Since his leap from television to movies with 2006’s Mission: Impossible 3, J.J. Abrams has made a career out of peddling nostalgia-laden spectacles designed to remind his demographic of their childhood. There was Super 8, his ode to Spielberg and Amblin, and his two Star Trek films, throwbacks to adventure science fiction from a bygone era. So when Disney bought the rights to the Star Wars franchise away from George Lucas and announced the impending Episode 7 with Abrams tapped to direct, it all made sense. The brand had been pretty seriously harmed in the eyes of the fans by disappointing prequels and Lucas’ insatiable appetite for tweaking the originals with new scenes and CG to the point that Star Wars as a concept was in danger of becoming a joke. Who better to save it than a proven crowd pleaser like Abrams?
This new tale begins 30 years or so after Return of the Jedi, with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) gone missing and a new malevolent force, The First Order, seizing power in the galaxy in the tradition of the Sith and the Empire led by masked mystery Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and ultra-fascist General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). The Resistance, led by General Leia (Carrie Fischer) and hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), have recovered a key piece of evidence that could lead them to Luke’s whereabouts, and scramble to find the man that could be their savior while also trying to hold back the mounting First Order from reclaiming the entirety of the galaxy. Stuck in the middle of it all are Finn (John Boyega), a former Stormtrooper who fled the First Order when he witnessed their cruelty first hand, and Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who befriends Poe’s astromech droid BB-8 without the knowledge that it was carrying the vital intel about Luke. Finn and Rey form an uneasy alliance, but when the ship they steal in order to leave the planet Jakku turns out to be the Millennium Falcon and its most recent owners, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) track it down, they all can’t help but be sucked into the conflict.
To be honest, the plot of Star Wars: The Force Awakens doesn’t matter all that much. What matters is the feel of the world, the way it’s shot and presented, its weight and its conviction as a setting to grow the characters and their stories. This is what Lucas failed to do in the prequels, but Abrams is a savvy enough filmmaker that he knows how to inject new life into familiar places. The Force Awakens feels much more apiece with the original trilogy than the prequels, bringing back that sense of a ragtag group of individuals on the fringe brought together to fight a monolithic menace. Abrams apes the style of Lucas and Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand with uncanny skill, with all the iris wipes and wacky transitions and rack focusing that came to define the look of this long ago and far away galaxy. Most importantly, though, is how Abrams manages to bring weight back into the series, relying more on practical effects than the prequels to better serve the actors and their performances. Gone is the stilted prose of Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen; these actors look like they actually want to be there.
And what a cast they’ve managed to put together here. John Boyega hasn’t done too much since his breakout performance in Attack the Block, but he is quite magnetic as the shellshocked deserter Stormtrooper fighting against years of conditioning and locked into the flight side of the fight or flight mentality. Oscar Isaac has been impressing for years in films like Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year and Ex Machina (also featuring the younger Gleeson as this movie does), and he brings unending charisma and that perfect movie star chin to a Han Solo for a new age. Adam Driver, more of a wild card as the film’s villain and heir apparent to Darth Vader, is also excellent, tempering his intimidation with the right sort of confliction to draw the audience in. The find of the film, though, is clearly Daisy Ridley, a natural star if ever there were. There is a lot of Keira Knightley in both her look and her voice, but she carves her own path here, a fiercely independent female protagonist and the single most exciting aspect of the film. This is a woman that has the poise and the chops to carry films by herself.
The characters are solid, the acting is a huge step up from the wooden performances that exemplified the prequels, and the setting looks like it should. So why does The Force Awakens fail to completely inspire the way A New Hope did in 1977? The answer also lies at the feet of Abrams; for all the good he brings in terms of visual flair and conviction, he also cannot shake that need to revel in the past. The plot of The Force Awakens, especially as it reaches its perhaps overly frenetic climax, is so close to that of A New Hope that it almost wouldn’t be out of line to consider it a remake. This is exactly what Abrams did with Star Trek Into Darkness, which was clearly the lesser of his two trips on the Enterprise, and while he isn’t using new actors in the same roles as was the case there, it is easy, and arguably encouraged, to draw a direct line from nearly every character in The Force Awakens to a counterpart in A New Hope. To his credit, he never specifically recreates whole scenes like he lifted from The Wrath of Khan in Into Darkness, but the parallels are so clear and blatant that it is both impossible not to notice and impossible not to be taken out of the spell by the predictability of it all. It is easy to extract exactly where the story is going from the 40 minute mark or so, and while it certainly is not necessary for all films to be exciting, twisty labyrinths designed to keep their audiences on their collective toes, too much familiarity can be frustratingly distracting. As such, the last act of The Force Awakens becomes its worst, and while not all of the momentum from its thrilling first 45 minutes is lost in the retreading, enough of it is eroded that it cannot be ignored.
Even considering this, J.J. Abrams was still the correct sort of director to bring into a franchise on the downturn like Star Wars was. He has competently and professionally restored the faith of millions of fans, and while the new characters he has brought into the fold play a derivative role in the plot of The Force Awakens, they have the sort of spark and excitement in their traits and performances that they can become something special if given the chance to break away from the mold. There is no mold-breaking in The Force Awakens. It is perfectly content to be what it is, wallowing in the nostalgia of what came before it. This is a film that, arguably like Abrams himself, lacks the ambition and creativity to forge out on its own, but it does manage to set the table with aplomb. If Disney lets the likes of Rian Johnson (the indie wunderkind director of Brick and Looper who is both writing and directing episode 8) go somewhere truly new and exciting with the characters established here, it could result in something truly special. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not quite special, but it is a competent, often thrilling action spectacle that breezes through its 135 minutes like it’s no time at all