J.J. Abrams is one of cinema's most gifted mimics, and his particular form of mimicry is fairly unique. He doesn't attempt to recapture the structure or thematic substance of his chosen slice of pop culture, but rather to recapture how that thing feels. His action-packed 2009 Star Trek reboot bore almost no resemblance to Gene Roddenberry's philosophically-inclined television series, but the new versions of the characters felt so precisely right that it managed to make you feel nostalgic, anyway. His Amblin-esque alien movie Super 8 was far messier than the Spielberg films it drew inspiration from, but it so accurately captured the vibe of those movies that the mistakes were easy to overlook. Now we have Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, which has only a fraction of George Lucas' narrative ambition, but captures the wonder and joy of Lucas' early Star Wars movies so deftly that you may be temporarily convinced that he's made a masterpiece. Perhaps, in a way, he has.
The creators Abrams imitates had grand, lofty inspirations for their iconic works. Spielberg grew up watching the skies and dreaming about what might be out there. Roddenberry imagined the grand adventure tales of the past and the moral challenges of the present within the context of a utopian future. Lucas distilled his love of Flash Gordon serials, Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, Akira Kurosawa movies and Joseph Campbell storytelling philosophy into a breathtakingly unique and exciting work of pop art. Abrams doesn't seem to have any real interest in those things, but rather in the popular works those things inspired. In this case, Episodes IV-VI of Star Wars are his only holy texts. One of the film's chief faults is its overreliance on nostalgia, but this is also its greatest virtue: Abrams has a knack for creating moments that shove right past your critical defenses (okay: my critical defenses) and tap into that part of you that once fantasized about flying the Millennium Falcon or wielding a lightsaber or mastering the ways of The Force. It's perhaps the purest expression to date of “fan culture”: a movie made by a Star Wars fan, for Star Wars fans, about the transcendent pleasures of Star Wars fandom.
Our story begins several decades after the events of The Return of the Jedi, and the Republic is still struggling to regain its former glory. The Resistance (a Republic-backed military force led by people who were once members of the Rebel Alliance) is strong, but still hasn't managed to fully secure the safety of the galaxy. The once-mighty Empire is gone, but the remaining traces of it have morphed into something called the First Order. It's ruled by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), who keeps the mysterious Sith-in-training Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, Girls) at his right hand and the ruthless General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, About Time) at his left. This trio lacks the resources that were available to Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin, but the First Order has developed a powerful new weapon that may give them the upper hand in their quest for power.
Meanwhile, the famed Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, Batman: The Animated Series) – believed to be the galaxy's last remaining Jedi - has vanished, and both the Resistance and the First Order are eager to find him. A map to Luke's location is hidden within the data files of a small BB-8 droid, which eventually finds itself in the company of hotshot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis), fugitive former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega, Attack the Block) and resourceful scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley, Scrawl).
I'll leave it to you to discover how these people meet, how their relationships evolve and how they eventually end up spending time with familiar faces like Han Solo (Harrison Ford, Raiders of the Lost Ark), Leia (Carrie Fisher, Hannah and Her Sisters) and Chewbecca (Peter Mayhew, The Empire Strikes Back), but suffice it to say that Abrams' greatest contribution to the Star Wars universe is creating a handful of terrific new characters to carry things forward. At a glance, Poe, Rey and Finn look like pretty obvious analogues for our original trio of heroes (arguments can be made about whether Poe or Finn is the new Han Solo, but Rey - who lives on the impoverished desert planet Jakku and dreams of seeing the rest of the galaxy – is clearly the Luke Skywalker stand-in), but quickly become fascinating, distinctive characters in their own right.
The most compelling member of the bunch of Boyega, playing a Stormtrooper whose conscience decisively outweighs the brainwashing he's been subjected to. His identity is forming before our eyes as the film unfolds, and watching the character discover himself – his goofy sense of humor, his foolhardy sense of heroism, his fundamental sense of decency – is an absolutely pleasure. Boyega nails every bit of it, which won't be a huge surprise to those who have seen the underappreciated Attack the Block. Ridley also achieves “instant star” status here, demonstrating strong comic and dramatic instincts but also offering the sort of immediately striking presence that actors either have or don't – her eyes are consistently the most compelling thing about any scene she's in. Isaac and Driver are better-known, but both bring their unique strengths to the table. Isaac's million-watt charisma is put to great use here: when he appears, it's as if a young Clark Gable is strutting into the movie. Driver's twitchy weirdness makes Kylo Ren a complicated, vulnerable villain; a young man whose savagery is both enhanced and undercut by his own volatility.
These characters are stand-ins for old heroes and villains, but they're also stand-ins for the audience. These are people who grew up admiring the key players of the original Star Wars trilogy, and when they're thrust into that world – as in the moment when Isaac's character gets the surprising opportunity to fly a TIE fighter – they're living our fantasies and theirs. Even Kylo Ren is a man in the throes of hero worship, patterning himself after Darth Vader but failing to realize that he's much closer to tormented young Anakin. He's less an imposing Sith warrior than a violent cosplayer (that's not a criticism). Abrams craftily, methodically weaves in one familiar element after another as the film proceeds, and our excitement and wonder is often mirrored by that of the characters. Admittedly, there are moments when this becomes a little frustrating - after a while, it becomes clear that we're going to spend more time treading old ground than charting new territory - but the film's joyfulness is infectious.
Speaking of old heroes and villains: some of them are here too, and it's great to see them again. The most prominent returning player is Han Solo, much older and craggier but still more or less the temperamental scoundrel he always was. It's encouraging to see how much enthusiasm Harrison Ford brings to the part, particularly in the wake of at least a dozen blockbusters in which he looked as if he'd rather be working in his woodshed (in fairness, he was superb in The Age of Adaline earlier this year, so perhaps he's run across some new motivation that is bigger than Star Wars). He's particularly good when he's paired up with the younger cast members, their awestruck giddiness bouncing off his grouchy exasperation. It's a kick to see Ford at the controls of the Millennium Falcon again, but the film wisely keeps Solo (and the other returning players) in a supporting role: these folks are an essential part of Star Wars, but this is a new world that makes plenty of room for new characters.
A large part of the rush of nostalgia the film offers is Abrams' visual design, which so lovingly recreates the dingy-yet-beautiful fantasy world that Lucas created. It's a vastly better-looking movie than the prequels, which leaned too heavily on the sort of computer-enhanced visual trickery that Lucas was so enamored with (groundbreaking at the time, but quite a few of the effects in episodes I and II have aged poorly). It's also striking to see another Star Wars movie shot on film – there were moments when seeing this world presented with that faintly grainy warmth made my heart skip a beat. Composer John Williams plays another essential role, of course, occasionally quoting those instantly iconic themes while creating a thrilling, full-blooded action score largely rooted in fresh new material. Williams is 83 years old, but his music sounds as vital as ever.
All of that said, the thing that makes The Force Awakens a sensational theatrical experience is also the thing that ultimately keeps it from greatness: it's all about surface-level thrills. It plays your emotions like a fiddle, giving you those thrills, chills and lump-in-the-throat moments you've been hoping for, but there's not a whole lot of substance beneath that shiny exterior. The prequels have a lot of problems, chief among them Lucas' seeming inability to recapture that adventure serial exuberance that made everyone fall in love with his earlier installments. However, despite their clumsiness and tedium, the prequels are genuinely ambitious, original works that sought to say something meaningful (I still maintain that Revenge of the Sith is the best film made about the fear-driven climate of the Bush era). When Abrams attempts something similar (not often, but occasionally), his shortcomings become glaringly obvious: a scene involving an angry speech from General Hux clumsily forces the Nazi parallels that Lucas' films integrated so naturally.
There are other missteps – an unimpressive setpiece here, a potentially strong scene that turns into awkward exposition there, a messy bit of plotting in the corner – and I suspect we'll all feel a little cooler towards The Force Awakens soon, once the rush has faded and everyone starts digging around under the hood (cue obnoxious Red Letter Media videos, cue “29 things The Force Awakens gets wrong” articles, cue pleas for Episode VIII director Rian Johnson to “fix” things). Still, that rush is nothing to sneeze at, especially given that it's something many Star Wars fans have been waiting to re-experience for decades.
In many ways, The Force Awakens feels like the culmination of Abrams' work as a filmmaker and as a TV creator: given its abrupt ending, the movie sort of feels like an incredibly expensive pilot. In a sense, that's what it is. This isn't just a movie, but the launching point for a grand, sprawling franchise that will undoubtedly match and perhaps eclipse the scale and popularity of the Marvel movies. Whether that's a wise idea is a conversation for another day. For now, it must be said that Abrams has delivered an immensely entertaining chapter filled with terrific new characters and promising story threads. Perhaps the soul of the series is being stripped for parts and turned into something else, but for all its faults, The Force Awakens does something pretty special: it takes us home again.
Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 137 minutes
Release Year: 2015