Previously, on Star Wars: At the end of Return of the Jedi, the Rebel Alliance blew up a second Death Star and took down the evil Empire for good, Darth Vader found redemption and Luke, Han Solo, Princess Leia and Chewbacca partied hearty. Even the fatalistic C-3PO managed to relax a little bit.
30 years later, as The Force Awakens opens, it’s business as usual. The First Order has picked up where the Empire left off, threatening the galaxy with an even bigger, better version of a Death Star. The Resistance has sprung up to fight against the new oppressors, its soldiers wielding the same white-and-orange jumpsuits and battered X-wing fighters as their predecessors.
There are new characters: Rey (Daisy Ridley), a resourceful young woman living on the desert planet Tatooine – er, I mean Jakku; Finn (John Boyega), a guilt-stricken stormtrooper who has decided he’s not cut out for villainy; Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a tall heavy-breather fond of dark helmets armed with a heaping helping of the Force and a mean lightsaber; and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a roguish hot-shot who fights for the good guys and has a way of extricating himself out of the most impossible predicaments.
As for Luke, Han, Leia and the rest of the original crew? They’re all here, although part of the fun in The Force Awakens is discovering what they’ve been up to and how they factor into the new story. Producer Kathleen Kennedy, who took over the reins of Lucasfilm after George Lucas sold his baby to the Walt Disney Co., has done a formidable job of keeping the movie’s plot details under wraps – a feat that, in this era of Twitter-fueled instant reviews and Internet click-bait spoilers, implies the Force may be strong with her, too. Here, finally, is the Star Wars picture we’ve been looking for since 1985, not a trio of prequels that laid out a story where the ending was foretold. The Star Wars brand carries a built-in nostalgia and power that’s unrivaled in popular culture. You only need to see that familiar logo splashed across the screen, accompanied by the initial blast of John Williams’ symphonic score, and you’re in. Throw in the promise of “Here’s what happened next …” and if you can resist that, you’re a stronger person than I.
For the first hour or so of The Force Awakens, director J. J. Abrams gives you everything you hoped for, and even exceeds your expectations. The spherical BB-8, the new droid that became a best-selling toy before the movie was even completed, lives up to the hype: He’s a miraculous creation, a machine that expresses feelings and emotions and humor through beeps and boops and tilts of its magical floating head. And Abrams knows exactly how to use him as a character instead of a special effect. Keep your eye on BB-8 the second (or fifth, or sixth) time you watch The Force Awakens, and you’ll see how even when he’s just hanging out on the edge of the frame, Abrams is always giving the cute droid some bit of business to do.
That’s what one of the things Abrams is best at: Characterization. Although every shot in The Force Awakens includes some kind of special effect (some computer-generated, many done the old-school way, with physical models and makeup), what makes the movie sing are the people. Like Lucas did with the 1977 original, the film throws you right into the story with little set-up, forcing you to fill in the details as the action thunders along.
Ridley, a little-known British actress whose career is about to blow up in a major way, is so good as the resourceful innocent leading a hardscrabble life on a desert planet that she anchors this mammoth movie with a grace and beauty that feels new to the series. Rey is already a hero when he first meet her – the extent of her set of skills provides the movie with one of its first big, crowd-pleasing surprises – but The Force Awakens is only the start of her journey. True greatness has not yet been thrust upon her, but to call her a next-gen Luke Skywalker is reductive. Abrams obviously wanted to dispel the vague sexist aura that has always dogged the Star Wars movies, and the film shows how easy a thing that is to do. He simply treats Rey the way he treats everyone else.
Boyega, previously best-known as one of the delinquents defending his South London neighborhood from an alien invasion in Attack the Block, has grown up a lot since that film. He plays Finn’s moral ambiguity and insecurity in clean, broad strokes that make room for emotional depth and resonance (Finn is also, like Rey, a natural-born hero, although he doesn’t know it yet). Ridley and Boyega make such a good team, the entire movie could have been about them and no one would have minded.
In fact, The Force Awakens loses considerable steam once Han and Chewie (sorry, I love these movies) enter the fray. That’s the point when you start to feel Abrams’ obligation to pay service to the hardcore fans and tie up loose ends. The resulting plot twists and surprises – and they are considerable – all feel, with one critical exception, like intrusive padding, unnecessary additions to a story that is ready to take off in a new direction but is still anchored to the past. And even Abrams, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, can’t figure out what to do with Leia (no longer a princess, now a General) other than to strand her on the sidelines, nervously wringing her hands.
The Force Awakens gets the pacing just right – furious, but never exhausting – and there is great beauty in its details. The Millennium Falcon gets an entrance worthy of its status as the most iconic spaceship in movie history (sorry, U.S.S. Enterprise); Maz Kanata, the computer-generated character played by Lupita Nyong’o, achieves what Lucas tried to do with Jar Jar Binks, smoothly inserting a completely artificial creation into a world of (mostly) flesh-and-blood beings; and for the first time we get to ride inside a TIE Fighter that’s been hijacked by the heroes, so we experience a dogfight from the other guys’ perspective.
There are also, of course, plenty of call-outs to previous chapters in the original trilogy. What’s missing in The Force Awakens – and this is a major, critical flaw – is a fresh story template, a plot that doesn’t build toward a climax you’ve already seen, played out in practically the exact same way. That’s the kind of failing that a lot of fans will overlook while they bask in the undeniable bliss-out the movie delivers. But in hindsight, as you play the film back in your mind, the lack of freshness becomes more problematic. For all its secrecy, The Force Awakens turns out to be shockingly predictable, even for those who don’t know Darth Plageuis from a Wookie. The thrills this time come from the familiar, not the new. Here’s hoping the tremendous final shot, which is loaded with potential, leads to an Episode VIII that’s about more than reliving the good old days.
Cast: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie.
Director: J. J. Abrams.
Screenwriters: Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams, Michael Arndt.
A Walt Disney Studios release. Running time: 135 minutes. Violence. Playing at area theaters.