Nerds who panicked over Luke Skywalker’s absence from the trailers for “The Force Awakens” will be relieved to read the first sentence in the new “Star Wars” sequel’s opening crawl: “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” You see, the reason his whereabouts weren’t given in the advertising is that determining his whereabouts IS THE WHOLE POINT OF THE MOVIE, YOU CHUCKLEHEADS.
It’s been 32 years since “Return of the Jedi” came out, and that’s about how much time has passed in “The Force Awakens,” which kicks off a new trilogy of “Star Wars” films with which “Star Wars” creator George Lucas will have no involvement (possibly due to a restraining order). J.J. Abrams, director of “Mission: Impossible III” and those shiny new “Star Treks,” is at the helm for this chapter, and unlike those franchises, he didn’t try (or wasn’t allowed) to reinvent anything. He has made a swift, entertaining, and comfortable “Star Wars” movie, one that will feel familiar to fans of the original trilogy.
In our world, the exploits of Luke, Han, and Leia are common knowledge, as much a part of our cultural history as the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In the movie’s fictional galaxy, however, the events surrounding the rebellion against the Galactic Empire have passed into myth, believed by some but otherwise forgotten or dismissed. The First Order, another stormtrooper-based government that rose from the ashes of the Empire, has seen to that. Its leader, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), another black-clad mask-wearer, is like a skinny, ill-tempered Darth Vader, one who is not as certain of his own evilness as Herr Vader was. Kylo Ren wants to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) — the last of the Jedis — and kill him before he can instigate another uprising. (Why is it only dictators who ever learn from history?)
But fear not! There is a robust Resistance. On the desert planet Jakku, a rebel pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a scrappy scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), and a conscience-stricken stormtrooper called Finn (John Boyega), are all drawn into the search for Luke, joining forces with Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), and an adorable cat-like droid called BB-8 that has some crucial information in its files.
If you’re noticing parallels to the plot of the original “Star Wars,” just you wait. History is repeating itself in the galaxy, and that means not just plot points but old themes and ideas are popping up again, too. No doubt aware that he was at risk of turning the sequel into a rehash, Abrams is careful to let these familiar elements occur naturally, the way they do in the real histories of real republics. In a similar vein, he also avoids any egregious callbacks or fan-pleasing nonsense. Characters refer to the events of the original trilogy as needed without any winks or nudges to the audience. It’s a “Star Wars” movie that doesn’t barge around yelling, “OMG I’M A ‘STAR WARS’ MOVIE!” You have to admire the restraint.
The screenplay is credited to Abrams and two men who were well-suited to the job: Michael Arndt, whose “Toy Story 3” was another franchise film in which the passage of time between sequels factored significantly into the story; and Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” What they came up with might be nothing special in the story department, but it has the best dialogue of any movie in the franchise. Without being jokey or ironic (earnestness is a core “Star Wars” principle), the script brings the new characters to life by giving them sparkling, well-crafted things to say, and by giving everyone (even the villains) a hint of nuance and backstory. You get the impression there’s a lot to explore here, and the infectiously charismatic performances by all the newcomers make you eager to dig in.
Our review of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” from the Movie B.S. with Bayer and Snider podcast:
As with anything that goes on this long, new installments are bound to feel less special than their predecessors, even when they’re better. For “Star Wars,” this is not only the seventh episode, it’s the third beginning — the third time we’re introduced to new heroes, a new enemy, and a new mission. As elegantly as Abrams and his team handle it, it doesn’t really feel new anymore. Nothing in “The Force Awakens” is dazzling to see for the first time, and except for BB-8, there isn’t much visual imagination on display. (Say what you will about the prequels, but those things were full of awesome creatures and alien worlds.)
Then again, if it felt TOO new, it would be deemed blasphemous and J.J. Abrams would be burned for heresy. Considering the strictures he had to work under, this all turned out remarkably well: a rousing adventure that fits the aesthetic of the original trilogy without merely copying it, while starting a new saga that blends familiar old characters with promising new ones. And not a Jar-Jar in sight!
B+ (2 hrs., 15 min.; )