J.J. Abrams resuscitates a franchise and delivers the movie event of the year
The wait is over. The movie event of the year is here. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, number seven in the series for those who wouldn't know a Jedi from a Jar Jar, emerges bloody with unrealistic expectations but gloriously unbowed. It's everything the kid in us goes to the movies for — marvelous adventure that leaves us surprised, scared and euphoric. So let out a Wookiee roar for director J.J. Abrams who sweeps us out of the black hole of George's Lucas' trilogy of paralyzingly dull Star Wars prequels and into a brave new world.
Okay, not quite. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is basically an updated remake of Star Wars: A New Hope, the 1977 Lucas original that changed the face of movie space epics and made us all one with the Force. Now it's three decades later. Our heroes have a little age on them, they being Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford). It's great that Chewbacca, C3Po and R2D2 look exactly the same. The newbies are repped by Rey (Daisy Ridley), a desert scavenger abandoned by her family on Jukku; Finn (John Boyega), an AWOL stormtrooper with little taste for killing; and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a pilot working for Leia, a princess turned general who now leads the Resistance.
Hey, wait up. Didn’t 1983's Return of the Jedi feature Ewoks dancing their fluffy tails off over the demise of Darth Vader and the defeat of the Empire. Yeah, but what would a Star Wars movie be without evil? So Abrams and cowriters Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan (he co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) provide a doozy. A fresh malevolence called the First Order has emerged from the ruins of the Empire. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis by motion capture) operates out of a space station that makes the Death Star look like a Lego. His villainous young protégé is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a masked figure who communes so regularly with Vader's mangled helmet that a long future in therapy is a given. The bald-faced attempt to clone Vader, one of the greatest badasses in film history, is clankingly obvious, but Driver, masked and unmasked, gives him hypnotic and haunting contours.
As any Star Wars fan knows, bloodlines are crucial to the plot. And there are times when everyone seems related to everyone else. (The Lucas template is drawn from sources as diverse as the Bible, Shakespeare, Oedipus Rex and Road Runner cartoons.) Bad things happen to those who issue spoilers about this franchise. But I will say this: The action, from lightsaber duels to X-wing dogfights with TIE Fighters, is explosive and buoyed by John Williams' exultant score. And the movie is also funny as hell. Abrams knows how to build a laugh and fill the emotional spaces between words. He's a fanboy who knows what fanboys want, but he also delivers the goods for the rest of us. Giving starring roles to a black man, a white woman and a Latino is the right idea that could have gone seriously wrong; instead, it's quietly history making.
Isaac oozes flyboy charm, Boyega, bracingly comic and cunning, is a find, and Ridley (both she and Boyega are Brits) is a star in the making. Rey is the kind of can-do woman of heart and mind who can make a franchise. I'm not just talking marketing. Her scenes with the equally purposeful Leia have a femcentric wit and warmth. The new actors are all aces. But no one can steal a scene from BB-8, a droid who looks like an orange-and-white beach ball on a continuous roll. No one, except for Ford who owns this film from his first crooked grin. If you don't lose it when Ford's Han Solo reenters the Millennium Falcon, a hunk of junk he calls a spacecraft, you truly deserve banishment to the dark side. "Chewie, we're home," he says. Truer words have never been spoken.