When he re-released his 1977 blockbuster, George Lucas gave the first Star Wars the title A New Hope. It could just as easily apply to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The movie gives hope to true believers, especially after the turbid storytelling and digital overkill of the three prequels Lucas himself directed from 1999 to 2005. He’s got nothing to do with the new one. As fresh as the present moment, more than anything it’s a blast from the past.
For his first Star Wars, Lucas swiped key elements from Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 feudal adventure film The Hidden Fortress and repurposed them for his sci-fi swashbuckler. So it seems fair play that director J.J. Abrams and his co-screenwriters have done the same kind of borrowing.
They’ve taken the basic bones of Lucas’ milestone — settings, character types, conflicts — and created in The Force Awakens a lively movie that’s such an homage to its predecessor that it sometimes feels like a ripoff. An eye-popping, endlessly kinetic, funny and charming ripoff that remembers what Lucas forgot when he made his three prequels: Movies have the power to delight and transport us in a way no other art form can.
So yes, in some ways Awakens is as much a reboot as a continuation of the story told in the previous six flicks. Just the names and situations have changed.
The evil Sith of the first three films became the Empire. Now they’re called the First Order, overseeing those familiar white-armored storm troopers. (The evil overlords still have the exact same death-glam taste for metallic black-and-silver helmets and sweeping capes, and the gray-and-red industrial interiors of their vessels completely match the Imperial battle ships and Death Star from four decades ago.)
Oh, and yes, there’s a new Death Star, though it’s a bigger, actual planet called the Starkiller Base. And the Resistance (you may remember them as the Rebel Alliance) must find a way to destroy it. There’s a big bad Darth Vader-y villain, and one even worse than him. And, of course, there are some yearning young heroes who dream of bigger things and must embark on a soul-challenging, Joseph Campbell-style quest. In the case of these new dreamers, the movie happily brings the series’ gender and racial politics into the 21st century without making a big deal of it.
Dear readers, the following will contain no real spoilers. But here are some basics:
The last remaining Jedi knight, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone into self-imposed exile at an unknown location. An astral map to find him is hidden on a thumb drive inside an adorable droid called BB-8. Like R2-D2 before him, BB8 finds himself stranded on a desert planet like Tatooine, though this one is called Jakku.
It’s here that his motorized path crosses two significant newcomers to the Star Wars mythos: Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scrap-peddling scavenger who lives alone in the husk of a crashed Imperial AT-AT Walker, and Finn (John Boyega), a storm trooper who has decided that indiscriminate killing is no life for him. They’re both outcasts, orphans in some way. She’s a white girl, he’s a black guy, it’s no big deal. And they have to join forces to get out of one hell of a sudden mess.
What follows is a cascade of thrilling chases, light-speed escapes, moments of pleasurable mystical hokum and coincidental encounters in a galaxy that may be far, far away, but seems small enough for crucial characters to bump into each other often. Yes, here come Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Princess, er, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and the droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2.
We also meet Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a basso-voiced leader of the First Order with the sort of dark-side-of-the-Force skills to make Darth Vader proud; ace Resistance flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac); and a new wee and wise Yoda stand-in called Maz Kanata, played unrecognizably via motion capture by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o. (Speaking of Yoda, there’s a nightmarish/visionary sequence that recalls some of Luke Skywalker’s training with the short Jedi in The Empire Strikes Back.)
The how-they-meet and what-they-all-do-together, I leave to audiences to see for themselves. Just a few overall notes: The movie’s hyperdrive jump into this post-Return of the Jedi reality can feel both confident and slightly unsteady. We find ourselves stuck in the middle of another knotty family drama in the House of Skywalker, and it feels like we’ve missed out on 30 years of holiday newsletters keeping us abreast of both childhood delights and adolescent upheavals. There’s a lot of catching up to do. Also, the movie’s depiction of the Force can seem conveniently strong, as needed, especially with regards to one new character. (But there’s no mention here of midi-chlorians, thank heaven.)
That The Force Awakens plants us so skillfully in the tracks of the first Star Wars can be a mixed blessing. Sometimes the elbow-in-ribs tributes to familiar moments or situations from the 1977 film make you think, Yeah, I remember that! Other times, you think, Okay, I get it already, now show me something new. The movie offers the pleasures of familiarity and recognition, but it doesn’t advance the storytelling universe of the series in any notable way.
These are all small quibbles. The Force Awakens is going to be a monster hit regardless. The obvious love and skill that have gone into the moviemaking compensate for any niggling twinges of disappointment. You’ll have a hard time not smiling most of the way through it — starting with John Williams’s deathless opening fanfare, a goosebumps experience in all seven films.
And here’s some more good news. To find out what happens next, we only have to wait two years instead of the traditional three. Rian Johnson (Looper) is already busy shooting Episode VIII. See you in May 2017.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens. With Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Rated PG-13. 136 minutes. At metro theaters.