REVIEW SUMMARY: Slick, professional, and engaging, the latest chapter of the popular space opera is an enjoyable picture that bogs down in nostalgia and setup.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Scavenger Rey and escaped Stormtrooper team up with Resistance Forces to locate missing Jedi Luke Skywalker before First Order troops led by Kylo Ren.
PROS: Outstanding young cast, notably Daisy Ridley as Rey and John Boyega as Finn; energetic pace, with strong action sequences; initially fond looks of nostalgia…
CONS: …that become grating as the movie progresses; derivative story that feels far too familiar; unanswered questions that almost demand a sequel; occasionally feels far more like a setup for future installments than an actual movie.
Awakens, indeed. For many, the only real question surrounding Star Wars: The Force Awakens is whether or not it avoids the obvious narcolepsy-inducing traps that mired George Lucas’s middle trilogy: tedious, nonsensical political arguments that even the contemporary Republican presidential hopefuls would find childish; dull-witted spiritual pontifications that would make Deepak Chopra raise his credulous brow in incredulity; ethnically stereotyped aliens that would make the most ardent World War II–era propagandist wince. And this before covering their myriad story and basic filmmaking problems. Do we even need to mention how many movies have provided other, more relevant takes on similar space opera material since 20th Century Fox first released Star Wars (none of this A New Hope nonsense; I am a purist) in 1977?
So the quick answer is yes, the seventh episode of one of film’s most beloved film franchises avoids those pitfalls. Even better, it turns out to be the strongest entry since Darth Vader enveloped Han Solo into a block of carbonite in The Empire Strikes Back. If you have been with the series since its first release, not fawning over it proves difficult, especially when it get a number of things right that most of the series got wrong.
That said, objectively one wishes it matched the series at its highest point. Director J. J. Abrams provides many opportunities for audiences to embrace their inner nine-year-old, but somewhere between hyperspace sequences the movie loses some of its steam, causing more astute viewers to notice the narrative’s more obvious problems, to say nothing of the redundant (if not downright recursive) feeling one get throughout the proceedings. We traveled to this galaxy far, far away, and heard these stories a long time ago; we may crave the new, yet seem impelled to return here. Star Wars itself borrowed heavily from previous movies (made by such disparate talents as Akira Kurosawa, Fritz Lang, and Leni Riefenstahl), though it did not have the ability to draw on its own decades-long history. The callbacks (from the opening crawl and the return of the Millennium Falcon to the huge swaths Abrams, along with screenwriters Michael Arndt and Lucasfilm veteran Lawrence Kasdan cut from storycloth itself) elicit affection initially, though as the movie progresses they begin to grate.
It matters little, however, because Abrams keeps our attention on so many things that he dares us not to enjoy it. There are quests to enjoin: some decades after the events of Return of the Jedi, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) hides the location of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last Jedi, in the spherical body of the droid BB-8 as First Order (successor to the Empire) troops led by Sith wannabe Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) orders the slaughter of villagers on the planet Jakku, taking Dameron hostage. One Stormtrooper, whom Dameron later nicknames Finn (John Boyega), develops a crisis of conscience during this interstellar Mai Lai, rousing the suspicions of the chrome-armored Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christine) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Meanwhile, BB-8 comes into contact with scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), who befriends BB-8 and decides, through a series of events, to undertake the Hero’s Journey and deliver Skywalker’s location to the resistance.
If the story sounds familiar, it is; in fact, Lucas told the same story in the first movie. In fact, the nods to the previous series at times undercut the proceedings. A rush to board a ship during an air raid sends Rey and Finn to the Millennium Falcon, eliciting a chuckle, but the appearance of Han Solo (Harrison Ford, who looks more engaged here than he did in the last Indiana Jones movie) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), while pleasing, also bring forth the movie’s key problem: so much of it is derivative. Yes, we revisit old friends (including Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa), but at the expense of learning as much as we could about the new characters. Where does the orphan (yes, another orphan) Rey come from? We receive glimpses, but these are only teased. Additionally, at times the motives remain unclear. After his crisis of conscience, Finn decides to liberate Poe from capture and leave the First Order’s service because “it’s the right thing to do.” Perhaps, yet his decision seems rushed and unconvincing, especially for somebody born to be a soldier. What led Ren to embrace the Dark Side of the Force and serve Supreme Leader Snoke? We will have to wait for future installments to find out.
Which presents another key issue: much of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, feels like setup for the next chapter. While it remains a complete movie, the fact Disney already has slated sequels makes everything feel underwritten. For the most part, Abrams makes up for this by keeping the pace energetic (though it falters when Solo and Chewbacca appear) and the humor deft without being corny. The picture moves well if at times too quickly, as if Abrams didn’t quite trust his material, yet somehow doesn’t quite feel right. The earlier movies hearkened back to the period of the movie serial, while Abrams, who in previous movies saw himself as a modern-day Spielberg, keeps his directorial feet firmly in the present day. He understands the material’s substance, but not its style.
Fortunately, Abrams also works with a strong cast, notably Daisy Ridley, who cuts an amazing heroic pose for Rey. Boyega works incredibly well with Ridley; their scenes together crackle with chemistry and dialogue, making them a kind of Tracy-Hepburn for the 21st century. Oscar Isaac receives too little screen time, but he stands as a kind of matinee idol in his scenes. Adam Driver spends far too much time hidden beneath a mask and robes, yet his Kylo Ren still offers a character both sympathetic and menacing. Others, from Lupita Nyong’o as the pirate Maz Kanata to Gwendoline Chistine’s Captain Phasma, play their roles well despite being underused. The only real unfortunate note is Gleeson; a fine actor, he simply cannot erase the memory of Peter Cushing’s Governor Tarkin.
Perhaps the only real requirement for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was to make one forget its predecessors, a kind of cinematic Jedi mind trick. That it certainly manages. It maintains the energy and fun we expect, even if it ultimately offers nothing new. Perhaps the next movie will take more chances. For now, we at least can enjoy a new chapter without reservation.