Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A droid is sent to a desert planet so an evil empire can’t get the intel hidden inside of it. Young people discover their connection both to a conflict of earlier years and to the Force. There’s a colorful watering hole where aliens of all sorts listen to music and learn vital information that will move the plot forward. There’s a giant planet-destroying weapon that must be brought down. Old heroes will make way for new heroes to emerge.
And it’s all set against a rousing score by Oscar-winning composer John Williams.
Stepping into the pilot’s seat on the gargantuan “Star Wars” franchise, director and co-writer (with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt) J.J. Abrams has adopted the relatively cautious strategy of essentially remaking the original “Star Wars” (or, if you must, “Episode IV: A New Hope”), which allows him to delight fans by bringing back the original players while at the same time laying down the groundwork of the new good guys and bad guys that we’ll get to know over the course of the next several sequels.
It’s not a bad strategy — what is “Creed,” after all, if not a contemporary re-do of “Rocky?” — and Abrams and company bring enough verve to the proceedings to create some wonderfully exciting moments alongside the reunions and the revelations. There are some slower bits, and an ending designed to leave you wanting more, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a tingle in my neck at the familiar opening of Williams’ score.
Skip a few paragraphs if you want to go in completely cold, but either way, I’ll avoid spoilers as much as possible:
The Empire has struck back again, with something called The First Order rising to power from the ashes. General Leia (Carrie Fisher) continues to hold together what’s left of the Republic, and her hopes are pinned on finding a long-missing Luke Skywalker (played in the original trilogy by Mark Hamill). Rebel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) gets an essential map of Luke’s whereabouts from Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow), but is immediately captured by First Order general Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
Poe is rescued by stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega, “Attack the Block”) who is horrified by the bloodshed caused when Lor’s village is massacred; when their TIE fighter crashes, Poe is apparently swallowed into the earth with the ship, but Finn must find BB-8, Poe’s droid who has vital information. In his search, Finn encounters orphan Rey (Daisy Ridley), a spare-parts scavenger who has found BB-8. Finn lies and says he is a member of the Resistance, and that he must get the droid back to base immediately.
After that, much of the fun in “The Force Awakens” is in the surprise appearance of familiar faces, and their interactions with each other and with the new players. Abrams and his writers frequently commit what’s become known as “fan service” — dialogue or scenes that are only there to delight the well-initiated — but they never do so at the story’s expense.
So when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) turns up and does and says the things he does, it’s fun partially because of the character’s history but mostly because Ford so easily steps back into that vest to mix laconic banter with no-nonsense swashbuckling. (His bristly romantic repartee with Fisher remains as crackling as ever.)
Abrams finds a new angle on the material, whether it’s literal or philosophical: “The Force Awakens” offers us, for example, the sight of blood on a gleaming white stormtrooper uniform, or women piloting X-wings, or the destruction of a planet from the POV of its residents, and while these aren’t huge departures from what George Lucas gave us a long time ago, they provide jolts of novelty. (Hat-tip to the writers for subverting the old cliché where the man grabs the woman by the wrist and leads her to safety.)
He’s also cast the film wisely, with engaging performers like Ridley, Boyega, Isaac and Driver, all of whom make strong impressions very quickly, and who are charismatic enough to make us care about their characters — even with fairly scant backstories, in some cases — and to want to see where their paths will take them.
The pacing could certainly be tighter — this movie’s sequence involving the equivalent of the Mos Eisley Cantina drags on quite a bit, even with Lupita Nyong’o‘s heartfelt motion-capture performance as proprietor Maz Kanata — and the familiarity does occasionally lead to a cocked eyebrow. (Seriously, did the Empire’s architects learn nothing from the Death Star’s ventilation shafts?)
Fans will be most relieved to know that there are no Ewoks, no Jar Jar Binks, no midi-chlorians, no “Yippee!” Abrams had the benefit of learning what didn’t work in Lucas’ prequels, and he’s gone in the opposite direction. He’s also set an interesting course for moving forward with this engaging cast playing new characters making their way through this beloved universe.