A dreamer on a desert planet, waiting for a chance to reach for the stars. A caped and cowled villain in a black helmet, seduced by the Dark Side. A lost droid, beeping and chirping the urgency of its secret message for the rebellion. An apprentice turned against his master. A son turned against his father.
If these elements recall for you George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy, well, that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, J. J. Abrams’s much-anticipated reboot of the franchise, is in many ways less sequel than remix, a loving mashup of familiar scenes, characters, themes, and dialogue. “I have lived long enough to see the same eyes in different people,” explains one character. Anyone watching the film is likely to feel much the same way.
Of course, fans of the franchise are also granted the opportunity to see the same eyes in the same people, as the movie reunites the original castmates Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill in their iconic roles of yesteryear. In movie-time as well as real-time, more than 30 years have passed since Return of the Jedi. And while neither Fisher nor Hamill is given a great deal to do, Ford proves to be as spry and charming at 73 as he was at half that age.
This time out, these elders are set in orbit around a new generational quartet: Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scrappy scavenger on the arid planet Jakku; Finn (John Boyega), a sensitive turncoat stormtrooper; Poe Dameron (the sadly underutilized Oscar Isaac), a hotshot rebel pilot; and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a masked acolyte of the Dark Side. The newcomers all offer strong performances—in particular Ridley and Driver—and one of Abrams’s more cunning flourishes is to set up their characters as interlocutors for a younger cohort of fans or proto-fans: They, too, have heard of the Force, and Luke Skywalker, and Han Solo; and like some portion of the millions who will make their way to the multiplex this weekend, they, too, are wondering what all the fuss is about.
The characters pinball off one another in one familiar-yet-satisfying sequence after another: a dogfight between the Millennium Falcon and pursuing Tie Fighters; an encounter with a wise and bearded mystic (Max von Sydow); a motley cantina; an X-Wing assault on yet another asteroidal super-weapon. The narrative revelations, meanwhile, unspool quickly enough that any further description of the plot would likely describe too much. This is very much a movie best experienced with a minimum of foreknowledge.
Careful readers may by now have noticed the absence of any references to Lucas’s second, prequel trilogy—no Anakin (at least not by that name), no Amidala, no Darth Sidious, and (thank god) no Jar Jar. This, too, is entirely deliberate. From the earliest stages of Abrams’s production, it was clear that he was well aware of the deficiencies of those latter films: the orgiastic overuse of CGI, the window-mannequin performances, the fourth-rate dialogue. And so with The Force Awakens, Abrams has begun one of the most important reclamation projects of our time: the complete erasure from cultural memory of The Phantom Menace and its sequels.
This is Abrams’s second relaunch of a beloved celestio-cinematic property, following his Star Trek movies, and it leaves no doubt whatsoever where his heart lies. His impatience with the talky moral theorizing of the Trekverse was evident in almost every frame of his Federation forays. With The Force Awakens, by contrast, he is directing for fans, and as a fan. It’s borderline miraculous how well he captures the mood and rhythms of the first Star Wars trilogy: its pace and wit, its balance between earnestness and irony, the joy it took in set design and creature-building. The Force Awakens may have cost $200 million to produce, but what one sees onscreen is not the money but the love.
There are plenty of complaints one might make of the movie if one were in the mood to make them. Almost no effort at all is made to establish its political context in relation to the previous films: The nefarious “First Order” slots in seamlessly for the Empire (they haven’t even bothered changing the uniforms), and the Rebels have become the “Resistance,” despite their alliance with an indifferently sketched “Republic.” The movie’s structure, too, is more than a bit flimsy, from the accidental acquisition of the Millennium Falcon to an unnecessary encounter with some notably Abramsesque tooth-and-tentacle monsters.
But perhaps the strongest critique one could make of The Force Awakens—in the sense that it is completely accurate—is that it’s ensnared in its own nostalgia. The original Star Wars was in almost every way an original, a movie that forever changed filmmaking for both good and ill. And while The Force Awakens is giddy and good-natured enough to provide fun for fans and non-fans alike, much of the enjoyment it provides is by design derivative, a refraction of past pleasures. For some that may not be enough. But for my part, I was delighted to be once again transported to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—specifically, to May 25, 1977, when my 10-year-old self saw Star Wars on opening day and had my mind forever blown.