Director J.J. Abrams is so intuitively unoriginal that he’s almost mystical: He seems to be using the Force to get on the wavelength of other filmmakers. He aped Steven Spielberg’s signature moves in the sci-fi adventure Super 8. He rekindled Star Trek onscreen, delighting many fans — even if they couldn’t point to a single performance or scene that surpassed the old films or shows. Now, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he does a good imitation of George Lucas circa 1977. He and co-writers Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote by far the best of the series, The Empire Strikes Back) merge old and new streams, mixing Han Solo, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, and others into a newish plot centering on young ’uns Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega). The movie has already blown away advance-sale records, and when you go (which, of course, you will) I bet you’ll have fun — I did, mostly. But it’s the fun of seeing something fairly successfully redone, with the promise of more of the same to come. It’s a fan’s wet dream and a modern studio’s, too. It says where money is concerned, the galaxy’s the limit.
The movie opens with John Williams’s triumphal orchestra blast and the titles that make us salivate on cue, followed by a backward exposition crawl announcing that Luke Skywalker has vanished and … a bunch of other stuff. I honestly couldn’t follow it all, but the takeaway is that the Dark Side is now embodied by the First Order (rather than the Empire), which borrows its rhetoric and architecture from the Third Reich, and that the Resistance, led by General (not Princess) Leia, has sent her best pilot, Poe Dameron (a funny, mouthy Oscar Isaac), to obtain a map to Luke’s location. Don’t ask why — I couldn’t tell you. It’s a McGuffin.
Hey, Max von Sydow has that map! Hi, Max! Bye, Max! The First Order massacres a bunch of people (and other life forms) and captures Poe, who has already hidden the map inside his droid, BB-8, a rolling ball topped with half of another ball with the manner of a yelping puppy. Frankly, I found him/it borderline intolerable, but the simple design is ingenious and how wonderful that he/it is not computer-generated but of our world. And there’s evidently no human inside him. He’s a real robot! In any case, BB-8 takes off the way R2-D2 and C-3PO did 38 years ago, bound for the next Luke Skywalker.
Is it Rey? She’s a scavenger on a desert planet (not unlike the young Luke) and also has a backstory that will be revealed in subsequent chapters. All we know right now is that she’s maybe possibly got Luke-ish abilities, and that the charming Ridley bears such an obvious resemblance to Keira Knightley (down to her fanged grin) that she might be a clone. The main thing is that she marks the movie’s biggest departure from Lucas’s worldview. Many critics over the years have complained that Lucas’s is a boys’ universe, but nowadays princesses fight their own battles — with lightsabers.
She and Finn — the core of Star Wars: The Next Generation — have been expertly contrived to appeal to millions. I don’t think it’s an accident that Finn is black and that he begins the film as a Stormtrooper, having been kidnapped from his home world and enslaved by the First Order. An attack of conscience makes him throw off his white armor, at which point Abrams cuts to a close-up of him over-emoting. But Boyega has a powerful presence — he made a startling film debut as a hood in the urban sci-fi thriller Attack the Block (2011) — and it will be fun to watch his character become less moist. He’s so expressive he wears his heart not just on his sleeve but on his trembling lightsaber. The gimmick is that Finn keeps trying to rescue his damsel in distress but ends up far more distressed than she does.
The third wheel of the film is Kylo Ren, the junior Darth Vader of the First Order played by Adam Driver — who overcomes the giggles from Girls fans (there is a fan overlap, oddly enough) that greet his first appearance to embody an Oedipal nightmare. He stops the show with the first lightsaber temper tantrum, which sends minions and Stormtroopers scurrying. I won’t spoil the twist that comes early, and you probably already know, that throws us back into the world of fathers and sons and the Dark Side of the Force.
But the best things are the old things: familiar camera setups, scene-change wipes, costumes, John Williams’s music (there’s even a melancholy reprise of that superb Darth Vader theme), enemy fighter ships that emit plangent groans, the Millennium Falcon, and, of course, the human stars. Though his voice is now a croak, Harrison Ford slips into the swashbuckling Han Solo role with youthful vigor, his timing as crisp as ever, and Carrie Fisher’s cracked, deepened, post-rehab voice gives Leia new depth. Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca gets lots of laugh lines — or yowls. The one-liners are largely second-rate, but The Force Awakens gives you the joy of reunions and the tragedy of loss.
It must be bittersweet for George Lucas, however much money Disney paid him to surrender creative control. I often think back to 2003, when the New York Times sent me to write about a Lord of the Rings movie marathon ending with the premiere of the final film, The Return of the King. A young woman I interviewed actually teared up explaining that Rings director Peter Jackson did a great job because he was a fan of Tolkien’s books and understood what they meant to other fans. Against this, she cited Lucas’s Star Wars prequels, which made billions but left most people cold (except for Jar Jar, who left them livid). Lucas created Star Wars, she said, but because he wasn’t a fan he forgot why people responded to the first film.
That a sequel made by a fan would be better than one by a creator seemed counterintuitive 12 years ago, but as fan culture has become more dominant (and lucrative), the idea now seems prescient. It’s the subtext of Lucas’s words at a recent Kennedy Center event, where he said — with a touch of sadness — that The Force Awakens was the Star Wars movie the fans have been looking for and that (by implication) he didn’t give them.
I find myself of two minds about this. Apart from the suspenseful last half-hour of The Revenge of the Sith, the Star Wars prequels were truly terrible, marked by lifeless pageantry, tectonic-plate pacing, Jar Jar, effects-cluttered frames, and Medusa dialogue (i.e., it turned actors to stone). But Lucas was attempting something that would surpass Lawrence of Arabia. He wanted to tell the story of the fall of a democratic republic, beginning with the sabotage of trade routes, lingering on debates (and betrayals) in a government assembly, and ending with the corruption of an idealistic young man who would go on to become one of the most iconic villains in pop culture. He wanted to explore the peril of having too much passion, which could be exploited by a knowing demagogue, so that the story of Darth Vader became The Last Temptation of Anakin Skywalker. He wanted to do all this with lightsaber battles and awesome sci-fi spectacle. Yes, he forgot how to tell a story. Yes, he forgot (or ignored) what the fans wanted. But in his clumsy way he was going for what had never been done instead of redoing something that had.
It’s too bad it has to be one way or the other. Can someone — as they’d say in Ghostbusters — merge the streams?