(EDITOR’S NOTE: While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, those seeking an untainted viewing experience are advised to avoid reviews, this one included, until after they’ve seen the movie.)
If the first “Star Wars” (1977) hadn’t already been rebranded “A New Hope,” that optimistic title might have applied just as well to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” by any measure a rousing, even restorative seventh chapter in the immortal space-opera saga established and now relinquished by George Lucas. Reinvigorating the franchise with a welcome surge of energy, warmth and excitement after the misbegotten cycle of prequels released between 1999 and 2005, incoming writer-director J.J. Abrams seems to have had the original three films firmly in mind when he embarked on this monumental new undertaking, structured as a series of clever if sometimes wobbly callbacks to a trilogy that captivated a global audience and helped cement Hollywood’s blockbuster paradigm. Still, the reassuring familiarity of Abrams’ approach has its limitations: Marvelous as it is to catch up with Han Solo, Leia and the rest of the gang, fan service takes priority here over a somewhat thin, derivative story that, despite the presence of two appealing new stars, doesn’t exactly fire the imagination anew.
Still, the film’s tilt toward nostalgia over novelty will hardly prove a commercial liability; indeed, nothing short of a global cataclysm (and even then, who knows) is likely to keep Disney’s hugely anticipated Dec. 18 release from becoming the year’s top-grossing movie and possibly the most successful movie of all time, at least until the forthcoming episodes directed by Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow arrive. And if Abrams and his co-writers Lawrence Kasdan (back for more after “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”) and Michael Arndt have shouldered a near-impossible burden of audience expectations here, it’s hard not to look favorably upon “The Force Awakens” simply for being a massive improvement on “The Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones” and all but a handful of moments in “Revenge of the Sith” — taken together, a stultifying experiment in brand extension gone awry, in which Lucas’ much-vaunted technical wizardry and visual imagination proved no match for the unholy torpor of his storytelling.
By contrast, “The Force Awakens” feels disarmingly swift and light on its feet, possessed of a comic sensibility that embraces contemporary wisecrackery and earnest humor in equal measure. Shot on 35mm film (plus some 65mm Imax footage), in a decisive refutation of Lucas’ all-digital aesthetic, Abrams’ movie has grit under its nails and blood in its veins, as we see in an early battle sequence in which an Imperial Stormtrooper’s white helmet is suddenly streaked with red. A conflicted young warrior-slave who goes by the name of Finn (John Boyega), this Stormtrooper has been brainwashed into serving the First Order — a new army of galactic terrorists that arose from the ashes of the evil Empire, about three decades after the Battle of Endor. Doing battle with the First Order are the good men and women behind a rebel movement called the Resistance.
If all this sounds familiar, the similarities only continue from there. An ace Resistance pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, solid in a minor role) is captured by the First Order, but not before concealing a top-secret map inside a small droid, which he sends away to a desert planet. This time, the droid is not R2-D2 but an orange-colored, spherical-bodied model called BB-8; the desert planet is not Tatooine but Jakku; the human who adopts the droid is a tough young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley); and the coveted information concerns the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, the last of the Jedi knights, who has mysteriously gone missing. Escaping the First Order with Poe’s help, the desperate but good-hearted Finn crash-lands on Jakku, where he ultimately partners with Rey — who makes it quite clear that she’s in no need of rescuing, thank you very much — to ensure that BB-8’s intel makes it back to the Resistance.
Staying barely one step ahead of the enemy TIE fighters on their tail, Rey and Finn manage to commandeer the dust-choked but ever-durable Millennium Falcon, leading to a wild loop-de-loop chase scene in which Rey turns out to be an exceptionally gifted pilot. Of course, where the Falcon is, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) cannot be too far behind, and after turning up to reclaim his old spaceship (“Chewie, we’re home”), he reluctantly joins forces with Rey, whose presence has begun setting off curious rumblings within the Force. For their part, Rey and Finn can’t believe they’re seeing Han Solo in the flesh, and it’s hard not to discern in the young actors’ expressions a completely unfeigned delight at sharing the screen with Ford in one of his most iconic roles.
“It’s true — the Force, the Jedi, all of it. It’s all true,” Han murmurs at one point, and he seems to be addressing not just his new friends but also the audience, and with the sort of soulful conviction capable of converting even the most jaded “Star Wars” skeptics into true believers once again. It’s that desire to transport the viewer — to return us to a wondrous, childlike state of moviegoing innocence — that effectively sets the pattern for almost every subsequent development in “The Force Awakens.” Much of this is fairly intuitive: It simply wouldn’t be vintage “Star Wars” if someone didn’t mutter “I have a bad feeling about this,” or if audiences didn’t get an update on their favorite gold-plated worrywart C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), his squat sidekick R2-D2, and that fish-faced fan favorite Admiral Ackbar (Tim Rose). But the film’s most indelibly moving scenes are reserved for Han and his estranged love, Leia (Carrie Fisher), no longer a princess but a Resistance general. Their banter is raspier and gentler than it was 30 years ago, less barbed and more bittersweet, and viewers can expect their hearts to swell to Mandallian proportions whenever the actors are on screen.
Abrams’ filmmaking has enough dynamism and sweep to zip us along for much of the fast-paced 135-minute running time, and for impressive stretches he achieves the action-packed buoyancy of the old Saturday morning serials that partly inspired “Star Wars” in the first place. At once polished and pleasingly rough-hewn, Dan Mindel’s lensing alternates between stately landscape compositions and nimble camera movements as the situation requires, while editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey prove as attentive to the coherence of the action sequences as to the rhythm of the overall narrative, while making adroit use of the signature side-swiping scene transitions. And even in a sequence heavy with CGI and/or creature effects — as when Finn and Rey are attacked by fearsome creatures with sharp teeth and tentacles — the visuals never lapse into overkill. The unobtrusive sophistication of the visual effects (supervised by Roger Guyett) is especially apparent in scenes featuring the uber-villainous Supreme Leader Snoke (motion-capture maven Andy Serkis, resembling a plus-sized, more articulate Gollum), in which it’s not even readily apparent that we’re watching a hologram.
Gone, happily, are the prequels’ ADD-inducing background shots of spaceships zipping across a sterile cityscape like goldfish trapped in a giant screen saver. The different worlds we see here, from the parched desert vistas of Jakku to the verdant forests of the planet Yavin, feel vividly textured and inhabited (Rick Carter and Darren Gilford are credited with the production design). But the most crucial component of the movie’s design is undoubtedly John Williams’ still-enveloping score, from that thrilling, trumpet-like first blast over the opening text scroll, to the majestic flurries of feeling the music generates as it accompanies the characters on their long and difficult journeys.
At a certain point, however, “The Force Awakens” feels so determined to fashion a contemporary echo of the original trilogy that it becomes almost too reverential — or riff-erential, given Abrams’ fondness for playing on recognizable tropes, themes and plot points in his film and TV work. The Death Star that was destroyed at the end of “Star Wars” is one-upped here by a much larger, even more destructive weaponized planet (we even get to see the contrasting blueprints in detail). The Mos Eisley cantina meets its match in a watering hole run by a wizened old proprietress, Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o, in motion-capture drag), who has some crucial wisdom about the Force to pass on to Rey. And in the story’s least persuasive development, the famous Oedipal dynamic that defined Luke and Darth Vader’s bond re-emerges unexpectedly here in even more toxic form — a twist that simply feels too contrived to achieve the desired impact.
All in all, the script leans rather heavily on exposition to fill in the 30-year gap between the events of this film and those of “Return of the Jedi”; one longs to get up to speed, but in subtler, less long-winded terms. The movie’s multiple dark-side-of-the-Force types are also something of a mixed bag. Serkis is fine but not galvanizing as Snoke; Domhnall Gleeson has a few impressive snit fits as a petulant First Order general, with one public speech that’s shot to look very “Triumph of the Will”; and Gwendoline Christie is seen only in full armor as Finn’s ex-superior, Capt. Phasma, whose narrative function never really comes into focus. That leaves Adam Driver, cast very effectively against type as the silver-masked, dark-cloaked Kylo Ren, though it would be as unfair to say more about his role as it would be to disclose any particulars about when and where Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker turns up.
For that matter, even by film’s end there remains a frustrating if intentional degree of mystery surrounding Finn and Rey, the two characters charged with carrying the series forward, and whose backstories presumably will be fleshed out more satisfyingly in subsequent films. Viewers inclined to pay attention to such things will have a field day analyzing the casting of a white female and a black male as co-leads in the year’s biggest blockbuster — an audacious and frankly long-overdue corrective to the status quo, quite apart from the fact that both actors are excellent. Boyega, so good in “Attack the Block,” brings sly wit to the role of a soldier grappling with a vaguely Jason Bourne-style crisis of conscience. And Ridley, in a doozy of a breakout role, is terrific as a young woman not yet sure what to make of the powerfully beckoning Force, or of the glorious and terrifying destiny that might await her. She may not yet have the heroic stature of a Katniss Everdeen, but future movies will surely tell.
In the end, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” suggests the work of a filmmaker who faced the exciting yet unenviable task of partially reassembling one of the most beloved ensembles in movie history, furthering their characters’ adventures in a meaningful fashion, and helping them pass the baton from one generation of action figures to the next — and emerged with a compromise solution that, even when it’s not firing on all cylinders, has been put across with sufficient style, momentum, love and care to prove irresistible to any who have ever considered themselves fans. Risking heresy, it’s worth noting that Abrams actually did smarter, more inventive work on his 2009 reboot of “Star Trek,” no doubt in part because he was working with a less heavily guarded enterprise. “Star Wars,” at once a cultural juggernaut and a sacrosanct institution, resists any attempt to reimagine its landscape too aggressively or imaginatively; that may be to the detriment of this diverting first effort, but Abrams has more than stoked our anticipation for what his successors may have up their sleeves.