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.