When the famous line “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” appears and the Star Wars emblem rockets across the screen, it evokes a series of emotions that is familiar to any lover of the franchise. It changes from generation to generation but is likely strongest with those old enough to recall the first time seeing it in 1977 when the original premiered. The first Star Wars was a cultural phenomenon from the get go. It solidified what we now know as the modern blockbuster era. Its sequel The Empire Strikes Back improved upon it. Return of the Jedi ended the trilogy on a satisfactory if more uneven note. I was not alive in 1977 and I witnessed the series in a weekend of VHS viewing where I was captivated like legions of film lovers across the globe.
By the time George Lucas got around to making his prequel trilogy, I was age 19 at the time of The Phantom Menace. Like all other fans of what came before it, I anticipated Menace breathlessly and like many others, it was a letdown in many fashions. It didn’t really look like a Star Wars pic. More like a video game. In all honesty, the concept of watching the eventual Darth Vader as a precocious child wasn’t really necessary. Follow ups Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were improvements in some ways (especially Sith) yet still didn’t come close to matching the magic of the real trilogy (as I refer to it).
Therefore it was with a sense of major excitement mixed with some trepidation that I awaited Star Wars: The Force Awakens, episode VII of the franchise that picks up about 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. George Lucas sold the rights to Disney, who have grand Marvel style plans for the series. J.J. Abrams, who successfully reinvigorated the Star Trek flicks, is behind the camera. The beloved trio of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and Princess (now General) Leia (Carrie Fisher) would return along with Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C-3PO. A new generation of heroes and villains would emerge. The three year wait is finally over and the question is ready to be answered: does Force have the force to bring Star Wars back in the good graces of those who cherish it? The answer is mostly an unqualified and resounding yes.
Episode VII informs us that Luke Skywalker has vanished and the evil First Order (spawned from Darth Vader’s galactic empire) has restored its dominance despite a resistance led by Leia. The Resistance is desperately attempting to obtain a map containing Luke’s whereabouts that is built into BB-8, a droid that is pretty adorable in a manner in which Jar Jar Binks sure wasn’t. One of the leaders of the movement is pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), whose character doesn’t have much impact in these proceedings but likely will in future installments. He teams with Storm Trooper gone good Finn (John Boyega) on the mission to find Skywalker. And that BB-8 droid leads them to Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young girl who has a connection with The Force. Their union soon brings them to Han, Chewie, and the now relic called the Millennium Falcon to fight First Order Commander Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).
As we’d expect, there are some revelations about who some of the characters actually are. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling them here. J.J. Abrams is keenly aware of our nostalgia goggles and he presents a vision that hearkens back to the original in both plot and tone. This is a plus. J.J. and his cowriters Lawrence Kasdan (who penned Empire and Jedi) and Michael Arndt are clearly cognizant of the expectation to start anew while rewarding what we adore about episodes IV-VI. There is much plot to roll out, but Awakens does so at a usually brisk pace throwing in the epic battles that look more like we wish for in any entry since 1983.
The John Williams score and special effects are, of course, top notch. Of the returnees, Mr. Ford is given the most material and provides Solo wisecracks and some emotion. Fisher acquits herself decently even though Leia is primarily relegated to the sidelines. As for Luke, the filmmakers have been careful to reveal nothing and neither will I. When it comes to the newcomers, we sense that Rey, Finn, and Poe will establish the new trio for the next few years. Here it is Rey that jumps out and much of that is due to a fine performance from Miss Ridley. Boyega’s Finn has his moments along with occasionally clunky dialogue. Driver is quite effective as Ren and we have a new villain whose motivations create an intriguing dynamic in this universe.
I would rank The Force Awakens as the third best pic in the series, after the first two (slightly above Jedi). Abrams and company accomplish something Lucas ultimately could not with episodes I-III. We care more about the actions transpiring here than with anything from 1999-2005. This is a franchise awakened in a way we have not seen in over 30 years. For those who might have had a bad feeling about this, fear not.
***1/2 (out of four)