Star Wars franchise shakes off those prequel blues with The Force Awakens

Daisy Ridley plays the savvy scrap-metal scavenger Rey, who has unspecified mysterious origins, mystical and mechanical talents and a whole lot of attitude.

Daisy Ridley plays the savvy scrap-metal scavenger Rey, who has unspecified mysterious origins, mystical and mechanical talents and a whole lot of attitude.

Last Thursday evening, did you feel a great disturbance in the Force, like a collective exhalation from millions and millions of Star Wars fans? That was a sigh of relief, prompted by the realization that the beloved franchise’s latest cinematic installment, J. J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens, was not going to be anywhere near as dreadful as George Lucas’ disappointing prequel trilogy. In fact, I’m delighted to report, it almost lives up to the megahype that preceded its release, capturing much of the charm of the original series.

If you haven’t seen the new movie yet and want to walk into the theater with absolutely no preconceptions about what’s about to unfold, that’s really all that you need to know, and you can stop reading this right now. It’s worth seeing. It’s not awful. It doesn’t suck.

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This is your official warning: There are (mild) spoilers below. I’m not going to mention any big shockers; but since The Force Awakens has been out for a week now and everybody’s talking about it, I’m going to take the liberty of explaining some of the setup. Nothing of import will be spoiled that doesn’t get communicated during Act One of the script. Are you ready? If not, TURN THE PAGE NOW.

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In saying that The Force Awakens brings the Star Wars universe back to the winning combo of cheeky tone and spirits-lifting heroics that endeared the original trilogy to so many, I must also caution that there is some price to be paid in terms of narrative originality. You may have already heard some critics say that the new movie hits a lot of the same beats and reiterates some of the same themes as Star Wars IV (which was really Star Wars I), a/k/a A New Hope. They’re right, but you’ll probably be having too much unadulterated fun to notice.

Peaceful interplanetary United Nations analogue threatened by resurgence of nasty bad-guy army of white-armored Storm Troopers, directed by Naziesque generals and black-helmeted adept in the Dark Side of the Force? Check. Restless youth potentially gifted with the Force scraping out a living and racing junker flying machines on a bleak desert planet before being swept up into the incipient resistance movement? Check. Really cute beeping droid harboring MacGuffin that the bad guys are after? Check. Wise mentor figure? Check. Oil-and-water matchup of appealing young man and woman who flirt by bickering? Check. Breathtaking daredevil aerial chases? Check. Planets blowing up? Check. Highly dysfunctional father/son relationship? Check.

Yes, in many respects we’ve seen this all before, and the trio who were central to the original saga put in appearances to deliver the requisite nostalgia quotient. More significant to some, in terms of enjoyment, will be the elements that were taken out that dragged down the prequels: There’s no truly terrible acting; no gigantic CGI battles between clone and robot armies about whose fate we really don’t give a fig; no cringeworthy Jar Jar Binks. The action stunts and space-travel footage are rendered using techniques much closer to the ’80s technology of the original series, making them much more viscerally exciting than the excessive reliance upon sterile-looking CGI in the prequels.

Though original stars Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill get top billing in the new movie’s ad campaign, The Force Awakens really functions as a passing of the torch to the next Star Wars generation; Hamill in particular gets hardly any screentime at all as Luke Skywalker. The really good news is that Abrams hired the brilliant casting director Nina Gold, who, like Lucas in his original series, cast actors who were relatively unknown quantities to portray the three young lead parts. And all three are terrific, engaging the audience emotionally in the characters’ arcs in a way that the prequels assuredly did not. The most familiar of the three is Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex Machina), who plays the hotshot X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron. John Boyega portrays Finn, a Storm Trooper with a conscience who tries to flee the First Order, the new incarnation of the wicked old Galactic Empire. And Daisy Ridley plays the savvy scrap-metal scavenger Rey, who has unspecified mysterious origins, mystical and mechanical talents and a whole lot of attitude.

Our story begins 30 years or so after the mostly-happy ending of Return of the Jedi, but much has gone wrong in the interim. General Leia Organa (Fisher) still heads up the Republic, eschewing her former princess title, but the bad guys are back wreaking interstellar mayhem. And Luke – the last of the Jedi after his most promising acolyte has gone rogue, massacred all his classmates and joined the First Order – blames himself and has gone into seclusion. Only adorable rolling droid BB-8 has the star map that tells where he’s hiding.

Complicating matters (spoiler incoming!) is the fact that said rampaging convert to the Dark Side, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is really Ben Solo, Han (Ford) and Leia’s son, who aspires to out-villain his Grandpa Vader. His spectacular fall from grace has driven a wedge between his parents, with a despairing Han returning to his former intergalactic smuggling career. As the threat from the First Order ratchets up and Kylo Ren assumes a more visible leadership role, it becomes Han’s mission to overcome his cynicism, track down his son and woo him back to his family, the Jedi and the Republic.

This daunting task seems remotely possible, as the callow young baddie-wannabe feels conflicted over his defection, seduced at moments by the lure of the Light Side, which he sees as a weakness. More truly problematic is his explosive temper; his tantrums are some of the funniest bits in the film. Kylo Ren is the most nuanced villain character yet encountered in the moral-absolutist Star Wars universe, and Driver handles the challenge very well. When he emerges from his black skull-shaped helmet, he’s done up to resemble Severus Snape, the ambiguous Dark Arts professor from the Harry Potter saga, his pallid visage and crooked nose framed by long dark hair. The resemblance is most striking in a scene where Ren has a Force-fueled battle of wills with Rey, which may remind you much of Harry and Snape’s Occlumency lessons gone awry.

There’s other crossover fan-service to be found here, as well as plenty of shout-outs to iconic moments from the earlier series (including a new cantina populated by an amusing array of rubbery creatures from many a planet). A crucial confrontation occurs on a narrow bridge spanning a chasm that calls to mind not only a certain epic light-saber duel, but also Gandalf’s faceoff with the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings. The Force Awakens is a veritable carton full of Easter eggs that will inspire geeks of all stripes to geek out – not just diehard Star Wars fans.

One significant way in which the new film outshines all of its predecessors is the greatly expanded role of female characters, good, evil and inscrutable. No more just the one feisty princess surrounded by men of action! It looks very much like Rey is being set up to be the kickass central protagonist of the newest trilogy, not merely a sidekick/romantic interest who’s handy with a blaster. Rey’s initial mentor figure is the alien pirate barkeep Maz Kanata, voiced by Lupita Nyong’o. Even the Storm Troopers have their first female officer in Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma. And Leia is still a boss, harder and wearier but very much in command. Parents of daughters will rejoice.

Whether you’re new to the galaxy far, far away or an obsessive longtime fan, The Force Awakens will not disappoint. It’s nothing particularly deep, but it’s well-written, directed, acted, paced and shot, with a good balance of relatable characters and thrilling action sequences. The John Williams score is every bit as stirring as the first one that he composed for A New Hope. What’s not to like? Go, have fun, and may the Force be with you.

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