Star Wars: The Force Awakens Directed by J.J. Abrams (PG-13)

It’s been a decade since Revenge of the Sith, but the The Force Awakens isn’t very interested in the George Lucas prequels. This new Star Wars picture is a continuation of the Original Trilogy, picking up where 1983’s Return of the Jedi left off. Co-writer/director J.J. Abrams embarks on a daunting challenge of nostalgia and world-building, and he’s wildly successful. As a series starter pistol, The Force Awakens packs substantial firepower.


Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is missing, creating a disruption in the Force that’s allowed the First Order to revive galaxy-controlling ambition left behind by the Empire. Finn (John Boyega) is a disillusioned stormtrooper who’s searching for a way out of his murderous duty, eventually meeting with imprisoned Resistance pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) to hatch an escape.


Crash-landing on the desert planet Jakku, Finn meets Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger in possession of Poe’s droid, BB-8. Teaming up with the isolated young woman, Finn looks to fly far away from the troubles of the universe, only to find himself pulled into the thick of things when the pair encounters Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), discovering that BB-8 possesses a special map that leads to Skywalker.


Attempting to live up to his duties as a knight of the dark side, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) leads a frantic search for the map, joined by First Order commander General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), with their evil ways guided by the shadowy Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).  

 

Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm

The Force Awakens taps into the soul of Star Wars and what made the George Lucas years so special.


Apparently, the grand, Empire-burning celebration at the finale of Jedi was short-lived. In the 30 years since the demise of the Emperor, peace was restored and lost by Skywalker, with the First Order and their Nazi-esque ways taking possession of the galaxy, and Hux keeping command of an army of stormtroopers while Ren attempts to live up to the legacy of Darth Vader, making him the most temperamental of the new characters, prone to lightsaber-slashing tantrums (Driver is exceptional here).


However, Ren isn’t the mystery that drives the screenplay (co-written by Lawrence Kasdan, who previously scripted Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back). The question mark is Luke Skywalker, whose self-imposed exile is the key that unlocks a new wave of players in the saga.


Finn and Rey represent the next generation of Star Wars heroes. The turncoat stormtrooper initially tries to save his own skin, while the scavenger is the horizon-gazing dreamer of the movie, left behind on Jakku for reasons that aren’t immediately understood.


Their eventual union is the lightning strike that puts the story in motion, with the pair exploring strange new worlds as they experience life beyond daily duty, including a high-speed chase through the ruins of Jakku once they come across the Millennium Falcon (which is gifted the best introduction in the picture).


The relationship between Rey and Finn forms the foundation of The Force Awakens, as they experience several clashes with the First Order (Abrams loves to toss around stormtroopers during these skirmishes).


The pair is eventually joined by Solo and Chewbacca, permitting Abrams to indulge longtime fans. Thankfully, the scoundrel and the walking carpet are given a few things to do. Instead of milking the appearance, the screenplay makes Solo an important participant, with his knowledge of what’s come before and what lies ahead. And there’s the cheap thrill of seeing Ford back in Solo mode, encountering only a slight dulling of his rapscallion ways. Chewie, however, is as high-maintenance as ever.  


General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) arrives in the film’s second half, creating specific tension with Solo as the pair confronts their fractured relationship. But the picture is careful to introduce a few new characters as well, including Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), a diminutive, 1,000-year-old sage who runs a cantina out of her castle.

 

Along with Snoke (an iffy visual), Maz represents the CGI-crafted population in a feature that’s largely crowded with puppets, rubber masks, and a rolling droid in BB-8 (a delightful creation). The transition is jarring, but not completely unappealing. Still, glimpses of make-up and practical effects are the true gift. Disney has been demanding with their review requirements (there may be a sniper outside my window as I write this), and I wouldn’t spoil the feature for others.

 

However, there is a formula to The Force Awakens that might rub some fans the wrong way. Abrams and Kasdan essentially recycle events from A New Hope. Cynics will likely scoff, but it seems to be a calculated move to help launch a modern saga with different participants.


The Force Awakens ends with a humdinger of a cliffhanger that makes the wait for Episode VIII (due in May 2017) all the more painful. Déjà vu is persistent, but Abrams taps into the soul of Star Wars with an understanding of what made the George Lucas years so special.

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