Handed the con on one of the most valuable movie franchises in history, director J.J. Abrams has the sense not to reinvent the wheel. Unlike the spectacularly disappointing “Star Wars” prequels which were directed by franchise creator George Lucas himself, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” gives the fans what they wanted in the first place: more of the same. Lucas’ prequels took themselves so damn seriously they might as well have been a Roma Downey Sunday School miniseries. Despite a certain feeling of assembly line production, Abrams’ movie is much lighter on its feet, and more energetic to boot.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (do we really have to call it “Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens?”) gets back to basics and picks up where the first, wildly popular trilogy of movies left off. Okay, it picks thirty years after the first trilogy left off, but that’s alright, even advisable, if you want the Big Three – Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) – in the story. It’s been a few decades, you know. Audiences don’t really like prequels. They’re usually comprised of stuff that should have just been flashbacks. Look at “The Godfather Part II,” probably the best movie sequel ever made. We have lots of Don Corleone prequel stuff, but it’s based on unused material from the novel and presented as extended flashbacks interspersed with the further adventures of the Corleone boys. That’s what we really wanted with “Star Wars.” Sure, tell us a little more (the key word being “little”) about how Anakin Skywalker got to be Darth Vader if you must, but let’s move forward with the story. This trilogy of trilogies thing is headache-inducing and we already knew that the evil Empire deposed the nice Republic with help from bad Sith people using the Dark Side of the Force. Did we really need three movies to explain it?
Forward the new movie goes, but the nostalgia hits you like a tidal wave. As soon as the familiar John Williams score booms into the theater and the familiar “Star Wars” logo hits the screen, it could be 1977 all over again.
It is in 3D, after all, and the obligatory movie serial crawl tells us that it’s thirty years later, and that Luke Skywalker is missing. Missing – in the face of the ascension of the dreaded First Order, a second coming of the Evil Empire. This iteration of the Empire feels even more fascist than its predecessor, right down to the bright red Nuremberg Rally banners, which is a little ironic, given the controversy back in ‘77 over resemblances between the first movie’s last scene to Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.” It isn’t really clear why finding Luke is so crucial to both the First Order and the resistance (since the new Republic seems to be at least nominally still in power, it’s also not quite clear who the resistance is resisting) but crucial it is. And since Luke is now the Macguffin – perhaps Lost Ark would be a better metaphor – we know from the outset that we shouldn’t expect him to be in it too much. Happily, a graying Han Solo is in it quite a bit, and Harrison Ford has lost none of his trademark sense of irony about the proceedings. Still, his scenes with Carrie Fisher, briefly reprising Princess/General Leia Organa, seem more tinged with bittersweet wistfulness than they did back in “The Empire Strikes Back.” C-3PO and R2D2 do appear, even more briefly, and their inclusion feels motivated more by obligation than desire.
Han and Chewie into the story involves one of several Death Star-sized coincidences that the audience is expected to swallow whole. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan (“Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back,” “Star Wars: Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) and Michael Arndt (“Toy Story 3,” “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”) keep the action moving at a sufficiently furious pace that audiences probably won’t stop to think about the numerous plot holes, coincidences and continuity issues that dog the movie – at least until aprés-movie post-mortems over pizza or moo shu pork. Who the point of view character is going to be is also an issue. Initially, it looks like it’s going to be Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, played with disarming charm by the rapidly up and coming Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis,” “A Most Violent Year,” “Ex Machina”). That quickly shifts to Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper who finds following the murderous orders he’s given offends his conscience. Again the movie moves its focus to lone wolf desert scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley). This sort of juggling act needn’t be fatal to a movie, and it isn’t fatal here, though it’s hardly handled as smoothly or as seamlessly as “Marvel’s The Avengers.”
The newcomers are likeable though, handling with apparent ease the sort comic relief dialogue so identified with the original movies and so tragically sparse in the hated prequels. Come on – someone has to say “I have a bad feeling about this.” The riffs may get a little too reverential, but this is, after all, a fan-made movie. Abrams, like much of his audience, grew up on “Star Wars.” We might also reasonably have expected Oscar Isaac to be on screen more, but now that Disney has acquired the Lucasfilm cash cow, along with Marvel, more movies are to be expected. Adam Driver, more typically found on the indie circuit, is ostensibly cast against type as Kylo Ren, the movie’s Darth Vader stand-in, who, being younger and less mature than Vader, is occasionally prone to temper tantrums. Domhnall Gleeson is appropriate Hitler Youth-ish as a new wave general. Try as you might, you will not recognize Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o or Simon Pegg in their motion capture, CGI alien roles. The indomitable Max von Sydow is only around for a scene, but can still muster more gravitas with a single sentence than anyone this side of James Earl Jones.
Abrams handles the action, which is after all where the movie lives and breathes, with verve, eschewing the over-reliance on CGI which had Lucas even doing ground explosions in the computer instead of on the set. Abrams and cinematographer Dan Mindel, who also lensed his “Star Trek” reboots, have actually shot this exceptionally handsome movie on film, using a mix of 35 mm and 65 mm, which might be taken as a rebuke to the all-digital prequels. This might be the beginning of a welcome retro backlash – Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming “The Hateful Eight” was shot entirely on 65 mm film. The movie was post-converted to 3D, but the 3D presentation is high quality and adds some welcome, 21st century pizazz to the outer space action. It should be noted that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” also boasts the best light saber fight ever, shot in a snowy forest at night.
At one point Han Solo muses that “It’s true — the Force, the Jedi, all of it. It’s all true.” It isn’t, of course, but for 2 hours and 15 minutes, you will be a believer again.