Writing about “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” on its opening week is like walking into a minefield. How much of the plot can you give away in your review without provoking the ire of the countless fans who have yet to see it and still be able to offer a reasonable evaluation of the film? Especially when this new entry to the saga successfully plays with, expands upon and even reinvents some of the ideas, concepts and plot points of “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back.” For what director J.J. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”) and Michael Arndt have done here is nothing short of miraculous. They have, in one fell swoop, revived a beloved series while treating the much-reviled George Lucas-directed prequels –“The Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith”– as nothing more but a bad dream. In fact, they are far more loyal and in tune to Lucas’ original vision for the series than Lucas himself.
You could cheekily call this new entry “Star Wars: The Next Generation” given how smartly Abrams rebooted the “Star Trek” franchise (although I still have some issues with “Star Trek Into Darkness”). Three new characters act as surrogates for Han, Luke and Leia: Rebel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac having the time of his life), defecting Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and orphan scavenger hunter Rey (Daisy Ridley). Neither the script nor the film make much of their ethnicity or gender: they are a given in this diverse galaxy full of colorful, brusque and wise aliens. And, yes, Han and Leia are there to provide leadership, inspiration and kick ass action. And before you ask, where’s Luke?…that’s precisely the mystery at the center of “The Force Awakens,” the Macguffin that drives the plot and sets the stage for the next two chapters in this new trilogy.
The old opening title crawl immediately lays down what’s at stake for this galaxy far, far away: thirty some years after the Empire was defeated in “Return of the Jedi,” Luke Skywalker has gone missing. A new power, the First Order, has emerged from the Empire’s ashes and is at war with the Republic and its Resistance. They would like to get their hands on a map that might divulge Luke’s whereabouts. Poe has secured it from a Republic ally in Jukka; Stormtroopers led by the Darth Vader-like Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) soon land on the planet, destroy the village harboring this ally and capture Poe. But Poe had already passed the information to his droid BB8 and, like R2D2 and C3PO before him, BB8 soon becomes the target of a massive hunt.
Disgusted by the bloodshed he witnessed in Jukka, Finn rescues Poe, steals a TIE fighter and is shot down, crash landing in the planet below. Thinking that Poe has died in the crash, Finn wanders into a nearby town where he meets Rey, BB8’s savior. There is no time for pleasantries: Stormtroopers land once again in search of both deserter and droid and it’s up to Rey to save their hides. Fortunately, there is an abandoned ship nearby that bears a striking resemblance to the Millennium Falcon and off they go. Alas, neither Han Solo nor Chewbacca are on board. I won’t reveal how they eventually meet. In fact, this is a good point to stop this synopsis since Han’s and Chewbacca’s grand entrance is one of the film’s many highlights. Suffice it to say that Harrison Ford and David Mayhew reprise these roles with a joy and a charisma that surpasses the sense of fun they brought to them in the first trilogy. Age has solidified this on-screen friendship: they play off each other so well that it’s hard to believe they haven’t played these roles for so long. Ford’s repartee with Ridley and Beyoga is equally warm, light and natural: it’s quite literally a passing of the torch to a new generation of actors.
Bayoga, Ridley and Isaac –who eventually reenters the picture– bring a freshness and a toughness to their performances, particularly Bayoga whose character evolves from an “every man for himself” survivor to a fully fleshed (and still flawed) hero. As Rey, Ridley is a direct descendant of Carrie Fisher’s spunky Princess (now General) Leia Organa: a woman who won’t take no for an answer, who instinctively leads and is capable of taking matters into her own hands. She is smitten by the old stories she’s heard of the Jedis and the Force. Like Luke before her, she’s fearful and fearless: the Force, indeed, is strong within her.
Equal kudos goes to Driver and Domnhall Gleeson as the film’s two villains. This has been an exception al year for Gleeson after his bravura performances in “Ex-Machina” (where he co-starred with Isaac) and “Brooklyn.” As Ren’s rival General Hux, Gleeson is having the time of his life playing a furious, arrogant and charismatic futuristic fascist. Driver may have sung chorus for Isaac and Justin Timberlake in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” but here, as another young man seduced by the dark side of the Force, he comes close to crushing Isaac’s head. Ren is a complex character, struggling to break away from the chains that bind him to the past, willing to do anything to prove himself to the powers that be. Driver would have made a better Anakin Skywalker than Hayden Christensen.
Shot in 35mm and in actual locations, “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” is a visually gorgeous, tactile film. It feels lived in, grungy in some parts and sleek and shiny in others. Even the spaceships look handmade, as if they had been put together by hundreds of workers in an assembly line and that’s thanks to Abrams’ decision to rely less in digital effects and more on practical, traditional special effects. And while the 14-year-old in me got a kick out of all those dogfights between X-wing and TIE fighters, the adult me felt more pleasure and awe watching a fleet of those very same X-wing fighters flying over a lake, the remnants of an Empire battleship buried in the sand or the shadow of one of those battleships overpowering a small planet. These are the visions and dreams hundreds of space operas and science-fiction novels and short stories are made of.
Abrams has set the tone and high standard for the sequels and spinoffs to come. Fans will have nothing to worry about, if the next entries are treated with the same intelligence, love and exuberance as this one. Fortunately, we no longer have to wait four years or more for the next chapter as we did decades ago.