Even the most ardent “Star Wars” fans will admit that George Lucas’ creation reached its peak in 1977-1980, with the original movie and “The Empire Strikes Back,” beginning a downward slide with “Return of the Jedi” that accelerated precipitously with the “prequel trilogy” of 1999-2005. The question raised by “The Force Awakens” is whether J.J. Abrams, who successfully revived a “Star Trek” franchise that had become moribund, has done the same with “Star Wars.” Those who haven’t defected over the last thirty-five years certainly hope so; so does Disney, which is investing a small fortune in the future of the long-ago galaxy far, far away.
So how does the Abrams “Star Wars” fare? Well, one can say that it’s the best movie in the series since “Jedi,” if not “Empire” (the choice depending on how much tolerance you have for Ewoks). Of course, that’s setting the bar very low: it simply means that it’s an improvement over “The Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith,” not to mention “The Clone Wars.” The real issue is how it stacks up against the first trilogy, and the answer is a mite complicated, because it’s basically a homage to those three pictures that in many respects repeats their fundamental beats in slightly skewered ways—and in much the same style, without the excessive use of CGI that weighed down the second series with such endless clutter. The result is an enjoyable throwback that is largely content to replicate its models rather than taking the narrative in any significantly new direction.
There is one major change: here the Luke Skywalker character is a young woman named Rey (Daisy Ridley), eking out a subsistence life by scavenging and selling the stuff she digs out of the Tatooine-like desert of the planet Jakku to the local junkyard. She’s trying to hold out while awaiting the return of her family, but her already difficult life is made even more problematic when she finds a cute-as-a-button droid called BB-8. It turns out that the droid contains information critical to fate of the restored Republic and the Resistance fighters who are battling a fascistic Empire-like rebellion known as The First Order, which seeks to restore brutally authoritarian Dark Side rule. The data were placed in the droid by ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who escaped from the Order and its chief enforcer, a younger version of Darth Vader called Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), with the help of a renegade Storm Trooper who adopts the name Finn (John Boyega). Through a series of action-packed circumstances Finn teams up with Rey and BB-8 to get the critical information to the Resistance headquarters and help defeat the Order’s latest offensive, which naturally involves a massively destructive planet-destroying weapon.
Though it wouldn’t be fair to say how, various characters from the early films are integrated into this recycled storyline—most notably Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Luke (Mark Hamill), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker)—some in major roles and others in what amount to cameos. And there are new figures, too—the Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who obviously craves imperial status; his nasty chief general, Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), a successor to Peter Cushing’s luckless Moff Tarkin; and Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), a wise old outlaw with a Yoda-esque vibe, among them. But it’s the frequency with which familiar faces keep reappearing that makes “The Force Awakens” even more a case of old home week than it would otherwise seem.
The sense of looking back extends to the appearance of the film as well. Eschewing the emphasis on computer-generated visuals that gave the second trilogy such a frantically unrealistic look, Abrams has opted for older techniques of the sort the young Lucas used to give the movie a tactile vividness, in terms of both locations and characters. That doesn’t mean, of course, that CGI is totally absent, but it’s used sparingly, at least by comparison to such recent disastrous space operas like “Jupiter Ascending,” so as to lend the picture—despite being set in another galaxy—a sense of humanity often lacking in big-budget action flicks nowadays. (And, of course, when the visual effects do take center stage, they’re of cutting-edge quality.) Abrams adds to the retro feel by utilizing the old-fashioned transitional swipes that Lucas employed to give his narrative the tone of a 1940s serial. In all the production team—designers Rick Carter and Darren Gilford, the art direction team headed by Neil Lamont, set decorator Lee Sandales and costume designer Michael Kaplan—have done a predictably outstanding job; so too has cinematographer Dan Mindel, who provides crisp widescreen images, and editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Joe Markey, who keep things moving along at an exciting clip. John Williams, meanwhile, returns to bathe the visuals in the same sort of rousing full-orchestra score, complete with his now-evergreen themes, that revivified classical film composition in the 1970s.
As to the cast, it’s Ford who comes off most strikingly among the oldsters, not only because he gets the most screen time but because Abrams, abetted by old “Star Wars” hand Lawrence Kasdan and newcomer Michael Arndt, have peppered the script with the sort of amusingly juvenile banter at which Solo always excelled, and Ford can still pull it off with a snide smile while also managing the character’s more serious moments—of which there are quite a few here. Fisher, Hamill and Mayhew all hit their marks, and fans will rejoice at seeing R2D2 and C-3PO still bickering.
Of the newcomers, it’s bouncy BB-8 that will undoubtedly strike the biggest merchandising stampede—not an inconsiderable matter in undertakings like this. But among the humans, Ridley makes the strongest impression. In this post-“Hunger Games” environment, Rey might come across as an obligatory recognition that females should be more than the traditional damsels in distress that Leia was (at least for the most part), but the actress embodies the actively heroic mode well. Boyega and Isaac are fine as the remaining members of the new triangle Abrams has set up as a reflection of the old Luke-Leia-Han relationship, but it remains to be seen whether the trio can develop a similarly easy interaction in future episodes. It’s equally uncertain whether Driver’s villain will ever duplicate the iconic evil of Darth Vader, whom Kylo Ren obviously idolizes.
And that sort of question applies to the entire project that Abrams and his team have undertaken. It’s impossible that “The Force Awakens” can recapture the singular magic that the original “Star Wars” did in the late seventies. It represented the first burst of a sort of old-fashioned escapism that American audiences were hungering for in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate environment, at a time when Hollywood filmmaking had only begun its move away from darker, more serious subjects, and in doing so became a cultural phenomenon. It was an exercise in pure nostalgia of course, but at the time it was pretty much alone in that regard. Abrams’ film isn’t; it’s part of the glut of big, fantasy-based action movies that Lucas’ pioneering effort was instrumental in starting, and while it’s a rather endearing entry in that morass of cinematic spectacle and bombast, it doesn’t possess the unique pull the 1977 film had for audiences of the time (though in the present climate, audiences might be equally avid for simple, feel-good escapism).
Nor does it take the “Star Wars” canon in new directions. What Abrams offers in “The Force Awakens” is essentially a clone of the original trilogy—an inventively engineered and highly entertaining one, to be sure, but basically a retread in much the same way Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” was of Richard Donner’s “Superman”—that effectively sets the stage for the myriad further adventures Disney obviously has in the planning stages. Abrams has managed a return to form, proving that you can go home again, but future installments will require some new twists to the old moves to maintain the explosion of interest that will undoubtedly greet this much-ballyhooed—and exhilarating, if highly derivative—sequel.