The first few minutes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens unspool like a matching game with the 1977 original: Here’s a crucial piece of information smuggled into a droid, this time an orb named BB-8 instead of the barrel-like R2-D2 – and by a hotshot Rebel pilot instead of a princess. Enter the black-clad bad guy, Kylo Ren, filling Darth Vader’s jackboots with a low voice and a show of mystical power known as the Force.
Yet for all its familiarities, this reboot and retooling of the popular franchise has an exciting zing. It’s a wonderfully rollicking adventure populated with beloved, familiar characters and intriguing new ones, all with earnest performances and striking chemistry. The Force is with director J.J. Abrams and colleagues, indeed.
Handed the reins of this popular franchise, Abrams had a daunting task: Launch a new saga after the disappointing prequels while keeping elements that enthralled fans of the original trilogy. Borrowing from Star Wars: A New Hope – as well as The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi – might be seen as more imitation than homage for viewers who, say, look to James Bond movies for realistic solutions to global problems. But Abrams, who oversaw the disparate families of the new Star Trek universe, Super 8, TV’s Fringe, Lost and even Felicity, has nodded at Star Wars so much in his career that nothing in The Force Awakens feels derivative. At every step of the journey, there’s so much love evident for this material that we know we’re in safe hands.
To avoid spoilers, I’ll confine the setup to what we’ve seen in the trailers and the opening crawl: Roughly 30 years after the events of Jedi, the Rebels and the fascist Empire – now called the First Order – are still at it, and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is missing. His sister (Carrie Fisher), the scrappy princess who inspired legions of little girls, is now called General Leia Organa and seeks clues to Luke’s whereabouts while leading the Rebel forces. She sends pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to the desert planet Jakku (looking even more desolate than Tatooine) for a valuable clue.
There, we meet Finn (John Boyega), a storm trooper who abandons the white armor, and Rey (Daisy Ridley), an orphan who rappels inside the remnants of Star Destroyers and other ships, scavenging parts for survival. Both Brits in their twenties (although Boyega sports an American accent) and relative newcomers – Boyega was in the sci-fi comedy Attack the Block; Ridley in a few small TV roles – they form a fast but sincere friendship that drives the heart of the story. Each radiates depth, vulnerability, passion and toughness that at times they’re surprised they possess.
More of the heart, and wit, comes from Harrison Ford as good-guy outlaw Han Solo. Han still has a skeptical edge but also the weary regrets of a longtime warrior, and Ford, in his seventies, mixes the humor and gravitas well. There’s a poignancy in the way he casts a wistful look around the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, or talks with Leia as a couple that still love each other in spite of handling tragedy differently.
For the most part, the script by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark), and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) deftly mingles a breezy pace with dramatic reveals and thrilling action. Some of the humor is a bit more Joss Whedon-ish for my taste, and some characters, such as Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie of HBO’s Game of Thrones), get short shrift. But Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o, in a motion-capture performance as thousand-year-old pirate Maz Kanata, has the affecting cadences of an insightful sage, and Adam Driver (Inside Llewyn Davis, HBO's Girls) as Kylo Ren is a fascinating adversary. He eschews his mask at times to reveal petulant insecurity hiding beneath phenomenal power and aspirations.
We don’t know why the Rebels and the First Order still clash (the film wisely avoids mention of trade embargoes), and the Order’s new doomsday weapon, Starkiller Base, is a supersize Death Star with all the weaknesses of its predecessors. (As the Rebels discuss strategies for how to take out the thing, one all but winks, noting, “It worked the last time.”)
But no matter. The original trilogy soared on chance encounters and choices: staying home or flying toward the unknown, following the Dark Side or the Light. The Force awakens as characters discover new choices and paths unfolding before them, which reawakens our enthusiasm for this galaxy far, far away. Impressive. Most impressive.