A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
There were three quintessential classics of space fantasy in cinema: Star Wars (or, if you like, A New Hope), The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Since 1977, when George Lucas’s masterpiece first captured our imaginations, we loved these films, and we knew the title as a guarantee of high adventure with heart–of colorful characters fighting the titanic clash between good and evil. A guarantee…
Before the dark times. Before the prequels.
In fact, before Lucas gave himself to the Dark Side and recut things to make Han “heroically” let Greedo take the first shot…and somehow miss…in order to “justify” Han’s killing of the bounty hunter. But I digress.
George Lucas has proven to be at his best when his ideals are channeled through the talents of others–the improvisation of the actors in the original film, the masterful writing talents of Lawrence Kasden for Empire and Jedi, and so forth. When he exercises total control, however, with no one to polish things…
The Phantom Menace was half kid’s movie–hence long-winded “cool” action scenes that did precious little, if anything, for the plot (the submarine, the pod race)–and half sitting around and talking. Attack of the Clones was a teen angst movie…or something. And Revenge of the Sith was a concentrated pile of cinematic excrement with the Jedi behaving like idiots just so the villain could succeed. And lest we forget: “Annie, you’re breaking my heart!”
For years, however, we feared that that would be the last we would see of Star Wars on the silver screen, and that we would have to settle for TV fare like Clone Wars (which is an excellent series, actually, but still…).
And then, George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney. And the new head of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy, announced that, yes, Star Wars would return.
Director J.J. Abrams has the reputation for successful resurrection in Hollywood: He brought back Mission: Impossible, and he brought back Star Trek. So naturally, Kennedy would call him up, to kick off the new trilogy. J.J., however, knew full well he couldn’t do it on his own (something Lucas failed to understand, with the prequels). And so, he did the best thing he could have possibly done: He called up Lawrence Kasden–who then served as producer…and writer.
The result is a masterful, loving continuation of the very spirit of the classic trilogy. Everything that made the old films good is here. Everything that made the prequels such vomitoriums is noticeably absent. The dialogue is far from wooden and stilted. The characters and their motivations are believable and compelling. The emotions are heartfelt and authentic. There is no over-reliance on CGI. There is no cheese, no whining, no slapstick, no “roger-roger”, and no Jar-Jar Binks. This is not a “kid’s movie”, though I’d imagine kids could get a kick out of it. Never once does the movie insult the intelligence of the viewer. From the very opening, we are promised something special. And this movie certainly delivers.
Thirty or so years after Return of the Jedi, the galaxy is split into two powers: the New Republic, and the First Order–the latter being the remnant of the Empire of the original trilogy, complete with Star Destroyers, Stormtroopers, and Nazi-like uniforms. Ruled by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (the magnificent Andy Serkis), the First Order has its hands full with a Resistance being supported by the Republic and led by now-General Leah Organa (Carrie Fisher).
Meanwhile, a mysterious tragedy has shaken our heroes. Han Solo (Harrison Ford, at the top of his game in a performance reminding me of Sly Stallone in “Creed”, somewhat) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) are smugglers again, seemingly having become disenchanted with heroics. And somewhere along the last several years, they’ve lost the Millennium Falcon. (You didn’t think “Chewie…we’re home” was just Han winking to the fans, did you?)
And as for Luke…he’s vanished. Leah is desperate to find her brother, so she’s sent out the Resistance’s “superstar ” pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his droid sidekick–the too-adorable-for-words BB-8–to pursue a possible lead. This leads to a confrontation with the film’s primary villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is something of a Darth Vader fanboy (In his defense, aren’t we all?), down to wearing a mask-with-voice-changer he doesn’t need. Of course, he seems to have missed the little part about Vader redeeming himself….
BB-8 escapes, and meets Rey (Daisy Ridley), an orphan dreaming of a lost past while she salvages scrap from crashed Star Destroyers to sell to junk dealers. She loves to project an image of tough couldn’t-give-a-crap, and she’s independent and self-reliant to a fault…but she has a soft, lonely side to her that comes out upon meeting BB-8 and…a conscientious former Stormtrooper, Finn (John Boyega), who’s just struggling to stay alive and to keep a promise made to a new friend.
J.J. Abrams brings a fast-paced energy to the movie–The Force Awakens feels quicker than what we’d tend to expect from Star Wars. Never once does it drag along or lag. However, you might get a bit impatient in one respect: “So are they not going to find Luke in this movie, or what?!”
Well…you will have to see for yourself. Luke’s absence being “felt” may in fact be “part of the point”. Whether it works for you or not is up to you. Some of the characters feel a bit underused. Still, what we see of them are fresh and compelling, part of an ultimately enjoyable movie experience.
An interesting fact about The Force Awakens is that, like Creed is to Rocky, it is a strong parallel to the original Star Wars; many of the plot points are more-or-less lifted from the older film and redressed. Poetic passing of the torch? Unimaginative rip-off? I personally lean to the former.
For Kasden’s part, fans of Silverado may recognize a bit of a nod to it in the dynamic between Poe and Finn.
If you loved the Star Wars that was…you will love this movie. Be prepared for several nods to the old days…and a shocking sequence in the climax. Ultimately, it isn’t the best Star Wars…but it’s up there.
Movie Grade: A-