'Star Wars' Review: The Force Is Stronger in This One

J.J. Abrams’ ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ is a throwback to the series’ first trilogy, not the dismal second one, but it just fails to recapture the magic of the original.

Rey (Daisy Walker), BB-8 and Finn (John Boyega) run for cover in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
David James/ 2015 Lucasfilm

Sworn, even fervent devotees of the movie franchise spawned by George Lucas in 1977 will have an intense experience watching “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the series’ seventh installment. Mind you, I think these fans will have a powerful experience even before watching the film. They come to it with the experience already complete inside them, and questions like artistic value or whether it meets their expectations will never arise. In other words, the review I write here, shortly after watching the movie, is more irrelevant for them than for any other film, whether or not they have even seen it yet.

There is something enjoyable about witnessing such a pop-culture experience. I was never one of the series’ acolytes, even if I enjoyed some of the films. In particular, I admired Lucas’ ability to invent a new mythology that has so captured the imagination for 38 years – something that shouldn’t be underestimated. Still, I have a specific film I need to review.

At the outset, I have to declare two things. First, the new film’s main virtue is that it manages to make us forget the fiasco of the second trilogy, released between 1999 and 2005. The three films comprising that trilogy – which Lucas himself directed – were bombastic, hollow and tedious. Second, it fails to recapture the sophistication that characterized the first trilogy (released between 1977 and 1983), of which Lucas only directed the first film. The reason is probably that “The Force Awakens” is the first of a new trilogy, which takes place 30 years after the end of “Return of the Jedi,” and the role of this film is to lay the foundations for the following two. And “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” does have some foundations that could be developed in an interesting fashion in movies eight and nine.

Still, the first installment of the new trilogy is not as good as the original, “Star Wars: A New Hope.” J.J. Abrams’ film has fewer successful inventions and flashes of wit (one of the most successful ideas is club owner Maz Kanata, whose voice is provided by Lupita Nyong’o). The plot is quite elementary to make room for the action – and the movie is almost exclusively all action. It is staged at a furious pace and sometimes lacks narrative clarity. The film boasts an impressive visual design but lacks style – something the first three films definitely had. Moreover, with regard to the script, some of the solutions seem too pat, and others seem to hinder the development of the trilogy, even if the directors of the upcoming films have rabbits in their hats.

Finn (John Boyega), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) come out with their hands up in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
David James/ 2015 Lucasfilm

One of the film’s main attractions is that the new characters – such as Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) – blend in with the characters from the first trilogy, who are reprised by the same actors: Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his companion Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew); Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher, this time with a saner variation of the ridiculous hairstyle she had first-time around); the droids R2-D2 and C-3PO; and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has disappeared at the start of this trilogy. The search for Luke is the plot’s main driver, because the rebels need him to lead the rebellion they are planning.

The most likeable moment is when one of the new characters asks Han if he really is Han Solo and he replies, “I was once.” (By the way, Ford is at his loosest in years portraying Solo, as if returning to the character breathed new life into him – something that reprising Indiana Jones in Steven Spielberg’s gratuitous 2008 sequel failed to do.)

Rey (Daisy Ridley) and BB-8 in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
David James/ 2015 Lucasfilm

As noted, I have great admiration for the mythology that Lucas created, even if I flinch at its belligerent and Nordic-Germanic foundations. But what I missed in the new film was the same mythic foundations that enriched the first trilogy, dealing with the connection between fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, men and women.

Abrams’ film, which he cowrote with Lawrence Kasdan (“The Empire Strikes Back,” “The Big Chill”) and Michael Arndt (“Toy Story 3”), has some of these elements, but not enough to turn the resultant movie into a substantial work. The ones it does contain are sometimes treated strangely (that is, of course, unless they are saving adventurous surprises for us in the coming films – which will be directed by Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow, respectively).

Of course, some people will doubtless declare that this is another film featuring a powerful, independent woman at the heart of it – namely Rey, who is sympathetically portrayed by Ridley – supplanting the male heroes of the previous trilogies. But still, this is not enough to fill the mythic vacuum created in the film and it occasionally reminds us more of the “Hunger Games” franchise than the first “Star Wars” trilogy.

Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
David James/ 2015 Lucasfilm

The “Star Wars” phenomenon – which the new film certainly refreshes after Lucas’ failure with the second trilogy – continues to arouse curiosity, even if the new film isn’t great. As a result, I recommend “The Force Awakens” not only to the series’ devotees, who built a cult around it, but also anyone who is interested in mythology created under the cover of contemporary popular culture. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” may not have provided me with an artistic experience, but it did maintain my interest in the rest of the trilogy, and there is something to be said for that.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is at cinemas nationwide now