J. J. Abrams, Disney whispering in his ear, calls Star Wars back from the brink of irrelevance. “The Force Awakens” is respectful to the point of pandering.
This franchise took a lesson from failure, read the manual, and followed it to a T. We’re not frustrated with the lack of novelty. Rather, we’re all breathing a sigh of relief. Abrams takes us back to the rakish golden era in terms of plot and mood. The Force is with this reboot, if tentatively.
The Empire has been struck a grave blow, but threatens revival in the form of The First Order, knockoff Nazis with a bigger, badder Death Star. The Resistance can’t fight back without the last Jedi, but Luke Skywalker is nowhere to be found. Our only clue to finding him is a piece of a map secreted away in another adorably booping droid who’s been abandoned on a remote desert planet to be discovered by a plucky, disenfranchised youth burdened with glorious destiny.
The coming years will be a trial of our loyalty, but less frightening than the Christensen-era, given we have such a personable roster of named players. Starting with our fresh faces: Daisy Ridley (“Scrawl”), as Rey, unites the casual, barely-an-actress vibe of Jennifer Lawrence with the self-possessed screen dominance of Anna Kendrick. She’s Luke, except with verve. Playing off her straightman poise is the comedically out of place John Boyega (“Half of a Yellow Sun”), playing our traitor-stormtrooper and beloved knucklehead, Finn. The cherry on top is Oscar Isaac (“Ex Machina”), as Poe, whose brash charisma lays down the framework for Finn and Rey’s friendship, if not the optimistic emotional undercurrent of the entire flick. We ship Poe with everyone.
Ridley is the Disney princess of popular demand. Relentlessly competent, Rey rides obstinacy and coincidence to the apex of her galaxy’s needs, sheathed in resplendent plot armor and that ambiguous weather-hardened late youth that screams “violent backstory.” Her plasticity in the up-tempo plot is so extraordinary that her character arc feels superficial at times, as though her life were taking the backseat to her heroism. But isn’t it always that way, with heroes? And if you think Star Wars owed you novelty or introspection, you’re barking up the wrong Wookiee.
Ridley has space to grow in the next films. “The Force Awakens” only sets the pace, and that pace is meant to keep us out of breath. We come hurtling out of the gate with a plot whose velocity defends us from our own overthinking. There are so many potential throwbacks in Star Wars, it would be garish to dwell; Abrams, Lord of the Pastiche, picks the right ones. Especially satisfying Easter eggs include the titillating wobble of a lightsaber being summoned, Rey’s cry “Stop taking my hand!” (for those of us who remember how dopey Han looked running with Leia in “Empire Strikes Back”), Maz’s (Lupita Nyong'o, “Non-Stop”) iconic cantina, ripped from “A New Hope”, a dramatic confrontation on a narrow bridge (here there be spoilers), and our favorite, Han Solo telling us to respect the Force and the Jedi while standing in the exact same spot on the Millennium Falcon that he was standing when he told Luke that “hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”
Han Solo (Harrison Ford, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”) and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, “Maps to the Stars”) are the wind in this movie’s sails. There’s a note of self-aware absurdity in all sci-fi stories, and the best ones have a voice capable of lampshading on the right frequency to keep the world in check without breaking character. That has always been Han Solo for Star Wars, with that shrugging smile that dresses down an entire universe.
Ford is old guard, and his history shines though his one-liners (“Escape now. Hug later!”); his wily leadership recalls Indiana Jones and reminds us just how much baggage this movie inherits. When Ford asks Fisher, “Wasn’t all bad, was it?” he’s more than just Han, he’s the mouthpiece for the audience, a living elegy for late 20th century geek childhoods, unpretentious and organic, shepherding the new cast into the fold of cultural staples.
But the joy of “The Force Awakens” is majority elegiac. It feels like celebrating something that was, rather than something that is. We thrill in our seats when we see General Leia, not because it’s Leia, but because we’re excited to see Fisher reprising Leia, grateful that, so many years later, she’s still there for us and nothing has been forgotten. The promise of “The Force Awakens”is strong, but the script is often weak. You leave the theater lighter than air, but with nothing substantial to savor.
This trial of loyalty isn’t over, but "The Force Awakens" is so thick with the energy that made us fall in love with IV, V and VI, a twenty-something geek can’t help but have a little faith. And mercifully, there’s no fucking Jar Jar Binks this time.