Like the future, the new Star Wars movie belongs to the young.
With all love for Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill, who each got their own warm round of applause when first appearing onscreen during Tuesday night's New York press screening of The Force Awakens, it's the new characters — especially Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and BB-8 — who steal the show. A lot of J. J. Abrams' satisfying, gratifyingly fun film is familiar by design, paying homage to the past and to the legacy of the most famous sci-fi franchise of all time. So it's not just a comment on Disney's inescapable marketing barrage, but a sincerely intended compliment that the fresh-faced heroes and antiheroes The Force Awakens introduces feel like future friends you've heard a lot about but are only just meeting.
And in a clever touch, these characters are, like the rest of us, fans. Rey, who's been eking out a living as a scavenger on the planet of Jakku while waiting for her family's return, gasps in delight when she learns she's in the company of Han Solo (Ford) and that the ship she helped abscond with is the Millennium Falcon. Finn, a Stormtrooper who develops a conscience and goes AWOL, wonders aloud about Han's war hero past. (Chewbacca, who's been along for the whole ride, just shrugs.)
On the darker side, Kylo Ren's (Adam Driver) desire to follow in the footsteps of Darth Vader include ownership of Vader's iconic and apparently highly collectible mask. "It's true. All of it — the dark side, the Jedi. They're real," Han informs Rey. These characters aren't just inheritors of a legacy, they're aspirants to it, characters who are aware of the events of the first trilogy as history merged with the stuff of legend. They're proof that anyone born in the age of Star Wars ends up being at least a little conversant in its mythology, even if they're actual characters in the series.
If Rey were just a bit more fluent in her fandom, she might realize that she doesn't just get swept up in a mission to find Luke Skywalker (Hamill), but that she's following in his footsteps. Like Luke, she starts off as a desert planet rube whose life is changed when she encounters a droid, BB-8, who's carrying some essential intel. Instead of the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire being at war, it's now the Republic-supported Resistance and the First Order, but they're essentially the same things, down to their choice of starfighters and to the First Order's Starkiller Base, a next-gen Death Star that you can bet looms large in the movie's final act. One of The Force Awakens' great and sometimes irksome ironies is that, for all the secrecy that's surrounded it in its long ramp-up, the broad strokes plot is mostly lifted from A New Hope.
And The Force Awakens sometimes feels as much like a remake of A New Hope as it does a continuation. But if they hew a little too close to the 1977 film, Abrams and his co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt understand that what audiences want from this age of sequels and reboots and remakes is the cozy feeling that comes from the known combining with the new. The Force Awakens doesn't strike that balance as ingeniously as Creed, its spiritual sibling in cinematic baton-passing, but its obligatory fan service gestures are completed without too much winking: See Han noting to Leia, "You've changed your hair," C-3PO leaning into the frame during an emotional moment, and the swashbuckling pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) leading an X-wing squad on a recognizable bombing run.
The older characters maybe aren't served as well as they could be, though Ford is so much better and more engaged than he's been in years in his reprised role as Han; grayer and more weathered but still infamous, back to his old tricks. It's Han who gets the most screen time of the old guard, Han and Chewie, and their fond, grumbly rapport is as good as the gruff but affectionate exchanges he has with Rey and Finn, these young kids who have no idea what they're getting into. He seems as won over as the audience is by their newness, by the way that Finn is so clearly bowled over by Rey and so out of his depth, by Rey's scrappy competence with his ship and her awe at seeing a green planet for the first time.
They're earnest and irresistibly sweet, and Boyega and Ridley, the least established actors in the cast, prove themselves more than capable of being the franchise's new leads. Their characters forge an unforced connection, coming to each other's aid equally, though Rey shows herself to be the more formidable of the two. If The Force Awakens thankfully tosses the ponderous mysticism of the prequels aside to take on things like fandom instead, it also finds a way to be about the pleasure of watching a new generation of people share in the things you loved. The wistfulness that Han (and to a lesser extent, Lupita Nyong'o's motion-captured wisdom dispenser Maz Kanata) displays when watching Rey and Finn sometimes feels akin to that of a parent watching his child head off to the prom, and knowing no lectures are needed about proper behavior because these kids are fundamentally solid.
Compared to them, Kylo Ren would be the lanky, angry-depressive goth kid smoking in the parking lot, foregoing the black trench coat in favor of hooded robes and a mask. Ren serves the First Order under the command and tutelage of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), and is a powerful but conflicted antagonist with his temper, his crossguard lightsaber, and his dark past. Ren is a torturer and a killer, but he's also complicated and torn up inside, and Girls' Driver fits unexpectedly well into the Star Wars universe as an antihero, with his long face and mane of dark hair. If this franchise has always been one about the battle between good and evil, Ren introduces some emotional complexity to a major scene, retaining audience empathy while proving himself capable of terrible things.
The Force Awakens really sings when its focus is on Finn, Rey, Ren, and the delightfully expressive BB-8 (Poe, heartbreaker that he is, doesn't get explored in depth in this first installment). And that's the finest testament to its quality — that it leaves you wanting more from these new characters, not feeling like they're in the way of the classic creations everyone came to see onscreen once more. The Force Awakens doesn't pass the torch so much as it uses the Force to call it from across the room, and in doing so, provides a reminder that the thing that made the Star Wars movies beloved in the first place was their joyous sense of adventure.