There’s no one in entertainment under more pressure than J.J. Abrams. The director recently told CBS’s 60 Minutes that he’s experienced moments of “abject terror” while at the helm of Star Wars: The Force Awakens—the first Star Wars movie in a decade and the one that fans hope will right the wrongs of the universally loathed prequels.
Twitter reactions from celebrities and industry insiders at the Los Angeles premiere on Dec. 14 were extremely positive, but those are sometimes hard to trust. The real moment of truth came early this morning (Dec. 16), when Disney lifted the embargo on critic reviews for the film. As of this publishing, the film sits at 98% on reviews aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, with 118 positive reviews to just three negative ones.
In other words, it’s an absolute triumph.
Abrams’s biggest challenge was to honor the legacy of the original films—and understand what made them so beloved—while also forging a path of his own. Based on the reviews, he did just that.
New York Times critic Manohla Dargis cited the new characters as one of the best parts of the film (paywall):
Despite the prerelease hype, it won’t save the world, not even Hollywood, but it seamlessly balances cozy favorites—Harrison Ford, ladies and gentlemen—and new kinetic wows along with some of the niceties that went missing as the series grew into a phenomenon, most crucially a scale and a sensibility that is rooted in the human. It has the usual toy-store-ready gizmos and critters, but it also has appealingly imperfect men and women whose blunders and victories, decency and goofiness remind you that a pop mythology like “Star Wars” needs more than old gods to sustain it.
Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy said it feels almost like a Steven Spielberg film—a comparison that Abrams’s flicks often receive:
Star Wars: The Force Awakens pumps new energy and life into a hallowed franchise in a way that both resurrects old pleasures and points in promising new directions. But whereas the fundamental touchstones of George Lucas’ original creation remain, in director J.J. Abrams’ hands there is a shift in tone that brings the material closer to the feel of a Steven Spielberg film.
Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson said the film actually improves on the originals, in some respects:
Director J.J. Abrams and his screenwriters have returned us to the shaggy, tactile spirit of the beloved original trilogy, eschewing overabundant digital effects and boring policy debate for a visceral sense of adventure and wonder. In righting a listing starship, Abrams has done something masterful—he pays graceful homage to what has come before (the good stuff, anyway), while expanding the Star Wars mythology in bold and organic ways.
Will Leitch of the New Republic said it ”is precisely the Star Wars movie that you want it to be.”
The film re-creates the world of Star Wars without reinventing it or veering too far into a nostalgia lane; it remembers that this is the start of its own series, and we’re going to need to care about Finn and Daisy and the gang as much as we care about our old friends. It’s a near-perfect bit of alchemy: To create, and re-create, at once. It scratches the itch you’ve been waiting 30 years to scratch and make sure to get you on the hook for more.
None of this is to say the movie has thus far been without criticism. Some critics who liked the film also said it paid a little too much attention to fan service, at the expense of originality. AV Club’s A.A. Dowd, for instance, said the film’s nostalgia factor is sometimes a hindrance (though Dowd’s review was still mostly positive).
What Abrams has done is strip Star Wars down to its core components, rearranging the stuff people liked about the original trilogy and getting rid of what they hated about the rest. (Don’t hold your breath for a Jar Jar cameo, in other words.) But the prequels, misguided as they often were, dared to be different, to be their own movies. The Force Awakens never reaches the heights of escapism Lucas once did, mostly because its pleasures are echoes; by the time our posse walks into a saloon that’s just the cantina in a nicer neighborhood, the déjà vu factor begins to feel as much like a drawback as a benefit.
The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr offered a similar critique:
But perhaps the strongest critique one could make of The Force Awakens—in the sense that it is completely accurate—is that it’s ensnared in its own nostalgia. The original Star Wars was in almost every way an original, a movie that forever changed filmmaking for both good and ill. And while The Force Awakens is giddy and good-natured enough to provide fun for fans and non-fans alike, much of the enjoyment it provides is by design derivative, a refraction of past pleasures.
One of the three negative reviews currently on Rotten Tomatoes is by Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir, who said Abrams’s film is essentially a copy of George Lucas’s original formula:
This is the work of a talented mimic or ventriloquist who can just about cover for the fact that he has nothing much to say. He has made an adoring copy of “Star Wars,” seeking to correct its perceived flaws, without understanding that nothing about that movie’s context or meaning or enormous cultural impact can be duplicated.
Reviews will continue to trickle in throughout the week (the movie premieres Dec. 18 in the US), but, at this point, The Force Awakens is a resounding critical success. The next feat to conquer: box office. The film has already sold $100 million in advanced tickets and has a chance to beat Jurassic World‘s record opening weekend of $208 million. The Force Awakens is ultimately expected to reel in around $2 billion worldwide.