It’s an older franchise, sir, but it checks out. Well, sort of. Stop combing the desert because the galaxy far, far away is back. No, not the one from the prequels or the ill-fated holiday special that you all hate so much. It’s the one with which George Lucas used to blow the world’s collective mind back in 1977. The seventh episode of “Star Wars” is entitled “The Force Awakens,” aptly fitting since the franchise has practically been in an Exogorth-like stasis since Luke brought balance to the force and cremated Darth Vader in 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.”
In revamping the series, director J.J. Abrams (the sci-fi auteur who resurrected “Star Trek”) and co-screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt give fans what they want: the familiar faces and space swash-buckling they fell in love with over three decades ago. But is this entry worthy of the “Star Wars” name? Yes, but only because it’s a major rehash of Rancor-trodden territory too mired in its own massive mythology and reputation to forge a new path.
From the moment those yellow scrawling credits appeared onscreen against the starry void of space to John Williams’s sweeping score and the audience erupted in cheers and applause, I expected that we were all in for something special. What I can tell you is that the First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire 30 years after the rebels blew up the second Death Star in Episode VI. For all intents and purposes, they’re space Nazis.
Open on the desert planet of Jakku (a Tatooine by any other name) where top gun X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac was probably my favorite with his tough Brooklyn-guy demeanor) is given a map (by Max von Sydow for some reason) that will help the Resistance locate the whereabouts of a certain missing space wizard. When the First Order shows up and starts killing people with its new non-clone army of Stormtroopers, Poe hides the map in his gyroscopic BB-8 unit, the cutest little droid you ever did see and tops R2 in my Jawa sales book. Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because I practically just described the beginning of “A New Hope.” And thus is the underlying issue that plagues this movie: creative redundancies. Just because something isn’t broke doesn’t mean recycling is the correct course of action.
Anyway, this kicks off a search for the droid and a return to the simple good versus evil paradigms that critics lapped up when the originals came out. The dark side is led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a whiny Vader wannabe wearing a knock-off voice-deepening helmet because the Halloween store was all out of Darth ones. He is far from the greatest villain the franchise has ever seen and his modus operandi gives new meaning to the term “daddy issues” and may give rise to a new one: “granddaddy issues,” but his ultimate defining moment of the film is a dark day for the galaxy indeed that held no real punch emotionally for me. He and the First Order answer to Supreme Leader Snoke, a mysterious scarred CGI alien (played by Andy Serkis at home in motion capture once again) who is just a non-human version of Emperor Palpatine. Not much is known so I can only assume we’ll learn what his deal is in future sequels.
On the lighter side, we have Finn, a disillusioned Stormtrooper who is funny, caring, and daring. So screw the controversy surrounding John Boyega’s casting. He joins forces with Rey (Daisey Ridley), a Jakku scavenger and the strong female character (sans copper bikini)—other than Leia, of course—that defines a new generation of the series. Like Kylo, she comes with her own family baggage and bears secrets of her own.
And, of course, there’s the deluge of old friends and throwback references. It very much plays on our nostalgia (which “Jurassic World” proved could be a powerful money-spinner). Seeing Han, Chewie, Leia (now General Organa of the Resistance), C-3P0, R2D2 and General Ackbar will make your spine tingle with delight. Harrison Ford, in particular, still has it as the renegade, but now grumpy and grizzled Solo who’s traded in his vest for a fly jacket. Although some things may have changed, the Stormtroopers’ aim is still as bad as ever.
Continuing Lucas’ world building, the filmmakers go for as many practical effects as possible whether that means using Hensen-esque puppets or elaborate masks and make-up. One scene in a thousand-year-old intergalactic tavern was a great showcase of this, reminiscent of the Mos Eisley Cantina sequence in Episode IV. The desert and forest landscapes of Abu Dhabi and Ireland bring an authenticity that the green screened Coruscant and Naboo couldn’t deliver in the prequels. Even when special effects are necessary, they’re used to aid the story, not overtake it. One shot of TIE fighters silhouetted against a blazing sunset was like something powerful out of “Apocalypse Now.” The dogfights are thrilling and the Millennium Falcon still has some juice left in her even if she can’t do the Kessel Run in as few parsecs as she used to.
Of course, I’d trust no one else to do the soundtrack than John Williams, but some of his most iconic cues (“Leia’s Theme, “Binary Sunset,” etc.) somewhat eclipse his new themes here. Going off that, the climax is almost note-for-note the same as Episodes IV and VI just on a bigger scale with higher stakes, and even more shoddy science stolen from “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”
Episode VII can’t help but feel like a lead-up to something greater and ends on a cliffhanger, effectively setting up the sequel and you can bet there will be tons of those; Disney is gonna milk this thing until the banthas come home. Directors like Gareth Edwards and Rian Johnson will expand and improve the universe even further with “Rogue One” and “Episode VIII” in the coming years and really, who’s not excited for Han Solo’s solo origin movie?
“The Force Awakens” has already made an immense amount of money and is in the process of breaking every box office record imaginable. Nevertheless, it’s also a return to an old style of movie making that takes the audience into account and in doing so, we get to join the characters on their adventures and form an attachment to them. Even if I found this episode a little disappointing and can’t quite decide on my feelings about it, it is very much a gift to the fans, lovingly wrapped in all of our favorite things and executed with a somewhat new panache. Let’s just hope those scruffy-looking nerf herders over at Disney don’t get cocky.