So: Where were we?
Let’s skip past the prequel trilogy “The Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith,” apparently written and directed by droids. In chronological story terms we last saw Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, princess-turned-queen Leia, Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C-3PO whooping it up at the Ewok luau back in 1983, in “Return of the Jedi,” celebrating the massive global popularity and merchandising sales of George Lucas’ bright idea.
The idea was simple, and quaintly retro: The world, Lucas figured, might enjoy a whiz-bang riff on the old “Flash Gordon” serials. Good guess! Now, minus the Ewoks, the gang’s back. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is here.
And it is good.
Not great. But far better than “not bad.” Solidly, confidently good. Spoiler alert: The word “good” will crop up throughout this review, because it’s the most accurate adjective for this Disney-owned product launch.
Co-writer and director J.J. Abrams was a good choice to take over our persistent national bedtime story, the cinematic golden goose large enough to span two centuries in our movie-going lives. Abrams has done very well by the “Star Trek” franchise twice now on the big screen; his other two features, “Mission: Impossible 3” and “Super 8,” were, you guessed it, both in the range of pretty good to good. Statistically that’s a solid batting average for a mainstream commercial filmmaker.
And Abrams, who shares script credit with Michael Arndt and, from the first “Star Wars” realm, Lawrence Kasdan, does just fine with the “Star Wars” legacy. He juggles nostalgia with the more distracted and distractible tastes of a younger generation of Jedis in training. “The Force Awakens” ups the ante on the effects; the new lightsabers, for example, are far zwoopier and more destructive than the older models. The levels of mass slaughter, mostly bloodless and implied, are on the insane scale of a typical Marvel “Avengers” movie. There’s a new Death Star threat afoot, but this one’s far, far larger, and it’s solar-powered. So it’s good for the environment it’s designed to destroy.
Here’s why “The Force Awakens” works. The actors all get a little piece of the action. Sounds like a no-brainer, but so many effects-driven spectacles really don’t care about the faces on-screen. Here you get a swell array of mugs, older and newer.
On the other hand, let’s be honest: The most touching moment in Abrams’ film is the meeting between dear old R2-D2 and this movie’s primary kidbait, the more adroit and dexterous roller-droid known as BB8.
“The Force Awakens” opens the same way the previous six “Star Wars” features began, with the words: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The familiar rectangular two-word title logo is blasted in slow-motion into space by composer John Williams’ fanfare for the uncommon blockbuster.
Then, a bunch of plot. The title crawl briefs us on the rise of “the sinister First Order,” even more Third Reichian in design and political subtlety than the Empire of old. We’re informed that the last remaining Jedi, Luke Skywalker, has vanished, and that a secret mission will whisk key “Star Wars” characters to the desert planet Jakku.
On Jakku, a young Rey (Daisy Ridley, my vote for MVP, newbie division) gets by as a scrap metal collector. She ends up in cahoots with trusty BB8, who’s being hunted by First Order evildoers led by Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, who wears a big black helmet in the style of a certain other moody cuss in this mythic galaxy. On the brighter side there’s Finn, a Stormtrooper who develops a conscience and becomes a good guy in early scenes that are among the film’s strongest. John Boyega gives the part his all, though in this material it’s usually the actors who hold something back who hold our interest. Dropping in and out of the action, Oscar Isaac is a primary asset as Poe Dameron, “the best pilot in the resistance.” Like Ford’s Han Solo in the original three, he’s the guy you want on your team, the one who doesn’t take any guff and sticks primarily to dialogue along the lines of: “Give it everything ya got!”
It’s no secret that Ford, his copious hair grayer now, plays a major role in “The Force Awakens.” He’s truly reassuring company, laying into sarcastic rejoinders and tough-guy wisecracks (of uneven quality) with the relish of a one-man supergroup reprising his greatest hits. Rey impresses Han with her piloting skills, at the helm of the Millennium Falcon. The movie does all it can to establish its female lead as a strong, independent character. Still, “The Force Awakens” allows for only so much disturbance in the Force otherwise known as the Proven Moneymaking Formula. In mostly entertaining ways the movie feels like a remake of the first “Star Wars” from 1977. It’s easily the third-best in the franchise to date, behind the original, renamed “A New Hope” (’77), and “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980). Abrams’s temperament and tastes are sincere and amusing in roughly equal doses, and that’s about right for “Star Wars.”
I wish the script had come up with something more inventive than a Big Gulp edition of the Death Star for its primary threat. I wonder if future “Star Wars” features will be allowed a longer leash; at one point in “The Force Awakens” one of the space Nazi types mentions that with the turncoat Finn, there had been “no prior signs of non-comformity.”
There aren’t many signs of nonconformity in Abrams’ film, either, though Ridley’s Rey is a first-rate screen heroine in the making. As for Lupita Nyong’o, whose motion-captured performance as a digitally animated saloonkeeper, she’s more than good enough to make you wish they’d gone another direction. Say, of letting the actor do it for real, if only to take our minds far, far away from Jar Jar Binks.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Rated: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence. Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. Director: J.J. Abrams. Running time: 136 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21 (2D, 3D), Edwards 9 (2D, 3D), Edwards 14 (2D, 3D), Edwards 12 (2D, 3D), Majestic 18 (2D, 3D), Village Cinema (2D, 3D).