'Star Wars' goes back to the future with familiar but engaging 'The Force Awakens'

Stellar ensemble keeps the exciting, derivative space opera surprisingly relatable

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Photo credit: ©LUCASFILM 2015
REUNION TOUR: With Chewbacca by his side, Harrison Ford (right) nails his comeback as Han Solo in <i>The Force Awakens</i>.

In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh episode of the wildly popular sci-fi adventure, "The First Order" is an Empire-like regime of stormtroopers and space Nazis threatening the safety of the galaxy. The first order for director/co-writer J.J. Abrams, however, was clearly a course correction in the direction of the space opera franchise.
Despite launching Star Wars in 1977, George Lucas' prequel trilogy (released 1999, 2002, 2005) was deservedly criticized for its wooden acting, sluggish timing, painful comic relief, and over-reliance on computer-generated effects (all of which were embodied in, but not limited to, the character of Jar Jar Binks).
At the helm, Abrams spins the wheel 180 degrees so that The Force Awakens delivers relatable performances, headlong momentum, laugh-out-loud jokes, and practical special effects that make the fantastical proceedings feel grounded in reality. The Force Awakens tends to be self-consciously derivative of Star Wars' most popular installments, but largely at the service of transporting its audience.
On the desert plant of Jakku, our lonely heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) ekes out an existence by scavenging among the wreckage of war machines, which visually convey the passage of time and enormous scope of the previous films' interstellar conflicts. Rey gets caught up in major events when she chances to rescue lovable ball-droid BB-8, who carries secret information sought by both the thugs of the First Order and the Resistance fighters who oppose them.
Enforcing the First Order's terror tactics is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver of "Girls"), a merciless tyrant with a black costume, modified voice, and paranormal powers. If he seems like a Darth Vader wannabe, no one is more aware of that than Kylo, who worries that he won't live up to the Sith Lord's evil example.
Kylo Ren's stormtroopers seem like interchangeable killing machines, but one called FN2187 (Attack the Block's John Boyega) reacts with revulsion to its murderous ways. We first see him with bloody streaks on his white helmet, distinguishing him from his cohorts. Taking the name Finn, the soldier further asserts his individuality by deserting to aid the Resistance.
After some unsteady early scenes, The Force Awakens finds its footing when Rey and Finn meet up and make a terrific pair. Despite being raised by the First Order, Finn tends to be an endearing goofball, working overtime to impress Rey. Rey shows high-energy enthusiasm for fixing machines and seeing the galaxy, while repeatedly asserting her independence: "Stop holding my hand!" she tells Finn whenever they have to flee from assailants. Soon enough, they cross paths with Han Solo (Harrison Ford), his shaggy co-pilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and their famed ship, the Millennium Falcon.
Ford has been famously uninterested in Star Wars and its fandom, but here he gives possibly his best performance in the series. Since the events of Return of the Jedi, age has replaced some of his smuggler's swagger with nostalgia and regret. Between quips and laser blasts, Ford cultivates some Clint Eastwood-style gravitas.
Of the other three leads of first films, Carrie Fisher's General Leia Organa has much less screen time than Ford, but proves alternately flinty and warm. And as for Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker — well, Luke's situation is one of The Force Awakens' biggest secrets.
One of the The Force Awakens' striking aspects is just how good it looks with its exotic locations, spacious sets, and aliens created with makeup, costumes, and even enormous body puppets. Its old-school aesthetic feels weirdly subversive at a time when most franchise movies are shot on green screens, with places, props, and even characters put in later. Awakens certainly doesn't avoid CGI effects, but they seem subordinate to the tangible aspects of the storytelling.
The unavoidable, Death Star-sized problem with The Force Awakens is the extent to which it imitates the 1977 film, A New Hope, from plot points to emotional beats to the way the places look. At times, it feels like Abrams and company are saying "Did you like A New Hope? Well, here it is again!" Abrams' previous films, including Super 8 and the Star Trek reboots, tend to feel like loving imitations of earlier works, and The Force Awakens falls in that pattern.
Fortunately, The Force Awakens has a strong ensemble to come to the rescue. Ford may be the film's MVP, but Ridley, Boyega, and Driver are all charismatic players taking their roles through intriguing arcs — and I haven't even mentioned Oscar Isaac as swashbuckling pilot Poe Dameron. Star Wars: The Force Awakens leaves viewers excited to see where the franchise goes and does a stellar job passing the torch — that is, the lightsaber — to the next generation. (4 out of 5 stars)