As the best Star Wars anything — film, TV show, video game, spinoff, what-have-you — in at least 32 years, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" pumps new energy and life into a hallowed franchise in a way that both resurrects old pleasures and points in promising new directions. But whereas the fundamental touchstones of George Lucas' original creation remain, in director J.J. Abrams' hands there is a shift in tone that brings the material closer to the feel of a Steven Spielberg film. Specifically, into an Indiana Jones realm, which is mostly, but not entirely, to the good.
Opening nearly everywhere in the world before Christmas, with China to follow in early January, Disney's debut as the new custodian of Lucas' baby looks to deliver nothing less than one of the two or three highest-grossing films of all time.
To be sure, any time you can speak of a film's earning potential as residing in the billion-dollar-plus neighborhood, the main story is to be more often found in the business section than on the arts pages. When the financial stakes are this high, what ends up on the screen can often be judged as much, or more, in terms of commercial calculation than creative achievement. So one of the primary satisfactions of this sharply paced and lively blockbuster is the obvious care that has gone into every aspect of the production, from the well-balanced screenplay and dominance of real sets and models over computer graphics to the casting, a strict limitation on self-referential, in-jokey humor and the thoroughly refreshed feel of John Williams' exuberant score.
Virtually none of these virtues were managed by Lucas himself when he made his lamentable second trilogy of Star Wars films from 1999 to 2005. But Abrams has made his career thus far by honoring his masters, notably Spielberg and Gene Roddenberry, and now Lucas, and he's got the practice more or less down.
The Empire looked all but dead and buried by the time its defeat was celebrated by the heroes of the Rebel Alliance (along with a bunch of funny looking woodsy characters) in Return of the Jedi in 1983. If the desire was to follow up on that story with some of the same characters and actors, the first priorities for the writers were to figure out how to use the three-decades-older Han Solo, Leia and Luke Skywalker, as well as to resurrect a plausible villainous force.
In this, one notably feels the hand of Lawrence Kasdan, who shares writing credit with Abrams and Michael Arndt but who also, significantly, co-wrote "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi" and, perhaps more significantly, authored "Raiders of the Lost Ark", the film this new one most resembles in terms of its incident and exuberance. What perhaps goes missing in "The Force Awakens", though, is the key magical element that Lucas slipped into the first three films, that of the Joseph Campbell-derived aspects of myth that may have been the secret ingredient that allowed them to connect so strongly with viewers initially.
"Star Wars: Episode VII" must and does begin with the familiar Williams musical fanfare and an informational scroll advising as to the disappearance of Luke Skywalker, the rise of the evil First Order and the threat now posed to Leia and the galaxy's good folk, who must urgently pull together as a new Resistance. In an annihilating nocturnal opening sequence, a new generation of Stormtroopers goes on an indiscriminate rampage while searching for the bearer of a map revealing Luke's whereabouts, which is secretly held by the roly-poly BB-8, a charming spherical droid that rolls smoothly from place to place and overall serves as a welcome robot reboot from the sidelined (but hardly vanquished) R2-D2.
Battle lines are drawn and good guys and bad are readily established. Hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, very enthusiastic), a man very much in the Solo mold, is taken prisoner by the Order, which is led militarily by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a man whose black mask and filtered speech make him the very picture of a Darth Vader wannabe.
Meanwhile, a Stormtrooper who comes to be called Finn (John Boyega) is so disgusted by the genocide in which he's participated that he defects to the Resistance. Crucially, Finn forms an alliance with desert "scavenger" Rey (Daisy Ridley), a self-sufficient loner with fearsome fighting and survival skills. Rey's feisty individualism, assertive physicality and often sweaty, dirty face would make her right at home in a Mad Max film, just one example of how the Star Wars franchise has been toughened up a bit by its new proprietors.
After spending most of the first half-hour introducing the two appealing new leads, Abrams and his co-writers begin deftly weaving together elements old and new. Harrison Ford's first appearance sends a real charge through the film of a sort that only a revered older star can deliver. A younger character asks if he's really Han Solo, and when Ford replies, "I used to be," he sounds a great deal like John Wayne did in his later films where he was paired with greenhorns who presumed they might be able to go toe-to-toe with the old man and maybe even step into his shoes. Fat chance of that, the older man would imply with a caustic glance or acerbic line — and Ford has now aged (much better than Wayne did) into that position of confident superiority; he can still throw off the impatient, action-seeking Solo vibe and isn't interested in acting old or particularly mature, just capable.
With Luke vanished and Leia grounded, Han Solo now has only Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew, returning) by his side, so he welcomes getting back into action with the likes of the capable Rey and Finn. If a good part of the task The Force Awakens sets for itself is the introduction and establishment of these two new characters as capable of carrying the renewed series forward, then it's pretty well succeeded; never once appearing to ask for sympathy or even to be liked, Ridley looks like she's ever-ready to take on a contingent of Hunger Games opponents, while Boyega, perhaps overplaying at first, settles in as his character transforms from robotic foot soldier to expressive and emotive man.
A looming unanswered question here is how the Dark Side, seemingly so thoroughly vanquished not very long ago, could have staged such a rapid and stupendous comeback: Just as Lucas once did, Abrams uses the template of Hitler's 1934 Nuremberg rally in his staging of an enormous gathering of the First Order's forces. At the risk of indulging in partial spoilers, its Supreme Leader Snoke is a larger-than-life, vaguely Harry Potter-ish hologram voiced with deep gravity by Andy Serkis; the full weight of this character's malignancy and dramatic power will presumably be better assessed in subsequent episodes. On the other hand, Darth Vader stand-in Ren is given a pronounced inferiority complex, a clever bad guy twist that could be taken to interesting places both in the writing and performance.
One of the most novel and appealing characters is a leathery, goggles-wearing old barfly named Maz Kanata (wonderfully voiced by Lupita Nyong'o) who, with her wise and direct talk, comes closest to approximating a new Yoda; once again, there is considerable potential in this figure. On the other hand, an old pleasure is renewed with the brief appearance of a refurbished C-3PO, once again voiced by Anthony Daniels.
As before, monumental battles enacted by enormous, obliteration-capable forces are paralleled by intimate mano-a-mano duels to the death; in this case, the climactic example of the latter is very effective and emotional, something every Star Wars fan of good standing will find entirely compelling. Beyond that, the very ending — more like a coda, really, which was filmed on the extraordinary Skellig Michael off the western coast of Ireland — is wonderful and sets things up perfectly for the next installment.
In the end, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" feels like the work of a very capable student, one who has studied his subject so diligently and thoroughly that he knows what to do and what to avoid, is smart enough to have engaged one of the experts in the field, in this case Kasdan, to work on the blueprint, and to have ensured that another of the key contributor to the series' success, John Williams, would return again after all the years.
The franchise is indeed reawakened, and we already know when to expect several more installments.