(Note: This review is spoiler-free and doesn't discuss anything that happens past the first half-hour of the film. But if you want to be totally surprised, you should probably see it before you read about it.)
The “Star Wars” films have always been about parents and children, about family legacies that need to be either lived up to or overcome.
So it’s fitting that the third generation of “Star Wars” films, starting with the new “The Force Awakens,” carries the weight of its ancestry on its shoulders. Can it recapture the magic of its grandparents, the original trilogy? And can it cast off the shadow of its parents, the disappointing prequels?
The second job is much easier than the former, especially in the hands of a skilled mainstream filmmaker like J.J. Abrams. Rest assured that “The Force Awakens” won’t leave any “Phantom Menace” hangovers in the minds of the fans. Abrams avoids all the mistakes of the silly but self-serious prequels. It’s loaded with action, humor and humanity, with members of the original cast gracefully making space for some talented newcomers.
But the key to its success is also the key to its limitations. Abrams, who co-wrote the screenplay with “Empire Strikes Back” screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, is an unabashed fan of “Star Wars,” and his love for it positively glows on every frame. “Force Awakens” is full of affectionate echoes and careful parallels to the original “A New Hope,” with new characters taking journeys that will seem familiar to those who wore out the VHS tapes they held of the original.
That familiarity feels good, feels comfortable — “Chewie, we’re home,” as Han Solo (Harrison Ford) says. But it also hems in the new film’s ability to really be its own thing. Rather than striking out on its own like a wide-eyed young Tatooine teenager did a long, long time ago, it stays home and joins the family business.
But business is undeniably very, very good. The film takes place 30 years after “Return of the Jedi,” when the Empire and Darth Vader were defeated by the Rebellion. We revisit a universe that exists in the shadow of those wars; on the desert planet Jakku, the rusting hulks of star destroyers rise up out of the sands like German U-boats on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Scavenging those old wrecks for parts is Rey (the fine and fierce Daisy Ridley), an orphan with a troubled past. On her wanderings she comes across BB-8, an absolutely adorable spherical droid that rolls across the landscape, its head bobbing merrily along on top. Any “Star Wars” veteran knows lost droids contain secrets, and this one contains a dilly — the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, the Jedi Knight who vanished years earlier.
Luke’s presence is keenly missed in the universe, as a new enemy, the First Order, is rising out of the ashes of the Empire. Leading their crusade across the galaxy is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a Darth Vader fanboy who talks to the charred mask of the old villain, but who also feels the pull of the Light Side of the Force. Ren, a more complicated foe than we might expect, also very much wants to find Luke, and sends his troops after BB-8.
Rey and BB-8’s journey takes them into contact with Finn (John Boyega), a former stormtrooper who goes AWOL from the First Order, and later a hotshot resistance pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). What’s smart about “Force Awakens” is how well it establishes these characters and makes us believe they care for each other, and only then starts to reintroduce old “Star Wars” favorites one by one (each getting a round of applause from the opening crowd I saw it with). It’s great to see them again, especially the gruff Solo, but the “Force Awakens” doesn’t need to rely on them.
I don’t want to reveal much more of what happens in “Force Awakens,” but it’s a rousing entertainment, full of spaceship battles and light saber duels and inventive creatures. It’s all we hoped it would be. But more important is the current of humanity that runs through it; these new characters are as heroic and sympathetic as the originals. It was very smart of Abrams to hire lesser-known actors like Ridley and Boyega and let them define themselves within the roles.
While “The Force Awakens” does stick almost slavishly to tradition, it also leaves open all sorts of possibilities for the next two movies in the trilogy. The force of the original “Star Wars” films is definitely awoken in this movie — now let’s see what they do with it.