30 years have passed, it seems, since “Return of the Jedi” but Abrams, ever an accelerative filmmaker, is not concerned with relaying so much backstory. Instead he provides the iconic opening scroll, with concise sentences telling us what we need to know, that a vaguely defined First Order has risen from the ashes of the Galactic Empire and that a Resistance rather than a Rebellion has met it head on, and that the best pilot in the resistance – Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) – is on a secret mission to locate the whereabouts of one Luke Skywalker to aid the cause. In other words, Luke has become what Obi Wan Kenobi was in “A New Hope”, a peripheral caretaker, necessary to the cause though not its primary point.
This search involves a new droid, the mellifluously named BB-8, which moves less like R2-D2 than a lovable Scottish Terrier, and BB-8 has a map implanted in its memory bank when Poe is captured by the First Order’s mouth breathing chief henchman, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). This bad guy homages Darth Vader, of course, but as Abrams does throughout, he both nods at the past and looks to the future by having Kylo remove his mask early rather than interminably drawing the reveal out. It’s smart, and it’s also indicative of how Abrams primary interest lies in rescuing new century “Star Wars” from its inadvertent anti-human stance, giving us actual people in primary roles who even without great depth of emotion have emotions that are understandable, relatable and substantial. And if these characters come across as being familiar to the icons of yore, they are not automatons; they are themselves, and they are wonderful.
Amidst so many special effects, often the best images on screen are simply those of human faces, like an indelible shot of a Storm Trooper removing his white helmet to reveal the visage of a panicky John Boyega underneath. This speaks to a broader point, the way in which Abrams captures details that Lucas merely glanced over – a storm trooper, who were mainly just foils for our heroes in the originals, given a face and a name. He’s FN-2187, a number bestowed by the First Order since he’s been orphaned, but a crisis of conscious leads him to bail and help Poe, who renames FN-2187 “Finn”, and they escape to the desert planet of Tatooine which is called Jakku as if trying to cover for the fact we all know it’s Tatooine. Boyega, so charismatically indestructible in “Attack the Block”, here has a comic, yet never annoying, fear, a little less Luke, a little more screwball hero, trying to get out of bad situations only to blunder right into them, perpetually convinced he’s a little more valiant than he actually is.
If Boyega’s a little bit Luke, a little bit C-3P0, then Daisy Ridley, the series’ new superstar, like Taylor Swift of the Western Reaches, is a little bit Luke, a little bit Han Solo. She is Rey, a self-sufficient scavenger on
And it these introductory passages that make up the first-third of the film, as everyone is rounded up, Poe apparently vanishes into thin air (or does he?), Rey and Finn become buddies as they squire BB-8 and his precious information, and the narrative wheels are set in motion, that “The Force Awakens” positively flies, like the Millenium Falcon itself, which re-appears at a crucial moment with Rey at the controls and takes us on a chase worth all the spice of Kessel. As the enemies pursue, and Finn’s gun turret gets stuck in place, Rey jams on the spaceship parking brake, bringing the Falcon into freefall, allowing it to momentarily hang in place so Finn can get off a shot, and frankly, I wanted to hang right there in that instant forever.
If “The Force Awakens” doesn’t lose its way, per se, it blunts that momentum in the middle portions when things need to get aligned, both for this movie and for later ones. Abrams has always best with the throttle all the way down, less so when it isn’t, and these passages are the closest his creation gets to the self-serious slog of the prequels as it tends to a few housekeeping affairs. Yet as if calculating this deficiency, this is also when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) re-appears, alongside his old pal Chewbacca. His character has apparently extracted himself from inter-galactic politics once again, only to once again get pulled back in, which seems entirely apropos, and Ford, while gray and gruff, never seems disinterested, and in the brief sequences he gets opposite Carrie Fisher as General (though, as one character says, “she’ll always be royalty to me”) Leia, they don’t crackle so much as dance around one another like long-married and consequently worn-down lovers. “Same jacket,” she says. “New jacket,” he replies, and Ford gives it the familiar ring of a defensive spouse.
Han Solo factors into the plot in a crucial way, which is not to be revealed, but unfolds over a concluding act that re-gains a good portion of the first-third’s energy and involves several set pieces in different locales, a hallmark of the earlier films, including a hellacious light saber duel that Abrams sets against snowy backdrop for no other reason I could detect than damn those light sabers look good against the falling snow. There is a moment in the midst of this duel when Abrams quotes one of the series’ best shots: a lightsaber entrenched in snow and summoned by the hand of a Jedi. Who summons it is not for me to say, but when it happens, tears filled my eyes, and here, dear reader, is where I, stone-faced critic, must excuse myself from critique and confirm that, yes, the lightsaber, one of which I received as a Christmas present in the first house where I ever lived, was a crucial totem of my childhood. And while one might be compelled to argue that this moment is mere repetition of a previous shot, it is and it isn’t; glowing against that pristine snow, the lightsaber looks very much like a torch, which it symbolically is, passed from one generation to the next. Godspeed.