Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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The most important thing to know about Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that it returns a sense of fun to a floundering franchise—one that also happens to be the best loved movie property in history.  With two new characters and a handful of old ones, the evergreen theme of good versus evil, solid action set pieces and the usual mystical ruminations on the force, the movie delivers capably while trading heavily on our collective nostalgia. Fans won’t mind; expect the picture to be largely embraced as a return to glory days a long time ago in a movie galaxy far, far away.  As such, it’s a good—not great—ride.

Co-written by director J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, Star Wars: The Force Awakens hews closely, (and wisely) to formula, which plays here like an updated riff on George Lucas’ 1977 original, and perhaps most importantly it all but erases the disastrous “prequel” pictures, roundly despised by fans and critics. Yet the story incorporates so many elements from its classic predecessor it nearly crosses from homage into pastiche—vast star destroyers, desert planets, droids holding important intel, a platonically plucky boy-girl warrior duo; a Mos Eisley-esque cantina and band; Stormtroopers incinerating a village of rebels; a new space station much larger than the Death Star; a holographic emperor of darkness and much, much more.

After defeating the evil Empire decades ago, the galaxy has been destabilized and a new and equally nefarious faction named the First Order has taken hold.  With intergalactic domination (what else?) on the agenda, its army resolves to find and kill threat Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).  Enter Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, enjoying himself), a crackerjack fighter pilot for the resistance, led by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher).  Before his capture, Poe places key Skywalker GPS info inside droid BB-8, jettisoned to desert planet Jakku.  See where this is going?

Jakku’s #1 garbage collector is plucky Rey (Daisy Ridley), who scavenges the barren planet amidst remnants of AT-AT walkers bartering scraps for food.  Rey is an abandoned child, but her isolation ends when she meets Finn (John Boyega, winning), an AWOL Stormtrooper in a crisis of conscience who also finds himself alone on Jakku, and the pair team up to get to the bottom of why BB-8 is such a hot commodity.

This involves commandeering a “junk” spacecraft named the Millennium Falcon, which in turn reintroduces the picture’s third main character, a welcome and iconic Harrison Ford returning to his signature role (or one of them) of smuggler Han Solo, who with Chewbacca leads the pair and Princess Leia. Their plan? To take down the First Order’s bigger, badder Death Star-esque headquarters.

On the dark side is Kylo Ren (an awkwardly miscast Adam Driver), a pale shadow of James Earle Jones’ towering Darth Vader. Like Vader, Ren is in services of the new order’s Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), a shadowy emperor-type that wants Skywalker eliminated at any cost.  And a campy Domhnall Gleeson turns up as young military commander Hux, barking orders from his starship.  You’ve seen all this before, not that it matters, because it is fun again, and I suppose that’s the point.

What’s new here is the energy between Ridley and Boyega, and the picture strives to make them a modern-day Luke and Leia with their friendly devotion and sweet chemistry. But despite the endearing presence of Ford and Fisher together again onscreen, the weariness in both characters replaces their memorable, bantering wisecracks. Fisher, especially, seems tired and resigned, a shadow of her sardonically witty former self, and it’s hard to see much the old Princess Leia in this performance.

Oscar-winner Lypita Nyong’o shows up in a motion capture role as Maz Kanata, the proprietor of a desert cantina who also happens to be a mystic, and hers is a motion capture performance that, I suppose, is this movie’s Yoda, and she holds an important key to Rey’s evolution as the resistance’s key heroine.

The less said the better; as per usual, there are secret identities and bloodlines at play, but I must say I never felt as close to Rey and Finn as I did to Luke Skywalker, who was a young man that wanted out of a small town and longed for a life of adventure away from the confines of familial responsibility, etc. Neither new character engenders such identification.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens looks great and sounds even better, courtesy of John Williams galvanic score, and its chief pleasures are seeing the aging Ford and Fisher back together, Ford’s Solo still dropping one liners but apparently now embracing the force he once derided (“It’s all real,” he explains to his young charges).

I was never bored by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but I was only intermittently thrilled by it. It’s competent, diverting and goes down easily, but it isn’t deep or rich or truly enthralling. Ultimately, the amiable movie plays like a greatest hits, let’s get the band back together road show, and while managing to find energy and a bit of pathos in both Ridley and Boyega; whether or not the picture is truly involving beyond its nostalgia is another matter.

The film’s final moment packs a wallop. As the score swells, so does the lump in your throat.

Recommended.

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