STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
What a relief that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has finally opened. Now we can actually talk about it! Wasn't it amazing when the Stormtroopers collectively rebelled against their oppressors and found new careers as human bowling pins? And when George Lucas made a cameo as a Jawa? And when it was revealed that everything in the previous trilogy had only been an Ewok's dream? And ... .
Oh, sorry. Um ... . Spoiler alert?
I kid, of course. Yet I'm only opening on a note of such levity because it's fitting for director/co-writer J.J. Abrams' breathlessly anticipated franchise installment, the biggest surprise of which is that it's really, really funny. It's also many other things: smart, rousing, cheeky, reverent, touching, deeply satisfying. A day after seeing the film, though, I'm still knocked out by how many times I found myself laughing, and not just in that "Heh heh heh ... " way that accompanies moments of fan service, as when reference is made to Death Star trash compactors, or Han Solo mutters, "I've got a bad feeling about this ... ." Star Wars obsessives may have treated the series' impending return with hyper-serious fervor (and, consequently, may have dulled interest in the movie for the non-obsessives among us). But for all of its legitimate, earned gravity, The Force Awakens is remarkably lighthearted - a 130-minute smile interrupted only by occasional gasps and more frequent giggles.
In deference to those waiting to catch the film until cineplexes are less crowded, I'll refrain from spoilers, at least regarding specific narrative details. (We're actually given a pretty thorough summary of The Force Awakens' plot in the opening crawl - presented, it goes without saying, in gradually vanishing News Gothic font against the majestic strains of John Williams' Star Wars theme.) So let's nutshell this thing. As in Real Life, roughly three decades have passed since the events of Return of the Jedi. The evil Empire is gone, but the nefarious First Order has taken its place. Princess Leia - now General Leia - is leading the resistance against it. Luke Skywalker has been training Jedi, and, in the wake of one of his pupils turning toward the Dark Side, has gone missing. The First Order, and its black-clad Kylo Ren, are desperate to find him. The X-wing pilot Poe has a map fragment suggesting Luke's location, which he hides in his faithful droid BB-8. The droid falls in the hands of the scrap-metal scavenger Rey, who teams up with First Order resistor Finn. Familiar faces return. New ones are introduced. And Yoda turns out to be Chewbacca's father. (Sorry. Couldn't help myself.)
But while that may seem like a lot of information even in simplified form, one of the chief thrills of The Force Awakens lies in its concise, lucid storytelling. Unexpectedly, the movie's script - by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt - is actually quite handsomely constructed. Much of the dialogue, of course, is pure Star Wars corn; upon the unwelcome arrival of Stormtroopers, you can bet one of our heroes will say, "We've got company!", and maybe only Harrison Ford's Han Solo could get away with the line "I thought it was a lot of mumbo jumbo." Yet from scene to scene, you always have a clear sense of what the stakes are, and wholly understand the causes and effects, and there's a simple (though never simplistic) beauty to watching events unfurl much like they did - very much like they did - in Lucas' 1977 original.
This last bit might rankle those hoping for an entirely fresh experience, and at times The Force Awakens seems to suggest Nietzsche's theory of eternal recurrence with TIE fighters - that while generations may pass, the Star Wars universe exists in an endless loop of repeating incidents. I don't, however, mean this as an insult. Abrams' love of the franchise is so potent, and delivered with such a good-natured wink, that there's actually great joy and welcome humor in the echoing. Rey's dune-filled home planet Jakku is just like Tatooine; the seedy bar where she and her friends hole up is just like the Mos Eisley Cantina; BB-8 is just like R2-D2. (More accurately, this beeping, purring, rolling creature is like WALL·E as played by Cast Away's Wilson.) Yet you can't help but grin at the delight Abrams takes in simultaneously honoring and ever-so-slightly tweaking Lucas' iconic settings and figures. Sometimes the effect is so powerful that you cackle and well up in the same breath, as in our first view of the Millennium Falcon, or during the scene that offers a priceless spin on Obi-Wan's "These are not the droids you're looking for."
Taken overall, The Force Awakens is a glorious blend of old and new delights, and I, for one, found equal pleasure in both. I adored the witty, resourceful new recruits Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, and Adam Driver as much as I did seeing Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford and Ford's fuzzball friend. I marveled at the stunning new CGI wonders (such as the Supreme Leader Snoke and goggle-eyed oracle Maz, voiced, respectively and superbly, by Andy Serkis and Lupita Nyong'o) and grinned contentedly at the aerial battles and lightsaber duels. I swooned at the gorgeous imagery. I got misty at the climax. And thanks to the film's resoundingly cheerful spirit and excellent gags, I laughed and laughed and laughed. The Force Awakens is a spectacular subtitle for a Star Wars movie. Considering this latest trilogy's insanely promising start, and if it weren't already taken, A New Hope would've been a fine one, too.