Director J.J. Abrams excels at beginnings. The opening scene of nearly anything he's worked on is like the opening salvo in a war, assaulting at least one if not more of your emotions. Sometimes it's to thrill you, sometimes make you cry, and sometimes both at the same time.
Take the opening scene of 2009's "Star Trek," which threw barely established characters into a life and death situation, killing future Captain Kirk's (Chris Pine) father and setting up the massive stakes for the rebooted franchise. Same with the opening of "Mission: Impossible 3," which again killed off a barely established character, set up a terrifying villain, and proved this would be entirely unlike anything previously shown in the series. And again, same with "Super 8," or TV shows like "Lost" (the plane crash at the beginning was so classic, the show came back around to it time and again, constantly re-contextualizing the event).
More than that, though, Abrams knows that the beginning is what grabs us. You can't start slow, you need to start at 100 miles per hour and never slow down from there. You need your big idea, your big twist, your emotional hook right up top.
With "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," that's not even close to a problem. The jaw-dropping beginning is built into the series: right after the opening card says "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," there's a pause... Then the "Star Wars" logo slams on screen accompanied by composer John Williams' classic theme. If you're a fan of a certain age, when that happens you have no choice but to turn into a human blobfish.
Honestly, you don't even need to be a fan, though... The opening of "Star Wars" is built to make you swell with emotion, with excitement. Sure, seeing it on screen for the first time without the 20th Century Fox fanfare (which Williams famously keyed his "Star Wars" fanfare to) compromises the experience slightly, but the raw emotion is still all there.
All you need to do at that point is not make the opening crawl that sets up the plot about trade embargoes or complicated galactic politics, make the text immediately root the conflict in the mind instead of the heart, and you're good to go.
Happily, Abrams and co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who also wrote the series' best installment, nail it. The central mystery is set up, the epic conflict is once again between good and evil, and we're right into a scene of innocents terrorized by an evil empire. It's a classic beginning that raises the stakes while setting up the emotional conflict for a number of the newer characters.
But back to Abrams. What he doesn't excel at is endings; but that's generally not a problem for the "Star Wars" saga, either. Modeled on old movie serials, "Star Wars" is a story that never ends. Whether it finishes on a cliffhanger like "Empire Strikes Back," or a more definitive point like "A New Hope" and "Return of the Jedi," there's still more story to tell. The main characters -- often the Skywalker clan, and their friends and allies -- always have more to do, another enemy to fight, another battle to win.
I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that's how "Force Awakens" ends too; the only issue is that Abrams' problem with ending things is much deeper than just letting things continue. From the first "Star Trek," to "Super 8," to, yes, "Lost," Abrams has that brilliant opening idea, then doesn't know how to wrap it up. Like his famous mystery box, it's the idea of opening it, and what could be inside that powers his interest. The story surrounding the thing is always more interesting than whatever you find inside.
So rather than ending once, "Force Awakens" ends multiple times. It seems to be about one plot-line, then gets distracted by another. Perhaps it was the pressure to service every fan who has been waiting for this chapter for three decades, or just the knowledge that "Episode VIII" is in the offing that let Abrams not worry about tying up at least the story in the movie. But whatever the reason, this might be the weakest ending in Abrams' oeuvre.
In fact, at times it seems like Abrams and company have grasped on to the weakest aspects of each "Star Wars" film and liberally sprinkled them through "Force Awakens": you've got the disjointed, episodic nature of "A New Hope," which never came together as a cohesive story so much as a series of set pieces and moments; the cliffhanger and twists of "Empire Strikes Back," versus what makes that movie truly the most excellent part of the saga, its focus on character arcs and development; and "Return of the Jedi"...
Well look, if anything the biggest problem with "Return of the Jedi" is it's arguably the first "Star Wars" movie made by people who had seen a "Star Wars" movie. It's the first one that truly suffers from the institutional knowledge, the expectation that both in plot and execution "Star Wars" movies deliver a certain sort of experience.
In the case of "Force Awakens," that can be a strength, like the phenomenally dissociative experience that happens when this life-long fan saw the words "Episode VII" on screen and could not process that for real, in real life, we were about to watch the next "Star Wars" movie. Not a fan film, or a prequel, or a parody, or any of the hundreds of other opening crawls we've watched over the years. This was "official." That kind of experience can only come with knowing the property, and that shouldn't be discounted.
It's also a tremendous weakness, though, like when "Force Awakens" becomes nothing more than a barely reshot visual riff on "A New Hope." Which frankly, happens relatively often, particularly in the first and third acts.
When it breaks free of these preconceived notions (or visuals [or bits of dialogue]), though, and just focuses on the characters, "Force Awakens" is a stunningly enjoyable piece of entertainment -- which is exactly what a "Star Wars" movie can and should be.
Daisy Ridley is front and center in this movie as Rey, and will become for this generation of children what Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was for the previous one. She's superb in everything from action, to comedy, to emotional scenes, and should have a tremendous career ahead of her. Adam Driver is also superb as the villainous Kylo Ren, as is John Boyega as (emotionally) lost storm trooper Finn. In fact, everybody in the cast is great, from Oscar Isaac as the often hilarious Poe Dameron, to Gwendoline Christie's Boba Fett-esque Captain Phasma, who barely appears but manages to cut a stunning figure regardless.
And thankfully, new droid BB-8 isn't the Jar-Jar of "Force Awakens," he's the new R2-D2, taking the previous fan-favorite's place in both utility and humor. In fact, only C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) comes off poorly of all the characters in the movie, and only because he's saddled with two expository scenes that come off as clunky -- and if that, it's mainly because everything else is running like clockwork.
That's the issue, though: "Star Wars" has become clockwork. The movie reliably delivers thrills, deep emotions (at least two scenes got this viewer choked up), and is often very, very funny. But that thrill of the new is gone. Instead of Luke gazing out at the twin suns of Tatooine, you get Rey looking at a spaceship taking off, and a (mind you, gorgeous) shot of evil First Order TIE Fighters framed by the sunset. Instead of a cantina bar full of the worst scum of the universe, you get... Well, you pretty much get a cantina bar, complete with some of the worst scum of the universe.
It's when "Force Awakens" breaks away from all this to expand and create it's own mythology -- the way the movie uses the mystical Force in particular is organic to the world, but entirely new and thrilling, giving us images and ideas that haven't been seen in the hundreds of books, comics, and games released since "Return of the Jedi" -- that the movie recaptures some of that old magic.
There's exciting ideas in the movie that are dropped here and there, from new villains, to new friends, to an entirely new generation of "Star Wars" characters. And now that Abrams has set up the beginning (his strength), even for all of its flaws... Let's hope that Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow, who are handling "Episode VIII" and "Episode IX" respectively, have a better handle on endings.
Or at the very least, let the new series start to forge its own path. A cast this good deserves it.