4 / 5 stars
The skills needed to properly rejigger the Star Wars series happen, luckily enough, to be J.J. Abrams’ strong suit: Understanding popular sci-fi culture remarkably well and evolving its mythology. Abrams exhibited these talents long before Star Wars was a gleam in his eye, right on your TV screen with Lost. There, his isolated universe had sci-fi zeitgeist written all over it, tapping into viewers’ thirst for that magic combination of the familiar and the tantalizing unknown. That drives Star Wars: The Force Awakens hard, with Abrams tapping far deeper, tickling the psyche of the Star Wars Army by lavishing fans (especially those 35 and older) with loving memories of films bygone but never forgotten. Like Han Solo on the Millennium Falcon, Abrams and team know just which buttons to push and switches to switch. And they do a damned good job flying the ship.
Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan (thank goodness) and Michael Arndt, had an excellent head start simply because the new Star Wars series moves forward rather than lingering in the prequel past. This is important because the “future” is where our most beloved heroes live, where our brains can be filled with the nostalgia that was so brutally lacking in Episodes I-III. The familiar faces, including Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, are 30 years older, but they’re inhabiting characters that have been so meaningful to so many; to know them is to love them. Studies have shown that our preferences as adults are often shaped by what we did as kids, but Star Wars: The Force Awakens is more than the result of Abrams as pop psychologist. It’s the output of Abrams as a passionate fan, making the movie that he’d really want to see.
This is excellent news for the series. The Force Awakens is really the Star Wars film you’ve always wanted, too, that elusive next part of the original trilogy. The plot answers questions about the characters you didn’t even think to ask, and the storyline is steeped in Star Wars lore – so much so, that it sometimes feels like the newer actors are taking part in a Star Wars theme park adventure.
But these fresh faces and characters are also the greatest source of energy for the film, and show a wonderful promise for the episodes to come. John Boyega exhibits the confident lone-wolf attitude of a young Han Solo, but with the sense of discovery and naivete that should make him an instant hit with viewers (the fact that his character has a code number for a name is a nice wink to Lucas’s THX-1138). Daisy Ridley is a flat-out sci-fi superstar, teeming with moxie and physical verve. I’m more than happy to have her lead these films, and I’ll bet Abrams would say the same.
With young and old (okay, older) in all the right roles, Abrams and team work from the tried-and-true Star Wars blueprint: there’s an endearing little droid carrying vital wartime information, unwitting heroes outrunning the bad guys, stopovers at villages with surreal surroundings, a spiritual force, characters teetering on the precipice of good and evil. And it’s all great. But working this closely to a film that already exists is a double-edged sword: It’s a love letter to fans, of course, but it can also seem pandering, as if we’re not attentive enough to put up with some truly new ideas.
A huge leap ahead in the series is Abrams’ visual approach to battle scenes, with today’s special effects allowing us to follow a single ship jerking and zooming across the sky from a ground-level view. We witness action in the sky and a gunfight in the grass at the same time, in one complex shot. This was probably within Lucas’s grasp in previous films, but the Star Wars creator leaned instead on a chaotic deluge of spaceships and light. Abrams’s work feels organic and easy to enjoy.
Speaking of Abrams, we’re not talking about a top film director in the industry but, instead, a movie maker, and that’s an important distinction. He’s huge on ideas and fandom, and that’s a creative necessity here. It’s a big part of what makes The Force Awakens a one-film success and multiple-movie springboard all in one rousing, big-hit package.