Is Star Wars: The Force Awakens what we hoped? Here's our spoiler-free review

2015 has been the year of Star Wars: The Force Awakens anticipation. No film in recent memory has made audiences as simultaneously excited and terrified of a possible ruined viewing experience because of spoilers.

We feel you, Blastr readers.

We, too, have been living in fear of any occupational hazard leaks appearing outside of the "safe" zone of official trailers, interviews and clips. And because of that, Editor at Large Aaron Sagers and Contributing Editors Tara Bennett and Matthew Jackson, who have seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, are providing their spoiler-free first reactions to the film. We'll have a separate, spoiler-inclusive discussion of the film later on down the line. For now, on to the discussion.


Tara Bennett: The hype machine surrounding Star Wars: The Force Awakens is arguably like nothing we've ever seen before in the history of movie marketing, yet it absolutely pales in comparison to the colossal audience expectations vibrating around this movie. With that kind of tremendous pressure, the question has become: Is it even possible for director J.J. Abrams to make a Star Wars film that won't immediately wilt under even casual scrutiny?

Yes, it's possible, because J.J. just pulled it off. He did it by making a Star Wars film that revolves around story and characters, both old and new, that make you care again.  Abrams and company made sure that everything that happens in The Force Awakens is tied to the core emotional beats and the mythological legacy that runs deep for fans raised on Episodes IV, V and VI.  Familiar faces return and operate according to how we know and love them. New characters like Rey, Finn and even BB-8 have emotional purpose instead of functioning as window dressing like characters did in the prequels. We come to know and love the new guys like we did with Han, Luke and Leia and end up with a new family of characters we can't wait to follow on their adventures.

Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt also land the incredibly difficult balance of honoring the past but not at the expense of charting a new future. Old-school fans will revel in the multitude of moments that elicit nostalgic elation, but everyone will get swept up in the new problems facing the Republic under the thumb of the First Order. And your eyes won't cross from trying to navigate the coma-inducing politics of the prequels. Star Wars: The Force Awakens isn't just fan service, it's great storytelling and movie-making that resurrects the franchise. The entire cast is engaged, compelling and selling the hell out of this new chapter. By the credit roll, I had my own Grinch-like miracle as my cynical, prequel-shrunken heart magically swelled three sizes again for the franchise that defined a lot of my childhood into adulthood. 

Matthew Jackson:  OK, I will admit up front that, from the moment the text crawl started, I was in a state of emotional elation when it came to this movie, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. The very idea of seeing a new Star Wars film, with all the stylistic trappings that entails, has been intoxicating to me ever since I saw the first trailer, so I was carried away by the John Williams score from the first frame. 

That being said, when I actually had to grapple with this film's story, particularly when chewing it over on the drive home from my screening, I found that I really love the movie even with the nostalgic blinders taken off. There's a purity to this film, and it comes -- like Tara said -- from embracing both the past and the future. The new characters don't feel like clones replicating old themes (though there are, as with all Star Wars films, those old familiar Joseph Campbell patterns), and the old characters never feel like they're only there for "Hey, remember me?" moments of nostalgic fun.
I think what most impressed me about the movie, though (and we'll get into more spoilery territory with this in a few days) is how well the film uses the nostalgia factor that's so inherent in why we're all so excited to actually propel the story forward. We've all seen the trailers in which Kylo Ren speaks directly to Darth Vader's melted helmet, and we've all had the moment in which we realize how meta-textual that is, but the final film takes those ideas and pushes them further, creating a world in which the Jedi are almost a myth and days without the oppression of stormtroopers are all but a dream. A lot of us can't remember a time when we didn't have Star Wars in our lives, and neither can this movie, so why not use that to tell the next chapter? This is a Star Wars story that leans heavily on what came before, but in the process it actually manages to force itself into the future. That's something I didn't think could be done, and I'm still so impressed by how that was achieved.
Aaron Sagers: I grew up part of the first Star Wars generation. Although I had a lot of pop culture loves as a kid, nothing surpassed Star Wars. It defined much of my young world, and over the years, it remained a great love and even contributed to the career in entertainment media I eventually pursued.

And tonight, I saw a new Star Wars movie at an early screening as part of my job. That blows my mind.

I am writing this less than two hours after the closing credits, and I am still processing it. I remember loving Star Wars so much that I convinced myself The Phantom Menace was good in the moments immediately following an opening night screening in 1999. It became more difficult to summon that hope with the two subsequent prequel episodes, and while I never stopped caring about Star Wars, I lost faith in any new movies capturing the spirit of the original trilogy.

But I can confidently say that the Force has awakened with a new hope.

This is a Star Wars episode that evokes the spirit, humor, adventure and emotion (as in, a lot of feels) of the first three. It does so by not solely relying on the characters and themes of A New Hope, but by building on them.

Seeing familiar characters is definitely a selling point for The Force Awakens, and it delivers. J.J. Abrams (and Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt) allow me to celebrate and commiserate with old friends. But they also successfully made me care about the new faces in this galaxy with a story that harkens back but looks forward. Rey and Finn are brilliantly realized and likable heroes, and BB-8 is as worthy of the spotlight the little droid has been enjoying. Poe is a fun hotshot, even if there's not enough of him. General Hux is an Imperial baddie of the highest order (who my colleague Lucas Siegel joked after the screening was "Tarkin it up"). Kylo Ren is an interesting villain who is temperamental, petulant and rough around the edges -- and adds an intriguing complexity to the Dark Side.

Actually, underneath all the performances, there is a palpable energy that these people -- Harrison Ford included -- are thrilled to be here. That comes across in a way that it sadly rarely did with the prequels. 

With regard to the awakened Force and Dark Side, Episode VII returns the mystery to the energy that flows through all things. It feels alive again, like a power that can be harnessed, not tamed. The mystery of the Star Wars universe also returns in a big way; this galaxy feels once again lived in (and, true to my hope, doesn't look overly CGI'd) and is a feast of colorful characters who don’t always do much (sometimes simply occupying the background), but who tease me into thinking about all the worlds and side stories that exist far, far away.

It is not a perfect film. It feels a lot like Episode IV - A New Hope -- that’s no surprise, and not exactly a bad thing, though also not the most novel thing, either. The structure is clunky at times (much like in the original trilogy). There are shaky plot points or threads that, like Poe's, seem awkwardly handled. While most of the nods to the old movies work, there were a few that felt shoehorned in. But the most important point for me here is I have to think about the things that did not work, and they are still eclipsed by what I enjoyed. And I am frankly thrilled how much of this movie I'd not seen in marketing material, so an unspoiled adventure rolled out in front of me.

The Force Awakens is a Star Wars movie that feels right, and is most certainly a continuation of Return of the Jedi. I am uncertain if I trust myself enough to say I am in love with it, but I am definitely deeply “in like” with it, and moving toward enamored.

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