I reviewed The Force Awakens for First Things:
"Every time the new Star Wars film tried to be bigger than the last one (with “the last one” here meaning both previous Star Wars trilogies) it disappointed. A Death Star, after all, is a Death Star, even if you engorge its size and call it a Starkiller Base. We’ve seen that space battle already. What worked in the film, what impressed me and excited me, were the moments when it went small.
The heroes of the movie were instantly charming, thanks to some canny writing and the overwhelming appeal of their young actors. There’s conscientious deserter stromtrooper Finn (John Boyega), orphan scavenger and Force prodigy Rey (Daisy Ridley), loyal pilot Poe Damaron (Oscar Isaac), and even the spherical droid BB-8. In each small moment of their interaction, this movie is not afraid to make these characters unabashed good guys: warm, compassionate, and (when duty or destiny calls) heroic in the face of their fears. They easily slip into joyful friendships with each other and with returning scoundrel Han Solo. As DarwinCatholic pointed out, this is “willing-the-good-for-the-other friendship, pursuit-of-the-good friendship,” the kind to make a virtue ethicist’s heart sing. Poe gives Finn his name when Finn deserts the side of evil with only a number to go by. Finn celebrates Rey’s astonishing feats of piloting, and she his crack marksmanship. BB-8 uses one of its robotic attachments to mimic Finn’s thumbs-up. Han offers Rey a home and hope on the Millenium Falcon. It’s refreshing that the filmmakers chose not to reheat Han Solo and Princess Leia’s bickering chemistry for their new lead young leads: after every other franchise has tried to ape this dynamic, Star Wars gets to feel fresh simply by having its leads become genuine friends.
Perhaps more surprising to me, though, was the sense of emptiness in the villains of the film. Where Darth Vader was cool, this movie’s dark-robed antagonist Kylo Ren is falling to pieces, choking his subordinates not as a calm display of dominance but as part of a temper tantrum. In the villain camp, the metatextual question (how do we make another Star Wars movie that lives up to the originals?) becomes a textual concern with their dark legacy. The fascist-cosplaying General Hux spews a lot of hot air as he tries to fill the jackboots of Grand Moff Tarkin. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren perceives in himself the spark of compassion that animates the film’s heroes. Instead of embracing this goodness, he tries to stamp it out, to grow in merciless power like his idol Darth Vader—but this leaves him broken, and the audience hoping for his eventual redemption. The good guys, wouldn’t you know it, are cooler and happier than the bad guys."
Read the whole piece at First Things.