“Luke Skywalker? I thought he was a myth.”
So says a character early in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Episode VII for those keeping track). If the movie — the first Star Wars film in 10 years and the first ever without the involvement of series creator George Lucas — has one defining characteristic, it’s the ability to tap into that myth and make us, once again, believe in it. Director J.J. Abrams — doing what he did with Mission: Impossible III, a pair of Star Trek films and, to an extent, the Spielberg homage Super 8 — conjures up something that can best be called honest nostalgia. The movie baldly trades on its predecessors, but with enough artfulness and genuine affection to count as its own unique experience. Even prequel haters (perhaps especially prequel haters) should be pleased.
Set a few decades after Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens centers on a search for the long-missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Faced with the rise of a new totalitarian power called the First Order, remnants of the rebellion are once again forming a galaxy-wide resistance, and they need Luke to join the cause. Caught up in the ensuing turmoil is a desert scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley, a real find); an AWOL First Order Stormtrooper who goes by the name Finn (John Boyega, bringing a touch of panicked humor); and a hotshot star pilot named Poe (Oscar Isaac, solid as always).
There is also a black-clad, helmeted First Order commander with Jedi powers, a quick temper and a mysterious, personal connection to the resistance — in other words, a new Darth Vader. In fact, each of the aforementioned characters has a clear counterpart to someone in the original trilogy, either directly or in terms of personality traits. (Or, in the case of the droid BB-8, in terms of computerized burbles and bleeps.) It’s a narrative strategy that not only allows us to transfer our affections from one Star Wars generation to the next, but also cleverly carries on the series’ overarching theme: that there are no villains or heroes – in this galaxy or ours – because the potential for good and evil runs straight through the heart of every member of the human family.
Abrams leans on nostalgia even more heavily than the Lucas-directed prequels did.
Overall, Abrams and his screenwriting team lean on nostalgia even more heavily than the Lucas-directed prequels did. The Force Awakens features the return of many original trilogy characters, including Han Solo (Harrison Ford, slipping back into the character’s charming nonchalance with ease); Leia (Carrie Fisher, a bit creakier); and assorted freaks and geeks such as Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). What’s more, there are sequences that not only recall moments from the earlier films, but also appear to be cut according to the same editing patterns (especially an early visit to an alien bar and a later X-wing fighter attack). Add the prologue of onscreen text and screen wipes to transition between star systems, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s 1977 all over again.
For all of Abrams’ aplomb, there’s a sense of playing it safe that somewhat limits The Force Awakens. Every move the filmmakers have made is the “right one” — for nervous fans, for the movie itself, for new owner Disney. That’s fine, and in some ways reassuring, yet it also means that the film’s imagination is held in check. The Force Awakens evokes, but doesn’t always create.
That’s something that the prequels, for all their faults, did in spades. From the production design to the costuming to the creature effects, those movies — like the originals — didn’t know when enough world-building was enough. (Jar Jar Binks?) Yet if the prequels had lower lows because of this unbridled imagination, they also had higher highs, such as The Phantom Menace’s podrace, Attack of the Clones’ coliseum battle and Revenge of the Sith’s showdown with General Grievous. Those were thrillingly imaginative “wow” moments, comprised of entirely unfamiliar characters, creatures and interplanetary scenarios. The Force Awakens doesn’t have a single sequence that’s as audacious as any of those. And the ones that do stand out — Rey and Finn’s discovery of and escape via the Millennium Falcon, for instance — rely heavily on callbacks to the first three films.
Still, this is no Jurassic World, which seemed to loathe its assignment of rebooting a franchise, yet proceeded to wallow in opportunistic nostalgia anyway. In fact, I’ll concede that near the end of The Force Awakens there is a lightsaber duel that flickers with the hope of something wholly new, largely because it involves two original — and hugely promising — characters. When they cross blades, with the humming light reflecting in their eyes, we see a distinct rivalry being born, a fresh struggle with good, evil and the shadowy space in between. Let’s not hold it against Abrams too much, then, that with The Force Awakens he carefully, judiciously and entertainingly passes the Star Wars baton. Or the lightsaber, as the case may be.