.
But it's that silliness and morality at the beating heart of The Force Awakens. The young heroes Rey and Finn are reluctant but eventually learn to trust in the power of Good with absolute conviction, and they rise to the occasion. Boyega's comedic timing and charm is perfect chemistry for Ridley's no-nonsense, commanding presence. Watching them discover their courage and evolve into heroes in real time is one of the greatest character investments I've witnessed in movies this year. Watching Rey—a woman—and Finn—a black man—become the new standard of what heroes look like is one of the greatest things to happen in movies in my lifetime.
Packed with blasts of nostalgic fun (what up, Han Solo & Chewbacca?!), sharp humor and breathtaking visual effects, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not only the best blockbuster of 2015, but the franchise reboot that this new generation of kids deserve (and telling from the tears of joy spilled by the Baby Boomer sitting next to me, a satisfying ride for day-one fans). This is the movie J.J. Abrams was born to make. Just like he showed us with his under appreciated Super 8, Abrams loves the magic of movies. Movie magic is still alive, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens just cast a powerful spell.