It’s here and it doesn’t suck. J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is simple and highly entertaining, a rollicking adventure that avoids anything about trade federations or blockades. Completely sidestepping the “prequels,” this seventh “Star Wars” entry fondly recalls the cliffhangers and shoot ’em ups that might have originally inspired series creator George Lucas.
A screenplay was written by Oscar-winner Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “Toy Story 3”), who still retains credit, and was rewritten by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, the latter the co-writer of “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” decades ago.
Like those favorites, “The Force Awakens” is focused on warm characters and occasional humor. Gone are the wooden line readings of the prequels. We’re back in the land of the living.
What’s missing is Lucas’s sense of history and politics; whatever messages he was trying to convey about government and power in the prequels is now gone, although images of the stormtroopers and black-coated leaders still conjure up allusions to Nazi Germany.
Even the opening crawl is now refreshingly simple. It begins with “Luke Skywalker is missing.” That’s almost the entire plot. A new league of bad guys — called the First Order — led by an evil practitioner of the force, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), wants to kill him before more Jedi can be trained, and the good guys want to find him to train more Jedi.
A skilled X-Wing fighter pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and his cute droid BB-8 get ahold of a map showing Luke’s location. A renegade stormtrooper called Finn (John Boyega) helps him out, and after an escape and a crash on the desert planet of Jakku, a scrappy scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley), who is a vicious fighter and good with mechanics, joins in.
Our heroes steal the original Millennium Falcon, which brings Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) on board. Other old friends turn up — Princess Leia is now Gen. Organa (Carrie Fisher) — as well as some new ones, like the wise tavern owner Maz Kanata (voiced by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o).
The movie is structured largely like the original 1977 “Star Wars,” with visits to different planets, a cantina scene, and a new Death Star-like creation. Bad guy Kylo Ren even wears a black mask that obscures his voice. The snow, sand and green settings recall various planets from the original trilogy, and there’s a new emperor-like character (Andy Serkis) who appears to be in charge of things.
Abrams honors the original vision, including the opening “A Long Time Ago” and John Williams’ fanfare; he works like a director for hire, foregoing his usual taste for shaky-cam and lens flares. His pacing and editing isn’t quite as rock-solid as in “Star Wars” and “Empire,” but it’s easily his best and most straightforward cinematic work to date.
This series is so huge, far bigger than this year’s other successful returns (“Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Creed”) that it’s hard to see clearly. Yet “The Force Awakens” movie tries to keep things normal sized. One way it does this is by having the younger characters learning lessons from history and being familiar with the heroes of old. Maybe that’s a good takeaway.
REVIEW: Star Wars: The Force Awakens ★★★½
Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford
Written by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt
Directed by J. J. Abrams
Running time 2 hours, 15 minutes