From the ashes of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels comes “The Force Awakens,” a continuation of the Star Wars saga that delivers for casual and hardcore fans alike exactly what they’ve been waiting for in the 32 years since “Return of the Jedi”: a stellar movie.
It is impossible, or at least negligent, to consider mega-budget movies today without going back to the 1977 original. Revising that film is exactly what director JJ Abrams and his company have accomplished. “The Force Awakens” essentially replicates the plot structure of “A New Hope,” but does so lovingly, and with more skill than Abrams has previously indicated he is capable of.
The story starts three decades after “Jedi.” It involves a resurgent Empire, now deemed the First Order, battling another Rebel Alliance, now named the Resistance. A lone droid (BB-8, whose chirps are charmingly comparable to R2-D2’s) carries the secret to the location of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), one pursued by good and evil alike.
The villain is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), an evil Darth Vader-wannabe. He succeeds in having a villainous menace not too far removed from the infamous antagonist, but with exponentially more dimension. As the film unfolds, Kylo Ren gains thrilling new dimensions; he’s at once dangerous and brittle, petulant yet determined, vulnerable but apparently irredeemable. Driver, an excellent actor with the face of an outcast, is a scene-stealer.
Then again, the same can be said about the actors who play the protagonists. The heroes are desert scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and rogue stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), both portrayed by unknown actors who render their heroes with pathos and humor. Rey is wise and irrepressible, more a swashbuckler than her male counterpart. Finn is compassionate and capable, paradoxically up to the challenge and out of his league. And then there’s the giddiness-inducing delight of seeing Harrison Ford back as Han Solo. After years of curmudgeonly dismissing Star Wars, Ford seems to have finally come around, looking like he’s having a blast on the press tour and in the film.
The story’s most impressive accomplishment is that it continues the saga as an operatic space drama about a family thrust into destruction, despair, evil, and heroism. No one installment on its own is particularly weighty, but together they stack into an experience that’s richly vibrant and tragically profound. That being said, this is the first movie since the original that could stand on its own, with a finish that promises more but gives what just occurred a satisfying conclusion.
Abrams appreciates that the original films supplied spectacle like clockwork, and he does the same here, with effects both aesthetic and aural without peer. Scene after scene delivers: Spacecraft hurtle through lattices of scorching laser fire. Bizarre aliens drink in a backwater world’s dive-bar. The Millennium Falcon weaves through the carcass of a massive Star Destroyer. Ragtag heroes gun down legions of fascist soldiers. Desperate heroes and villains collide in a whirring shower of lightsaber sparks and telekinetic fury. It doesn’t so much matter if you are young or old, a hardcore Star Wars fan or series neophyte: this is sustained cinematic bliss.
Critics who label “The Force Awakens” derivative aren’t wrong. Plot points are reused from “A New Hope,” familiar beats played. Yet, the filmmakers’ slavish dedication to replicating the original’s magic is forgivable when one considers that it is the gold standard for audience-pleasing cinematic spectacle. The film doesn’t take things to a new level. It brings them back to the old one, and what a great place that is for Star Wars to be.