Think about the dual context of that one shot. It doesn’t merely frame the material in a veneer of scope or ambition. What it does, perhaps necessarily, is remind audiences that all good stories must eventually circle back around to their direct intentions instead of distancing themselves from the past. There is a power in tradition, especially when it comes to galaxies far far away. “The Force Awakens” may involve characters and plot situations that occur 30-something years after the original “Star Wars” trilogy, but director J.J. Abrams and his two co-writers haven’t so much taken adventurous departures as they have remade the essence of “A New Hope” for modern convenience. There are moments where the details are even blatantly familiar. But after a trilogy of prequels that divided fans and countless novelizations over the last several years, is it any wonder that Abrams’ goal is so direct? Or that he wants to get right back to the basics of this complicated universe? There is no glory in moving a story forward without the necessary reminders of why.
The movie begins with the arrival of a hotshot rebel pilot named Poe (Oscar Isaac) arriving in a small desert establishment seeking audience with a wise elder (Max von Sydow), who holds critical information: namely, a map showing the location of the long lost Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has not been seen in many years. That’s because he was driven into self-imposed exile following the slaughter of his prized pupils at the hands of a fallen student, and in a climate where the galaxy is overrun by soldiers of “The First Order,” the will of the lost Jedi may be all that is left to stall the heinous efforts of the oppressors. That is especially true considering just how dangerous and expansive the dark side has become; spearheaded by a new leader calling himself Kylo Ren, they too hope to locate the whereabouts of Skywalker (preferably before the Resistance does) in order to eliminate him from the picture, all but guaranteeing their victory against a crumbling republic.
An ambush ensues, costing the pilot his freedom and the lives of all those in the village. Kylo Ren, desperately in search of the map, does not find it; strategically, Poe had it concealed in a small rotating droid (known as BB8) before getting caught, and that machine is now barreling through the expansive desert hoping to come to a safe destination to await his master. What the droid does instead, however, is run into the company of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young and ambitious scavenger who has little going for her in the desolate planet other than her wits and general common sense – two qualities that turn out to be a rarity in this place, it seems. Meanwhile, one of the storm troopers in Ren’s First Order army (played by John Boyega) breaks free from mental enslavement and joins Poe in an elaborate escape from the First Order’s ship, hopefully in time to locate BB8 and take back the map before Ren’s forces overtake them.
The plot carves a distinct path that recalls the underlying structure of “A New Hope,” but does so with enthusiastic new touches. A scene involving Rey and Finn (the recovered storm trooper) requires that they rush across desert terrain in order to escape an ambush, and they inadvertently hop onto a very familiar ship (now considered “trash”) in order to escape. Inevitably they will be picked up by that ship’s prior owner Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who has clearly been weathered by the hands of time; more sardonic but less cheerful, he regards the state of the universe from a place of snarky acceptance, and dreads the idea of becoming involved in yet another adventure involving saving Luke Skywalker. Unfortunately, that also means he will be required to cross paths with Leia (Carrie Fisher), who is now the acting general of the rebellion, and some unspoken realities between them have given their old romance an icy edge, like an act of pain putting a wedge between fatalistic lovers.
There is a certain forlorn quality in the performances by Ford and Fischer. The undisputed veterans of the “Star Wars” universe, both actors have undergone a plethora of lengthy and difficult transformations in the 40 years since they first joined Lucas’ epic, and they bear the battle scars of their experiences. These realities are reflected in faces that aren’t so much celebratory as they are meditative; on screen, they seem as if they are searching for answers that aren’t quite clear. That suggests a deeper level of history than one movie has the capability of revealing, but the screenplay by Abrams, Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan does not use them for the sole purpose of establishing continuity or nostalgia. It is clear that Leia and Solo have lived hard lifetimes, and their portrayers match that probability with sullen demeanors. They are very rich performances, and go far beyond the requirement that most directors would have asked for in a movie of this nature.
The specifics of what brings them together and what drives each of the key characters towards specific paths or goals is too precious to spoil in a review, but that’s a given. Shrouded in a whirlwind of secrecy since Disney announced the project, “The Force Awakens” has been one of the elusive wonders of the 2015 lineup, a movie of vast revelations that have been kept tightly under wraps until the 11th hour (even screenings for critics were far in between). What surprised me most about the end result (even as a moderate fan at best) was not the depth of the specifics or even the shock factor of some of the twists, but the underlying joy that permeates from each and every frame. This was not a movie made under the weight of calculated strategy; it was given life by those who took immense pride in their association, and sought to enhance an established legacy with grand enthusiasm. There are moments so precious that they inspire cheers, laughter, even swells of emotion. And the special effects anchor them without drowning out their potency, either. It would have been easy to do the exact opposite; visuals have excelled beyond the scope of the most vivid imaginations, and this is a series known for its benchmark technical values. But movie number seven stays firmly planted in the embrace of a narrative that gives great new characters an opportunity to flourish, and the technical wizardry is a supplement rather than the backbone.
Abrams, a passionate director and producer of action vehicles, is not like most of his peers. This is a man who over the course of the last ten years has shown a remarkable sense of perspective in the thick of potential nonsense, and has helmed endeavors (including the recent “Star Trek” reboot) that use visuals to dress up the edges rather than overwhelm the center. They are not noisy or crowded just for the sake of assaulting one’s view. With this latest example, he has not only established himself as the ideal voice for the modern “Star Wars” universe, but in many ways has been lifted into the tradition of some of the most gifted directors of the mainstream. More than Bruckheimer, Verbinski or Bay, he brings the intelligence of his ideas to the center of a distinctive foreground, and we find ourselves leaning forward in eagerness as his sense of style floods our imaginations. When you think about it, “Star Wars” has been a perennial vessel announcing the arrival of new and exciting trends in the capabilities of cinematic artists. What “The Force Awakens” teaches us is that there is a divide between the geniuses and the showmen of this crowded genre, and Abrams plants himself firmly in the role of the former while overseeing one hell of an enjoyable film.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi (US); 2015; Rated PG-13; Running Time: 135 Minutes
Daisy Ridley: Rey
John Boyega: Finn
Harrison Ford: Han Solo
Carrie Fisher: Princess Leia
Oscar Isaac: Poe Dameron
Adam Driver: Kylo Ren
Produced by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Leifur B. Dagfinnsson, Tommy Gormley, Tommy Harper, Lawrence Kasdan, Kathleen Kennedy, Jason D. McGatlin, Michelle Rejwan, Ben Rosenblatt and John Schwartz; Directed by J.J. Abrams; Written by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt; based on the characters created by George Lucas