FILM REVIEW – STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS. With Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, Jon Boyega, Oscar Issac. Written by Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence. 135 minutes.
“This will begin to make things right,” are the first words you hear in this seventh episode of the “Star Wars” saga. For all intents and purposes that’s a promise made not just by co-writer and director J.J. Abrams, but also by the folks at The Disney Corporation who recently spent billions of dollars to purchase this galaxy far, far away. No more will we have to hear about trade routes, taxation disputes, nor any of those tedious Jedi council meetings. The mortification of George Lucas’s widely-despised prequels will soon be lost to the sands of time alongside his Crystal Skulls, Jar-Jar Binks, and Hayden Christensen.
STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS is the “Star Wars” movie you think you’ve been waiting for. It’s everything you’ve ever wanted from one of these pictures, and also a heck of a lot less. A lean, mean nostalgia-dispensing machine, the movie is designed to ring bells and elbow you in the ribs with familiar sights and faces constantly as it hurtles from scene to scene at a breakneck pace. It’s sleekly engineered to be the kind of film you point at and nod in appreciation–because you remember “Star Wars,” and those memories are quite fond. Abrams gets the tricky tone and jokey exhilaration down pat, the feeling of (re)visiting a rusted-out, slightly sarcastic fairy tale. Still, a few hours after the credits rolled it’s all evaporating and I’m struggling to recall a remotely original or inventive moment in the entire goddamn thing.
After the departure of “Toy Story 3” scribe Michael Arndt, Abrams enlisted Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the best (“The Empire Strikes Back”) and the worst (“Return of the Jedi”) films in the original trilogy for this mix-tape mashup of the series’ Greatest Hits: A pure-of-heart, resourceful young nobody from a barren desert planet just so happens upon an adorable droid containing information that’s vital to the rebel army currently battling a fascist intergalactic empire. The Force is strong with this kid, leading to misadventures across the stars with a chaste love interest, a cocky space jockey, and a kindly old mentor who knows more than he’s letting on, all aboard a ramshackle smuggling ship with a fuzzy co-pilot. There’s a tall, scary dude in a mask with a long black cloak toting a red lightsaber taking orders from an even creepier grotesque on a throne. Eventually we’re surprised to find out that somebody unexpected is somebody else’s father, and the villains have once again constructed a gigantic battle station capable of destroying entire planets that can still somehow be blown up by X-Wing Fighters flying wicked fast through narrow steel canyons.
So no need to fret about spoilers, because this is déjà vu all over again.
But there are people to enjoy on this over-familiar trip. I most liked Daisy Ridley’s take-no-guff heroine, Rey, flummoxed by the men who keep attempting to rescue her while she can handle herself just fine, thank you very much. (“Why do you keep grabbing my hand when we run?” becomes an early recurring gag.) I was also fond of John Boyega’s Finn, a reluctant Stormtrooper who abandons his post and joins the Resistance, kicking up a few questions of morality the rest of this film would rather not address during the routine mass slaughters. Oscar Isaac pops in for a scant handful of scenes to be ridiculously dashing and movie star-ish, hopefully securing a larger role in the next six-hundred sequels.
And then there’s that old rapscallion space-smuggler Han Solo, earning every bit of the thunderous ovation with which the audience inevitably greets his return. Harrison Ford hasn’t been this delightful in decades, clumsily wise-cracking once again with his shaggy grey hair, deferring to his seven-foot sidekick, Chewie. (Comparing Ford’s eye-rolling non-performance in “Return of the Jedi” to his work here is like night and day. Maybe it was the dump-truck full of Disney money but I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen him so invested in a role.) We even get a couple of too-short scenes in which Han bickers once again with Carrie Fisher’s General Leia. Forget whatever’s awakening, I’d pay twice as much to watch a movie about their divorce.
That’s another big problem with “The Force Awakens.” It’s in an awful hurry to get nowhere new. Abrams apes Lucas’ old-timey screen-wipes from side to side, often knocking us unto the next scene during a line of dialogue, without even a moment to breathe. Pretty much every character interaction ends with a big blaster shoot-out and a pointless chase sequence that almost never has any bearing on the plot. (I liked these characters so much I’d rather have spent more time with them when they weren’t running.) The breathlessness of the pacing turns a monumental death into a throwaway that everyone seems to be miraculously over a whopping two minutes later.
It is interesting, I think, to compare the two blockbuster 1970s franchises recently surrendered by their auteurs and taken over by new directors for their seventh installments during this particular holiday season. Ryan Coogler’s “Creed” reconfigures the “Rocky” formula as a question of legacy, embracing old tropes and melodrama while staying very much rooted in questions of race and class in the here and now. The movie is vital, about something in the year 2015, occasionally winking at the past, but also always looking forward.
“The Force Awakens” exists in a rearview mirror. It’s a product-launch slash refresher-course designed to remind us all how much we love “Star Wars,” introducing enough new and exciting talent to at least leave us hoping–once again–that maybe the next film will finally be the one that lives up to the promise of those first two.•••
Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.