I don't know when the statute of limitations for spoilers runs out on a movie that makes crazy-ass wackyland fantasy amount of money in its first weekend, but I do know that the internet is full of geeks, and there are are almost surely literally hundreds of reviews of Star Wars: The Force Awakens that say the exact same spoiler-free version of the thing I would say if I had to behave myself: the film blatantly replicates the plot structure of Star Wars. It is sequel, reboot, and remake, all at once. The only difference is in which of the three emerging consensuses one chooses to plant a flag: that this is a bad thing ("it's redundant and therefore shallow & boring") or a good thing ("it felt like Star Wars again, which obviates the need for critical perspective"), or my own opinion, a neutral-thing-leaning-good ("it's a really good throat-clearing exercise, but if Episode VIII ends up sucking, this one is going to look waaaaaay worse").

The point being, I don't want to write that review, so there's going to be absolutely no squeamishness about spoilers. Want a spoiler-free review? Here's one I wrote two days after I saw the film:

"'The Star Wars Original Trilogy: The Greatest Hits' is, I think, to the film's benefit more often than not - J.J. Abrams's inability to have an original artistic thought makes for an awfully tasty plateful of comfort food - though the familiarity of the third-act conflict is some real bullshit any way you slice it. Equal to or better than Return of the Jedi, but I'll remind you that I don't value ROTJ anywhere remotely near the first two films. 7/10"

So that's that. Bail out of if you must.

Now, there are as many ways to properly open a review of The Force Awakens as you could possibly daydream, but I think the whole "carbon copy of the original Star Wars" is a fine one. For one thing, it's not true, both because it's crediting the film with too little originality and also with too much. By which I mean, this isn't repeating the beats of Star Wars, it's picking and choosing elements from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi also. The choice of single-biome planets this time around draws from all three of the original trilogy films, and the climax is a combination of both Star Wars and Jedi - an X-wing attack on a superweapon involving a trench dive and a highly specific weak point come from the 1977 film, but the fact that a team must penetrate a base on foot to shut down a shield generator, and the aerial assault is intercut with a sequence of a father and son having a fatal conflict over ethical behavior inside the base being attacked, all things snipped from the 1983 sequel. And this gives me hope - The Force Awakens is not just a remake of Star Wars, as the most cynical critics would have it, it's a remix of the whole trilogy, which hopefully means that the next film will be prepared to go into completely unfamiliar territory, now that this film has refurbished and refreshed our sense of how Star Wars movies work when they're focused on frothy space opera and not the minutiae of space politics. Though, at the risk of repeating myself, if Episode VIII isn't great - hell, if it's only exactly as good as The Force Awakens - this film is going to seem like a pretty huge missed opportunity. (Edited to add, December 2017: Ironically, I ended up disliking Episode VIII, and in such a way that made me appreciate The Force Awakens more)

But back to the remixing. On paper, it should be endlessly frustrating that all of the plot points are basically the same as in Star Wars, though in a slightly different order. It should, on paper, drive me to a homicidal rage that director/co-writer J.J. Abrams (Lawrence Kasdan returns to the series to co-write) would stage those basically the same points as virtual clones of moments from earlier in the series: the introduction to Maz Kanata's (Lupita Nyong'o voicing a CGI character) magical bar of colorful aliens is precisely what happens when you place the grotty set design from Jabba's palace into the exact editing pattern in the Mos Eisley cantina - I didn't have a stop watch, but the number and timing of the establishing shots felt identical. In practice, the exact replications are mixed up with conspicuous inversions, the most conspicuous being that Luke Skywalker is now a girl, Rey (Daisey Ridley) and C-3PO is now a black stormtrooper, Finn (John Boyega), and the result feels like both a myopic piece of Star Wars fan fiction and a savvy deconstruction of Star Wars' unfathomably over-familiar plot points at one and the same time. It's a neat trick, one that Abrams is better-suited to carrying off than any other director I can think of; his entire personality as a filmmaker is that he has no personality, but is an extremely gifted mimic of other people's aesthetics. Nobody could do a better job of making a copy of Star Wars that is also a feature-length commentary on Star Wars from a fan's perspective.

That being said, having another damn Death Star, or a SuperNuke KillPlanet, or whatever it's called, is criminally lazy; and introducing it with a comic beat in which the characters themselves note that it's hey! another Death Star, but bigger and deathier is the kind of "you can't accuse me of doing something wrong because I'm calling attention to the fact I'm doing it" postmodernism exactly, perfectly calculated to get the movie on my bad side.

Incidentally, there's another pretty overt lift from Star Wars history that I haven't seen another soul besides myself bring up, because the Consensus Narrative is that we do not talk about the prequels right now. But picture this: a character standing over a pit suddenly gets a look of shock and disappointment and pain in close-up. A cut to a position behind him reveals the reason why: a lightsaber has just been ignited right against his chest, and we now see it protruding out of the other side of his body. This scene ends with a dead body tumbling (in a rather unpersuasive visual effect, I might add) down an endless shaft of the sort that populate space fantasies. I have of course just described the death of Han Solo (Harrison Ford, better by miles than he ever has been in the role - possibly enthusiasm for finally being able to kill his hated character off). I have also described the death of Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, and now I get to feel like I've actually added something to the conversation, because it's just too damn specific in the blocking and editing for me to believe it's a coincidence.

The takeaway from all of this, anyway, is that the film is particularly anxious not to carve out a niche for itself: it's fan service on the grandest scale that it has ever been executed, aided considerably by the degree to which Star Wars fandom has entrenched itself as a basic prerequisite to engaging with popular cinema since some time in the 1990s (it does to remember that for a goodly number of years, the franchise had died back almost to Star Trek levels of "oh yeah, that nerd thing" invisibility). What is interesting about is the way that it employs that fan service at the level of subverting our expectations, but as a story it's never better than "Star Wars without the novelty", and it is very frequently not even that. It's naggingly obvious that our two new protagonists, Rey and Finn, are analogues to someone else's character arc - enormously enjoyable ones! Ridley's turn as Rey is a "star is born" moment straight out of old Hollywood, and her sly, playful way with the character's hyper-competence and curious dialogue is enormously fun and dangerously charismatic. But she's also good at pulling out threads of tragedy: the motivation of needing to be back on Jakku in case whoever might be looking for her actually exists is left woefully unexplored by the script, but Ridley weaves it into ever crevice of her performance.

Still, Rey's enormous likability as a protagonist is due much more to Ridley than to anything else: Abrams's addiction to setting up plots and then absolutely refusing to resolve them means that the character really doesn't do anything, and most of the things she achieves are defined primarily in terms of how she herself doesn't understand what the hell is going on. Finn, stuck in the role of the bumbling sidekick, fares even worse (and the script bizarrely insists on saddling him with anachronistically 2010s quips: it's even worse than the terrible dialogue in other Star Wars films, because it's not hilariously bad, just glaringly inappropriate), though at least we can positively identify the ways he's changed between the start and the end of the film. Both of them evoke rich characters without being rich characters. If there is an actual, layered character to be found anywhere, it's in the form of Adam Driver's Kylo Ren, a taciturn bad guy who is revealed as a desperate lost boy trying hard to form a personality for himself and idealising a way of life he's not good at replicating; but Star Wars isn't a franchise terribly well-built for antiheroes, is it? It is inherently Manichean. Nowhere is the fact that The Force Awakens is writing checks for other movies to cash more transparent than in his characterisation: if he turns into a fascinating, compelling figure, this will eventually seem like a gloriously launching point. If he stalls out, then this is just a pointless exercise in parodying Darth Vader as a sullen emo twentysomething.

The film is on steadier footing as a frothy space opera, at least, though it's hobbled by some impoverished world-building (it's a peculiarly unsatisfying and unclear continuation from Return of the Jedi: why are the Republic and Resistance two separate entities? Is it like the De Gaulle government and the French Resistance? Because it's hard to imagine how that operates in this context), and a generally erratic quality. There are great sequences in the film; for the first 30 minutes, in fact, there are only great sequences, as we're introduced to the new characters and new universe in bold, broad strokes, and get to enjoy the film's most excitingly hectic action sequence (the Millennium Falcon chase in the skies of Jakku), its most visually dramatic (the night raid on the desert community), and its best blend of comedy and action, before the jokiness starts to get a little overwhelming (although I concede that my three favorite single beats in the film are all gags: the stormtroopers spinning around during Kylo's tantrum, Chewbacca's sob story to the nurse, and BB-8's little lighter "thumbs-up". In fact, let's just go ahead and put it down so it's official: BB-8 is far and away the best thing in this movie, more crazily expressive than any movie robot I can name outside of WALL·E).

But there are also some very awful moments, like the thoroughly inexplicable chase with the tentacle-monsters, a visually cramped setpiece with ugly CGI. And there are moments that can't commit to being as good as they might, like the whole layover at Maz Kanata's: it's the only place in the movie that feels like it genuinely expands the size of the Star Wars universe, but it also has the definite tang of a "we needed to do this to get the plot momentum back on its feet" reboot, and despite Nyong'o's excellent vocal performance, Maz is a sort of terrible distraction, one of the few obvious CGI effects in a movie that mostly great job of mixing practical creatures and digitial spaceships. There are too many places where Abrams the director seems to fall down completely: I get that people life the Rey/Kylo lightsaber fight, but I am at a loss to explain why: the editing and flat camerawork make it, to me, the second-worst lightsaber fight in the franchise, behind only the absurdly dreadful duel in the opening act of Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (but then, I don't know what to make of this recent madness that seems to have taken hold, that the climactic fight in The Phantom Menace is crappy because it's over-choreographed or narratively unnecessary, or whathaveyou. Boo hoo, it's still fucking cool). And the last shot is powerfully terrible, a messy spinning helicopter shot that looks gaudy as hell and feels all wrong for the traditional iris wipe to the end credits.

There are points at which the storytelling is just dumb: it's baffling why the fight between Finn and the random stormtrooper with the electromagnetic thingy couldn't have been between Finn and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), immediately giving it more intersonal heft, and also scrounging up at least one active, plot-moving thing for Phasma to actually do. On a similar "why would you not do the ludicrously obvious thing staring you in the face?" note, I am mystified why we got to see Kylo Ren's face before the showdown between him and his father - as no-brainers for intensifying the emotional stakes of a moment go, they really don't get much more brainless than that. And the film can't juggle all of its villains: General Hux (played by Domnhall Gleeson with lip-smacking hamminess) feels thoroughly vestigial, getting in the way of a potentially interesting tension between Kylo and the imposing hologram of neo-emperor Snoke (Andy Serkis, drenched in computer animation that is astonishingly shameful for a big-budget movie in 2015 - he looks like Voldemort in the earliest Harry Potter films, a series noted for the wobbliness of its effects work).

Despite all that, the film is slick and fun, and in Rey and BB-8, it has two instantly-classic additions to the Star Wars legendarium (I'm adopting a wait-and-see approach to Finn and Kylo; meanwhile, Oscar Isaac is phenomenal as Poe Dameron, and I look forward to seeing a movie where he has more than a glorified cameo). Ultimately, more parts of the film work than not - it doesn't set a single foot wrong till the arbitrary arrival of Han and Chewie, and there's never a protracted sequence of bad scenes that comes even remotely close to counterbalancing the momentum and energy and good spirits of its first act - and Abrams's copycat instincts result in a film with more than its share of splendid popcorn movie imagery. It's primarily interested in being agreeably trivial, and if it didn't have the words "Star Wars" in its title, I can't imagine having more than the fuzziest memories of it a year from now. But "agreeably trivial" is miles better than the three prequels could scrounge up between them (being neither agreeable nor trivial, weirdly enough), and its sins aren't really any worse than the worst of Return of the Jedi. What we've got here is a film that managed, on the first try, to turn the engine over in a car that has been collecting dust for 32 years. Now, they didn't drive it anywhere, so we can't tell if it was worth the effort. But the very worst you can say is that Rian Johnson & company have a firm foundation upon which to build something legitimately special next time around.

Reviews in this series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983)
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (Lucas, 1999)
Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (Lucas, 2002)
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (Lucas, 2005)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Abrams, 2019)