Spoiler alert: This article does not reveal significant plot points from “The Force Awakens,” but if you don’t want to know anything beforehand, don’t read it. “Spoiler-free reviews” are the death of criticism.
You might say “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” has a “Jurassic World” problem. Late in the film, as the rebel alliance gathers around a holographic display to plot their assault on the planet-shaped, planet-destroying Starkiller Base, one character asks, “So, it’s another Death Star?” Not so, says a familiar figure, conjuring a 3D model of “Star Wars'” ultimate weapon and then shunting it aside as it’s dwarfed by a massive replica of the new movie’s deadly device. But the holy-shit moment is undercut by the fact that the image of one Death Star in the shadow of another, much bigger one is the perfect symbol for J.J. Abrams’ approach to reviving the “Star Wars” franchise: Do the same thing again, but bigger.
Abrams is an adept mimic, and he’s brought his A-game to “The Force Awakens.” For the movie’s thrilling first act, all you want to do is soak in how thoroughly he’s ingested the original trilogy’s style. There are the obvious flourishes, the initial tilt down from a field of stars to see a massive spaceship eclipsing the light of a helpless world, the between-scene wipes that were retro even in 1977. He and co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan — the latter returning decades after co-writing “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” — pick up on the original movies’ knowing tone without drifting too far into 21st-century meta-winks. When roguish rebel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) falls into the clutches of the mouth-breathing Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), there’s a moment of silent tension between that’s broken when Poe quips, “Do I talk first?”
Abrams gives good fan service, perhaps better than anyone in the game. He’s Joss Whedon’s only competition for the nation’s Superfan in Chief, living and breathing the culture that keeps beloved characters — or, as they’re referred to in the bloodless corporate-speak that fans have willingly adopted, “I.P.” — alive, even when their creators let their options lapse. When John Boyega’s renegade stormtrooper Finn climbs into the turret of a stolen TIE Fighter and lets out a whoop of delight, it’s a moment of pure joy that his character and the audience can share. Holy crap, it says. This is really happening. I was too cool for the prequels, but it was probably 10 minutes into “The Force Awakens” before I could loosen the knot in my chest and start simply watching it
“The Force Awakens'” canniest idea is making its characters “Star Wars” fans. When Finn and Rey, played by newcomer Daisy Ridley, have their inevitable encounter with Harrison Ford, she can’t help but blurt, “You’re the Han Solo?” In the absence of Luke Skywalker, whose disappearance fuels the movie’s plot, the Jedi and the rebellion have passed into myth, meaning the original trilogy’s characters occupy much the same place in their universe as they do in ours.
Going back to shooting celluloid after the digital fetishism of George Lucas’s prequels — let us never speak of them again — Abrams and the rest of his crew, including cinematographer Dan Mindel and production designers Rick Carter and Darren Gilford, meticulously recreate the lived-in feel of the original trilogy. (Perhaps the greatest travesty of the “Special Editions” is letting the Lucas who’d fallen in love with his new CGI toys second-guess the Lucas of 1977, who took a gearhead’s delight in creating a world where everything looked used.) Although there’s plenty of digital imagery, including two major motion-capture characters played by Lupita Nyong’o and Andy Serkis, “The Force Awakens” uses practical effects to great effect, and even when the aliens in a revamp of the Mos Eisley cantina are clearly people in rubber suits or the stormtroopers thrown by an explosion look like they’re merely jumping on cue, the effect is pleasantly nostalgic rather than merely old-hat.
But at times, and too often, Abrams and Kasdan’s determination to get the series back on track results in what feels like a loose copy of the original “Star Wars” rather than a continuation of it. A charismatic droid carrying a secret message on which the future of the resistance hangs? Check. A young, mechanically ept resident of a desert planet whose family origins are shrouded in mystery. Yup, got it. An attack on a giant, spherical weapon whose sole weak point happens to be located at the end of a long metallic trench? Wait, seriously?
Perhaps that sounds like a spoiler, but plot developments have to be surprising in order to be spoiled, and much of “The Force Awakens” is surprising only because you don’t know which movie Abrams and Kasdan are going to cannibalize next. (Its climax is essentially “What if we put the end of ‘Empire’ inside the end of ‘Star Wars’?”) There’s no real question that Kylo Ren will be revealed to have a backstory tying him to another of the story’s major characters; it’s only a matter of hanging on until the movie reveals — clumsily, in a line of dialogue that almost feels like an aside — who it is. Abrams draws expertly on the original movie’s potent iconography, more powerfully because he expands it, at long last, to a broader range of characters: The mere sight of a young woman and a black man wielding a lightsaber is enough to give you chills. But “The Force Awakens” creates few memorable images of its own. Like Starkiller Base, fueled by draining plasma from a nearby star, it siphons energy from a more powerful source rather than creating its own.
Although “The Force Awakens” is a better movie than the prequels — or at least, so it seems with the benefit of nearly 24 whole hours’ reflection — it makes me appreciate more keenly George Lucas’s determination not to retrace his steps. Abrams gives the people what they want, and few are likely to complain. But the movie only meets our expectations. It never surpasses them.