‘Force’ reinvigorates ‘Star Wars’ – Film tilts toward nostalgia over novelty

This photo provided by Disney shows a scene from the new film, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ The movie releases in the US on Dec 18. (AP)
This photo provided by Disney shows a scene from the new film, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ The movie releases in the US on Dec 18. (AP)

If the first “Star Wars” (1977) hadn’t already been rebranded “A New Hope,” that optimistic title might have applied just as well to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” reinvigorating the franchise with a welcome surge of energy, warmth and excitement after the misbegotten cycle of prequels released between 1999 and 2005, incoming writer-director J.J. Abrams seems to have had the original three films firmly in mind when he embarked on this monumental new undertaking, structured as a series of clever if sometimes wobbly callbacks to a trilogy that captivated a global audience and helped cement Hollywood’s blockbuster paradigm. Still, the reassuring familiarity of Abrams’ approach has its limitations: Marvelous as it is to catch up with Han Solo, Leia and the rest of the gang, fan service takes priority here over a somewhat thin, derivative story that, despite the presence of two appealing new stars, doesn’t exactly fire the imagination anew.

Still, the film’s tilt toward nostalgia over novelty will hardly prove a commercial liability; indeed, nothing short of a global cataclysm (and even then, who knows) is likely to keep Disney’s hugely anticipated Dec. 18 release from becoming the year’s top-grossing movie and possibly the most successful movie of all time, at least until the forthcoming episodes directed by Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow arrive. And if Abrams and his co-writers Lawrence Kasdan (back for more after “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”) and Michael Arndt have shouldered a near-impossible burden of audience expectations here, it’s hard not to look favorably upon “The Force Awakens” simply for being a massive improvement on “The Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones” and all but a handful of moments in “Revenge of the Sith” — taken together, a stultifying experiment in brand extension gone awry, in which Lucas’ much-vaunted technical wizardry and visual imagination proved no match for the unholy torpor of his storytelling.

By contrast, “The Force Awakens” feels disarmingly swift and light on its feet, possessed of a comic sensibility that embraces contemporary wisecrackery and earnest humor in equal measure. Shot on 35mm film (plus some 65mm Imax footage), in a decisive refutation of Lucas’ all-digital aesthetic, Abrams’ movie has grit under its nails and blood in its veins, as we see in an early battle sequence in which an Imperial Stormtrooper’s white helmet is suddenly streaked with red. A conflicted young warrior-slave who goes by the name of Finn (John Boyega), this Stormtrooper has been brainwashed into serving the First Order — a new army of galactic terrorists that arose from the ashes of the evil Empire, about three decades after the Battle of Endor. Doing battle with the First Order are the good men and women behind a rebel movement called the Resistance.


If all this sounds familiar, the similarities only continue from there. An ace Resistance pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, solid in a minor role) is captured by the First Order, but not before concealing a top-secret map inside a small droid, which he sends away to a desert planet. This time, the droid is not R2-D2 but an orange-colored, spherical-bodied model called BB-8; the desert planet is not Tatooine but Jakku; the human who adopts the droid is a tough young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley); and the coveted information concerns the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, the last of the Jedi knights, who has mysteriously gone missing. Escaping the First Order with Poe’s help, the desperate but good-hearted Finn crash-lands on Jakku, where he ultimately partners with Rey — who makes it quite clear that she’s in no need of rescuing, thank you very much — to ensure that BB-8’s intel makes it back to the Resistance.

Staying barely one step ahead of the enemy TIE fighters on their tail, Rey and Finn manage to commandeer the dust-choked but ever-durable Millennium Falcon, leading to a wild loop-de-loop chase scene in which Rey turns out to be an exceptionally gifted pilot. Of course, where the Falcon is, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) cannot be too far behind, and after turning up to reclaim his old spaceship (“Chewy, we’re home”), he reluctantly joins forces with Rey, whose presence has begun setting off curious rumblings within the Force. For their part, Rey and Finn can’t believe they’re seeing Han Solo in the flesh, and it’s hard not to discern in the young actors’ expressions a completely unfeigned delight at sharing the screen with Ford in one of his most iconic roles.

“It’s true — the Force, the Jedi, all of it. It’s all true,” Han murmurs at one point, and he seems to be addressing not just his new friends but also the audience, and with the sort of soulful conviction capable of converting even the most jaded “Star Wars” skeptics into true believers once again. It’s that desire to transport the viewer — to return us to a wondrous, childlike state of moviegoing innocence — that effectively sets the pattern for almost every subsequent development in “The Force Awakens.”

Much of this is fairly intuitive: It simply wouldn’t be vintage “Star Wars” if someone didn’t mutter “I have a bad feeling about this,” or if audiences didn’t get an update on their favorite gold-plated worrywart C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), his squat sidekick R2-D2, and that fish-faced fan favorite Admiral Ackbar (Tim Rose). But the film’s most indelibly moving scenes are reserved for Han and his estranged love, Leia (Carrie Fisher), no longer a princess but a Resistance general. Their banter is raspier and gentler than it was 30 years ago, less barbed and more bittersweet, and viewers can expect their hearts to swell to Mandallian proportions whenever the actors are on screen.


Abrams’ filmmaking has enough dynamism and sweep to zip us along for much of the fast-paced 135-minute running time, and for impressive stretches he achieves the action-packed buoyancy of the old Saturday morning serials that partly inspired “Star Wars” in the first place. At once polished and pleasingly rough-hewn, Dan Mindel’s lensing alternates between stately landscape compositions and nimble camera movements as the situation requires, while editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey prove as attentive to the coherence of the action sequences as to the rhythm of the overall narrative, while making adroit use of the signature side-swiping scene transitions. And even in a sequence heavy with CGI and/or creature effects — as when Finn and Rey are attacked by fearsome creatures with sharp teeth and tentacles — the visuals never lapse into overkill. The unobtrusive sophistication of the visual effects (supervised by Roger Guyett) is especially apparent in scenes featuring the uber-villainous Supreme Leader Snoke (motion-capture maven Andy Serkis, resembling a plus-sized, more articulate Gollum), in which it’s not even readily apparent that we’re watching a hologram.

Gone, happily, are the prequels’ ADD-inducing background shots of spaceships zipping across a sterile cityscape like goldfish trapped in a giant screen saver. The different worlds we see here, from the parched desert vistas of Jakku to the verdant forests of the planet Yavin, feel vividly textured and inhabited (Rick Carter and Darren Gilford are credited with the production design). But the most crucial component of the movie’s design is undoubtedly John Williams’ still-enveloping score, from that thrilling, trumpet-like first blast over the opening text scroll, to the majestic flurries of feeling the music generates as it accompanies the characters on their long and difficult journeys.

At a certain point, however, “The Force Awakens” feels so determined to fashion a contemporary echo of the original trilogy that it becomes almost too reverential — or riff-erential, given Abrams’ fondness for playing on recognizable tropes, themes and plot points in his film and TV work. The Death Star that was destroyed at the end of “Star Wars” is one-upped here by a much larger, even more destructive weaponized planet (we even get to see the contrasting blueprints in detail).

In the end, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” suggests the work of a filmmaker who faced the exciting yet unenviable task of partially reassembling one of the most beloved ensembles in movie history, furthering their characters’ adventures in a meaningful fashion, and helping them pass the baton from one generation of action figures to the next — and emerged, in the end, with a compromise solution that, even when it’s not firing on all cylinders, has been put across with sufficient style, momentum, love and care to prove irresistible to any who have ever considered themselves fans.

The male-centric universe of the original “Star Wars” gives way to a woman warrior and a female version of Yoda in the much-ballyhooed “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” that will inevitably take the planet — this one — by storm as it opens this week.

The timing is probably right for a new female superhero, now that Jennifer Lawrence has wound up her stint as the archer Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” movies.

Enter little known British actress Daisy Ridley as the loner Rey, ekeing out a subsistence living as a scavenger of spaceship parts on the planet Jakku.

An invasion by a squad of Stormtroopers, loyal to the militaristic “New Order” that has replaced the Empire of yore, suddenly puts her on a new career path: getting off the planet as fast as possible.


She does this in tandem with fellow British actor John Boyega, who plays Finn, a Stormtrooper who deserts when he is sickened by the carnage of the film’s opening military assault on a desert village.

They are two of the three new main characters. The other one is a new Darth Vader-esque masked villain named Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver.

The torch is thus passed to a younger generation in a new trilogy of the franchise that started in 1977 with George Lucas’s first “Star Wars” and which the Walt Disney Co acquired in 2012 for $4 billion.

But loyal fans also are going to love this for everything that is not new, from the return of Harrison Ford as Han Solo, his sidekick the Wookie Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), the robots C-3PO and R2-D2, plus a cute new roly-poly one called BB-8, familiar spaceships and the plot line that sets up yet another Oedipal conflict between father and son.

Some dialogue from the original films that critics called flat but which has seeped into the world’s collective consciousness is reprised word for word — getting laughs from a screening audience.

“We’ve got company,” one of the characters says when the Stormtroopers invade Jakku, looking for a map that everyone, from the New Order to the Resistance led by Carrie Fisher’s character, promoted to General Leia, wants to get their hands on.

The possessor of that map will know how to find the missing Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker — Mark Hamill’s character — but to say more of that would be a spoiler of the First Order.

What is not a spoiler — and is no doubt what the Disney people would like everyone to know — is that this is a “Star Wars” that is not afraid to shed tears — those being Rey’s. But she is also a woman who can fix a spaceship condenser (or whatever) in no time flat, and seems to catch on to using a lightsaber a lot faster than Skywalker did way back when.

Lupita Nyong’o plays the goggle-eyed Maz Kanata, a dispenser of Yoda-like wisdom who runs a souped-up version of the famous Wild West galactic bar in the first “Star Wars.”

There is even a female Darth Vader-like character played by Gwendoline Christie of “Game of Thrones” fame, whose blond hair just peeps out from under her mask-like helmet.

“A woman always figures out the truth — always,” Solo confides to Finn early in the film. In this feminised “Star Wars” universe, even the Wookie Chewbacca, who took a strong dislike to the young Princess Leia almost 40 years ago, sees a place at the spaceship controls for Rey.

The absence of Luke Skywalker from the film’s marketing has been the subject of much speculation — and for good reason. Luke Skywalker has vanished.

So opens “The Force Awakens,” with the now-iconic scrolling text to inform audiences that Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill) has disappeared after training Jedi soldiers. The First Order, a new evil army modeled on the Galactic Empire, is out to find and destroy him, while the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa — formerly known as Princess Leia — is hoping to find him first.

“Star Wars,” created by filmmaker George Lucas, is set in an intergalactic world where the Force, an energy field drawn from the universe, can be used for the light side by the heroic Jedi fighters who fight to maintain peace — or the dark side by the evil Sith lords who want control over the galaxies.

The fiercely guarded plot of “The Force Awakens,” co-written and directed by J.J. Abrams, centers on scavenger Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) search for her lost family and rogue Stormtrooper Finn’s (John Boyega) desire to escape his past.

“The Force Awakens,” the first of three new “Star Wars” films from Disney after its 2012 purchase of the franchise from Lucas for $4 billion, takes place 30 years after 1983’s “Return of the Jedi,” which saw Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), roguish adventurer Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and rebel pilot Luke Skywalker defeat archvillain Darth Vader.

A second trilogy of prequel films made between 1999 and 2005 focused on Vader’s origins.

“The Force Awakens” kicks off with new droid BB-8 in the desert planet Jakku with Resistance fighter Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who hides a piece of a map, leading to Skywalker, inside BB-8.

They are attacked by First Order Stormtroopers led by a villainous, masked — and at times petulant — Kylo Ren. Stormtrooper Finn decides to go rogue and break Dameron out.

Meanwhile Rey — who is not, as has been speculated, the daughter of Han Solo and Princess Leia, but has a strong connection to the Force — saves BB-8 and teams up with Finn to return the droid to Resistance headquarters in none other than Solo’s rusty but trusty Millennium Falcon spaceship.

As Rey and Finn are established as new franchise leads, they embark on a journey that finds both old and new characters often harkening subtly to the past.

The Resistance must once again destroy a deadly weapon, this time belonging to the Nazi-like First Order. X-wing fighter Dameron’s witty banter echoes that of Solo’s snappy one-liners in the original 1977-1983 film trilogy. When Rey asks Solo, “You’re Han Solo?,” the rugged and now silver-haired veteran actor cheekily replies, “I used to be.”

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens in movie theaters worldwide starting on Wednesday night. (RTRS)

By Justin Chang


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