The new, heavily hyped and highly anticipated Star Wars movie is good if you like science fiction/fantasy/mythology stories. This entry in the series created by George Lucas, the first installment since the Walt Disney Studios bought his Lucasfilm, Ltd., is neither as overblown as the 1999-2005 trilogy nor as thrilling as the original 1977-1983 trilogy. Star Wars: The Force Awakens marks a solid return to form.
It’s far from the year’s best or worst picture and it is squarely in the better half, even better if this is your sort of movie. In retrospect, I have problems with the whole series but I can also take them as they are. The Phantom Menace pod racing was agonizing for me, like watching an aimless video game, and I disliked Jar Jar as much as anyone else who did, though I liked Darth Maul’s purposefulness and the strokes of anti-fascist romanticism in Attack of the Clones. I was excited as a youth for the original pictures. But Star Wars was always about Luke Skywalker to me, and I grew progressively less interested in (and more tired of) the dark, death-premised mysticism that climaxed with the last release, Revenge of the Sith. So, that’s my context.
Returning to the strong, idealistic protagonist, Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams (Super 8, Star Trek) and written by Abrams with Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, The Bodyguard) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), establishes values at stake from the start. There’s a lot to like, and enough of the other to take notice, but this seventh Star Wars movie is primarily a good piece of escapism.
Retracing familiar ground, besides the returning cast members, the action follows two men and a lady, with a droid, various aliens and three main villains in the Dark Side’s hierarchy, just as in the 1977 original’s trio of the governor, Vader and the Emperor. A jaunty resistance pilot (Ex Machina‘s Oscar Isaac), a spirited scavenger (Daisy Ridley) and a rogue stormtrooper (John Boyega) form the new trio; one’s trying to save the galaxy, another’s trying to find new love, and the other’s trying to figure out the meaning of life, or something like that.
They are each appealing and affable, in a way, though each character is limited, too. The scrappy, self-made female, named Rey, reminds me of Keira Knightley and isn’t as sharp and sophisticated as Princess Leia. The man she’s paired with, Boyega’s character, Finn, breaks free from the bad guys but he’s not provided with much of an impetus, let alone a deeper motivation. Boyega mugs for the camera—at times, his performance seems entirely composed of facial expressions—and dominates The Force Awakens. Isaac’s secondary character is more interesting, but this is part of a series, so time will tell. As it is, however, I wanted to know why the stormtrooper breaks away from his “reconditioning” despite showing no signs of non-conformity.
At least Finn, like the scavenger character, has that original spirit of Star Wars‘ can-do Americanism. Gothic, youthful nihilism is represented by a baddie in a hoodie played by Adam Driver, who steals every scene in the most engaging performance as one of the series’ many masked villians. As the trio strives to rise up against the First Order—an Empire offshoot bent on galactic destruction—with the help of a rolling, adorable droid, Driver’s hooded menace taunts, teases and tromps around spreading his bad mood everywhere he goes. It won’t be hard to see what he’s got coming and Driver makes it stick.
Series regulars return one by one, including favorite machines and characters, with seamless plot progression amid implausible scenes, such as a pivotal getaway going too quickly and certain obvious contrivances. The action-packed fight and space battleship scenes are exciting, if nothing you haven’t already seen, and the desert/winter planet contrasts work well. It’s a fantasy, so things do get silly here and there, with a bald-headed supervillain (Andy Serkis) reminding me comically of the wizard of Oz, but anyone invested in Star Wars will want very much to know what happens. This includes subplots with Leia (Carrie Fisher), now a military general, Han (Harrison Ford) and his buddy Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and, possibly, Luke Skywalker, though I don’t dare say more about him because apparently it’s supposed to be a big secret.
For all the changes—women are everywhere now, unlike in the originals—The Force Awakens is almost like a remake of the original Star Wars, which became A New Hope in Lucasfilm’s episodic parlance, and the action follows the same general trajectory. There are downtimes, scenes of wondering about one’s past, the guy not being ‘good enough’ for the girl, strange, surly aliens, bar scenes, and a heartwarming character apparently voiced by Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) whom I kept thinking of as a kind of younger, Mrs. Yoda but that’s probably just my inclination. But it’s easy to assess a movie that’s part of an iconic series in terms of this and that and lose sight of the whole movie and there is a point to The Force Awakens, even if it’s merely that the good can triumph only when good people believe that it’s possible.
The occasionally snappy line, the sweep, the sense of life—with any luck, if the writers keep up the Americanism, “I have an idea about that” may come to replace the old Han Solo saying—it’s all here, with the music, stars and landscapes. That and a timely nod to the evildoers’ fascism, neatly located in a Nazi-like setting that looks a lot like Bavaria, make it sort of fun to be in this domain again, and this probably owes, at least in major part, to the vision of Lucasfilm’s boss Kathleen Kennedy Marshall.
Audiences shouldn’t expect more than another serial about good versus evil with simple characters that cumulatively represent the underdog that’s always two steps behind. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a clever and pleasant diversion about having faith that the good is possible.