“Star Wars” recruit J.J. Abrams (who rewrote original writer Michael Arndt with “Star Wars” veteran Lawrence Kasdan) set about reconnecting movie audiences to a familiar world they know and love, as well as introducing them to new parts of that universe. Thankfully, Abrams’ contemporary “Star Wars” is more modern, diverse and female-empowered than the old order. This installment is satisfying and entertaining in a workmanlike way as Abrams pushes all the right buttons without seeming truly inspired. And yes, it will make gazillions of record-breaking dollars and reward Disney chairman Bob Iger’s $4 billion investment in Lucasfilm.
“The Force Awakens” starts with the usual crawl into the stars (accompanied by a surging John Williams score) telling us that as the last Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished, the First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire. Over 30 years, Princess Leia has matured into General Organa (Carrie Fisher), head of the Resistance fighting the Fascistic First Order with its armies of white stormtroopers. “You’ve changed your hair,” comments Han Solo (Harrison Ford) when he sees Leia again after a long separation. Clearly, they’re still crazy after all these years.
We are introduced to ace resistance fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who has to manhandle sharp orders like “You must run!” and “You must hide!” After his plane is disabled on the desert planet Jakku and before he is carried off by stormtroopers, he plants a map to the faraway location where Skywalker is hiding in his loyal droid BB-8, promising to return. The Resistance considers finding Skywalker necessary for survival against the First Order—they in turn want to erase the powerful Jedi threat. (Yes, Dameron eventually goes into battle with his pilots.)
Jakku is where the movie takes off as we meet androgynous young Rey (Daisy Ridley), a gracefully athletic flyer who scavenges in a cavernous spaceship graveyard in exchange for nourishment at the local cantina. She adopts BB-8, who takes a shine to her. Abrams has free rein here to bury old AT-AT Walkers in the sand and invent cool new vehicles for Rey to ride. This “Star Wars” universe mixes practical and CG effects to good effect; it doesn’t have the over-pixelated feel of the last three Lucas installments. Rey’s an able loner waiting sadly for her long-disappeared parents to return, and isn’t yet ready to move on.
That impetus comes in the form of a defecting stormtrooper with a conscience (“Attack the Block” Brit actor John Boyega) who helps Dameron to escape (needing a pilot); they both crash on Jakku. He sheds his white trooper gear and walks into town, where he sees Rey being attacked by a gang of thugs; his instinct is to run in and protect her, but when she efficiently dispatches them all he backs off. Needless to say a romantic charge grows between our two young leads, as they both learn more about themselves and come of age. They escape the First Order forces on Jakku in the scrap-heaped Millennium Falcon—via an exhilarating aerial chase— and join up with maverick bounty hunter Solo, still bantering affectionately with Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), when they board the ship to reclaim it.
Solo grudgingly grows to respect both the smart flyer whiz and her gunner cohort, who he names Finn. She thinks he’s a Resistance fighter. “Women can tell when you are lying, always,” Solo warns him. Abrams doesn’t mind quoting old movies as Ford runs toward the camera with a huge round monster bearing down on him, Indiana Jones style.
Other new characters include Dark Side warriors Kylo Ren (Adam Driver brings emotion to his conflicted Darth Vader-admirer) and First Order General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson, who doesn’t have much to do but bark orders and purse his lips). Abrams errs on the side of cliche as he shows the military might of the First Order amassing in a black-and-red Nazi-style rally.
You can see why Disney and Lucasfilm wanted to hide their spoilers; it’s fun discovering the character played by Lupita Nyong’o, and learning some of Han and Leia’s family secrets, which I will not reveal here. The movie serves its function, which is to transition from one universe to another along with these younger characters, who are all terrific. I will happily follow them as Lucasfilm producer Kathleen Kennedy and her teams of writers and filmmakers devise more “Star Wars” going forward, and I am not alone.
As far as Oscars go, the film will likely land some technical nods including score and visual effects.