It’s hard to believe but it’s already been 10 years since the last “Star Wars” film, “Revenge of the Sith,” hit theaters. The final installment of George Lucas’ second trilogy, it continued many of the mistakes of the prequels which depressed a whole generation of fans while likely perking the interest of young kids. These three movies were awash in cartoon villainy, sets that were almost completely CG animated and some god-awful acting that effectively torpedoed Hayden Christensen’s career. Fans will be happy to know much of that has been fixed in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.” Assuming you don’t think too hard about it, that is.
“Awakens” starts with the traditional scrolling title cards that let’s us know we’ve jumped a few decades into the future after the events in “Return of the Jedi.” The Empire was defeated, but a new nefarious group has risen in their absence, The New Order. There is once again an official Resistance, but somehow the Republic still exists too. It’s slightly confusing since you’d assume the Republic is now controlled by the former collation known as the Resistance, but, again, it’s more enjoyable if you don’t think about it too much.
Our story actually begins, however, on the desert planet Jakku where Rebel Fighter Pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is on a secret mission to retrieve a valuable map from Lor San Tekka (a barely there Max Von Sydow), a map that might lead the Resistance to find the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker who has been missing for an eternity. Like Skywalker was in a past era, he’s assisted by a trusted droid, BB-8, an adorable partner who seems like it was plucked right out of the Pixar school of robot cuteness.
It turns out the New Order are also intent on tracking down Skywalker and attack Tekka’s small outpost hoping to beat Dameron to the punch. During this skirmish we meet a Stormtrooper (no longer a clone John Boyega) who isn’t quite at peace with doing the Order’s dirty work. Eventually, he deserts his post, is christened with the name Finn and becomes invaluable to Dameron in recovering the map. We’re also introduced at this point to this film’s number one bad guy, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a warrior who has been taught the ways of the dark side and worships at the altar (literally) of the long departed Darth Vader.
Jakku also happens to be the home of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a beautiful young woman (perhaps too beautiful considering her situation) who spends her days scavenging an Imperial Star Destroyer abandoned in the desert. Rey has a mysterious past she’s not completely aware of, but believes someday someone close to her is going to come rescue her from this planet. When she eventually runs into Finn (and the Stormtroopers chasing him) her impressive fighting skills come to light. Before you know it, Rey and Finn steal a very iconic spacheship and meet up with none other than a still surviving by the seat of his pants Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and an ageless Chewbacca.
The screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt and Abrams effectively uses nostalgia and family ties to reset the hero myth that became synonymous with the original films. It almost entirely duplicates the same dramatic notes and plot points of the first “Star Wars” film for both good and bad effect. Say what you want about Lucas’ prequel trilogy (and much of the criticism is deserved), but he wasn’t going back to the well as often as “The Force Awakens” does.
Luckily, Abrams has Ford on hand to charm the pants of any naysayer. Solo arguably has the most dramatic arc in the film and Ford is impressive in making his return tearjerkingly poignant. Ridley shows a tremendous amount of promise and Boyega is entertaining in a role that pretty much becomes comic relief. The naturally charismatic Issac isn’t in the forefront as much of his co-stars, but he does a wonderful job making some very hokey lines sound more natural than they should.
The other actors in the picture aren’t so lucky. Carrie Fisher, who reprises her role as Princess Leia (now General Organa), is disappointingly awkward and relegated to lots of hugs. Domhnall Gleeson is New Order General Hux and, frankly, there is only so much he can do portraying a military heavy without much backstory. Lupito N’yongo is simply wasted voicing an alien character that looks nothing like her (even as a motion capture creation) and you’ll sit in the theater wondering “Why couldn’t N’yongo played her as a live action creation?” Andy Serkis is forgettable in the mo-cap role of Supreme Leader Snoke (a shockingly disappointing feat of animation work from ILM) and, finally, Gwendoline Christie never takes her helmet off as New Order officer Captain Phasma, a role that feels more like cosplay than anything else.
Sadly, the most problematic performance belongs to Driver who is simply miscast as the effective heavy. The “Girls” star has shined in purely dramatic work before (“Hungry Hearts” being a prime example) and there are specific moments in the script that allow him to provide some depth to Ren, but he’s neither scary in his full dark side garb or when he takes his helmet off (a badly edited moment that caused laughter during my screening).
From a directorial perspective, Abrams, who did a fantastic job relaunching the “Star Trek” franchise, plays it mostly safe this time around trying to bring the look and feel of the series back to the original films. This results in some smart decisions such as placing the actors in mostly real locations and sets as well as numerous homages even a casual fan will immediately recognize. The problem, at times, is that the style married with the aforementioned familiar storyline pretty much makes the actors completely responsible for keeping our attention. And, strangely, this universe lacks much of the visual wonder of Lucas’ last three films (and, again, that’s even noting those films have much bigger problems).
There are also very few set pieces or action scenes that seem that unique. We’ve all seen it before in one form or another in the previous six films. In fact, what is supposed to be the picture’s climax, a final light saber battle in a snow filled forest, only works because of one particular actor’s performance (which we won’t spoil here). It’s nicely executed, but it all feels very – for lack of a better word – expected.
And, yet, it’s hard not to be moved by the nostalgia of seeing Han Solo and Princess Lea reuniting on the big screen. And Ford, reprising a role he hasn’t played in over 30 years, is simply captivating. Or maybe it’s that tinge of emotion over the idea that our favorite heroes have brought forth a new generation to embrace the Force. Throw in familiar faces such as C-3PO and Admiral Ackbar, John Williams’ iconic theme and maybe it’s just enough to forget everything that doesn’t work.
Yeah, it probably is.