After revamping “Star Trek,” writer/director J.J. Abrams revs the engines on George Lucas’ galactic juggernaut with similar brio in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” It’s the seventh film in the adventure series, and the first movie to continue the story beyond the concerns of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader since the 1983 release “Return of the Jedi,” and it’s both a worthy and frustrating successor sometimes in equal measure.
Far more faithful, even reverent, to Lucas’ galaxy than Abrams was to ‘Trek,’ in this new chapter, the director, with co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, aims to channel the tone of “Star Wars” and The “Empire Strikes Back.” In fact, they take strong inspiration from the entire original trilogy (far too much so, at times) to further develop the tale of the Skywalker and Solo families, and the continuing galactic civil war which engulfs them.
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Thirty years after the climactic Battle of Endor, the Empire has fallen, and stories of its participants have already passed into legend. A fascistic First Order has imported the former dictatorship’s grey military uniforms, white Stormtroopers, and gunmetal warships with minimal aesthetic overhaul.
These would-be rulers are, once again, all about the strong rule of law, though precisely how they plan to rule is a bit murky. In a passionate, spittle-flecked speech, the First Order’s General Hux, played by Domhnall Gleeson with the carefully parted hair and mad eyes of a crazed demagogue, decries the more gentle Republic as a civilization that “acquiesces to disorder.” Immediately after, he cuts a swath across the sky with a massively powerful, massively familiar “new” weapon — a tool of chaos if ever there was one — proving you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.
Opening with a first act that is as dazzling a kickoff as we’ve seen in a recent tentpole, ‘The Force Awakens’ introduces three key players. There’s Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), sent with his droid BB-8 to find an important mission item; and Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper whose crisis of conscience is unique amongst the rank and file of the First Order enforcers. Then there’s Rey (Daisy Ridley), a plucky scavenger selling old Imperial ship parts for meager food rations as she longs for the return of her family.
While there’s an undeniable pleasure in the return of actors like Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher — particularly Ford, whose return to Han Solo is fully present and committed — the new characters truly stand out as intriguing additions to the adventure.
The new folk all converge on Rey’s home, the desert planet Jakku. There, the brutality of the First Order is revealed in a violent action that is uncomfortably real in its specifics, but doesn’t quite have the impact one would expect from such a display of power. This issue will recur, but that’s the lone downside of the first act, which is capped with an exultant and thrilling ride in the Millennium Falcon. This aerial display plays like the natural evolution of all the dogfighting ambitions that drove George Lucas to innovate in the original “Star Wars.” The sequence is a high point not just in this film, but in the series.
Abrams builds this first stage of the story on strong visuals with relatively little dialogue. The benefits of that approach allow audiences to take in the strong new character designs and the new approach to some old familiar “Star Wars” elements.
The volatile Kylo Ren, a renegade almost-Jedi and would-be Darth Vader, instigates the violence on Jakku. His voice, issued from behind a scarred black helmet worn as an affectation rather than out of necessity, sounds like an emotionless void. Torn between conflicting impulses and consistently choosing to act on the wrong ones, Adam Driver plays him as a scary but not unfamiliar guy. Ren never reaches the enigmatic status of Darth Vader’s early appearances, but as a much more raw and unpolished figure, he has the potential to become a lasting icon of villainy in his own right.
Rey and Finn develop a fast reliance on one another as they dodge the First Order on Jakku; in these moments John Boyega does his best work as Finn (he also has excellent moments with Solo). Playing the cocksure Dameron, Oscar Isaac nails the goofy and irreverent tone of “Star Wars.” An astounding pilot and charming soldier, this is the sort of character Anakin should have been before his fall in the prequels.
Daisy Ridley, however, is the film’s central delight, and as Rey, her key position in the story and terrifically capable character addresses some of the gender imbalance that has long been an issue in “Star Wars” without ever playing like a patronizing concession. Rey is a character with a real center and a strong motivation, and her rapport with Han Solo is among the film’s highlights. Yet her evolution in this chapter is rather swift, even extreme, almost like Abrams & co. couldn’t wait for the character to reach her potential. Rey’s development matches the film’s typically rapid pace, which leaves little room for reflection, but the character lights up the screen regardless.
There’s enough strength in the new characters, particularly Rey and Kylo Ren, to differentiate this chapter, but not every new character shines. Gwendoline Christie’s chrome-plated Captain Phasma is like this movie’s Boba Fett — she looks great but is sorely undeveloped. Maz Kanata, the CG-animated alien voiced well by Lupita Nyong’o, is a limp exposition device. The operator of a galactic watering hole torn straight from a Hayao Miyazaki design book, Maz is merely a clunky way to kick Rey’s story into gear.
Though the film moves relentlessly forward, Abrams and his team don’t sustain the dramatic momentum of the first act, and when they do, they’re heavily leaning on fan service and countless nods to the beloved half of the six-film series. Han Solo and Chewbacca are reintroduced in a shaky plot turn which leads directly into an action set piece that drains much of the great energy generated in the first act. Saddled with four main characters, two converging gangs, and blobby CG monsters that look like the Sarlacc combined with a “Dungeons & Dragons” beast, the movie rapidly downshifts. Solo and Chewie fare well overall, but they deserve a better reintroduction. (This sequence also wastes Iko Uwais and the crew from “The Raid,” as their perfunctory appearance appears to have suffered losses in the final edit.)
As strong as the major new characters are, the first-act story that unites them wobbles, full of all-too-convenient contrivances. The search for Luke Skywalker is a major motivator, and questions of family allegiances and failed relationships drive individual characters. To shape the large-scale plot movement, Abrams falls back on a Death Star-type weapon, a thing we’ve already seen multiple times in this series, prompting at least one character to make a crack about the First Order’s strategies. The concept isn’t sold as a failure of imagination on the part of the bad guys, however, so that lies at the feet of the writers.
While “The Force Awakens” isn’t a mirror-image sequel to “Star Wars” in the manner of the relationship between “Creed” and “Rocky,” it does have discernible traces to a condensed mash-up of the original trilogy. The superweapon plot device is one of many nods, large and small, to the first three films in the series. It’s like Abrams & co. threw a set of “Star Wars” fridge magnets at a wall, then sorted plot and character ideas from the pattern that emerged.
Some of these riffs are great, as when one new character uses the Force to escape a dire predicament. The scrappy lightsaber battles retain the urgent feeling of the best original-trilogy scenes, but have their own unique character. Many others feel less like nods to fans than a lack of inspiration. The most significant problem on that front is Supreme Leader Snoke, the figure voiced by Andy Serkis, who commands the First Order and feels merely like the Emperor run through a “Guardians of the Galaxy” filter.
In the end, the script often fails the characters, as these strongly drawn personalities are tossed and turned by chaotic forces in a conflict that doesn’t mean all that much. Most of what we know about the First Order and Resistance are torn from classic “Star Wars” films. Great violence done to one planet has little impact because we don’t know the planet at all. Similarly, there are some huge revelations in the film, but because we’re told about them in passing, in exposition, they don’t mean as much as they could — important character relationships still feel thin and wan, leaving what could be a powerful climax hanging a bit in the wind.
Narrative shortcomings aside, perhaps ‘The Force Awakens’’s chief issue is that it’s so concerned with capturing the tone, feel and magic of the classic ‘Star Wars’ films — which it nails almost immediately —it sometimes forgets to forge its own path. In this sense, the movie is both satisfying (no prequel problems here) and undercooked.
When “The Force Awakens” is really cruising, it’s a terrific piece of pulp-adventure cinema, packed with memorable characters, vicious lightsaber battles, some very smart visual concepts, and clever character actions. It is also quite frustrating, as a film that could have much more dramatic impact for its would-be emotional beats. Abrams makes big decisions and takes chances that command respect, especially in the very safe current tentpole film industry, but he doesn’t always quite sell them as he could. Still, as this new chapter props the franchise back up on sturdy legs, the Force seems to be in capable hands with a fresh forward direction. [B]