“The Force Awakens” washes away most of the bad taste left by George Lucas’ three “Star Wars” prequels.
It’s not perfect. It’s practically a remake of the original “Star Wars.” But it’ll do.
J.J. Abrams, the guy who reinvigorated the “Star Trek” franchise, here turns his imagination loose on iconic characters like Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie.
He and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt affectionately mine our memories of past “Star Wars” films (or at least Episodes IV, V and VI) while laying the groundwork for an entirely new set of adventures in that galaxy far, far away.
Most importantly, they come as close as anyone will to recapturing the original “Star Wars’” blend of corn, comedy and cosmic adventure. If it doesn’t have the same impact this time around…well, we’re all older now. You’re only a virgin once.
From the opening credits — that familiar written prologue scrolling into the distant stars — to John Williams’ music to dozens of outright borrows and homages, “The Force Awakens” tips its hat to the things that made the original “Star Wars” such giddy fun.
As we learn up front, 30 years have passed since the destruction of the second Death Star. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil, now bearded and wrinkled) has been laying low; meanwhile the evil galactic Empire has mutated into the First Order.
Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
The new face of the Dark Side is the black-helmeted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who leads the Order’s fight against the Resistance led by Gen. Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, natch). The Resistance’s best hope is to get Luke into the mix, but his whereabouts are unknown.
Except that a map providing clues to Luke’s new home has been entrusted to a beachball of a droid called BB-8. (Remember how R2-D2 had the plans to the Death Star? Same idea.)
BB-8 passes through a series of “masters”: The ace Resistance fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac), the tomboyish and resilient desert scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), the storm trooper Finn (John Boyega), who doesn’t like being one of the bad guys and goes AWOL.
These fugitives are abetted by our old buds Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca the Wookie (Peter Mayhew), who are reunited with the rusty Millennium Falcon and put the old girl through her paces.
Along the way there are plenty of new faces (and/or masks). Gwendoline Christie (of “Game of Thrones”) is heard but not seen (she never takes off her helmet) as Captain Phasma, Finn’s ruthless commander. Domhnall Gleeson (who seems to be in EVERY Christmas release this year) portrays a pompously nasty Order general in the rectum-clenching style of all those other British-accented space Nazis from the earlier films.
Lupita Nyong’o is the computer-generated Maz Kanata, the gnomish and wise proprietor of a planetary way station (she’s a thematic cousin to Yoda). Andy Serkis is Snoke, the supreme leader of the First Order, who is seen only as an intimidating hologram (a lot like the Emperor was in “Return of the Jedi”). Simon Pegg is pretty much unrecognizable as the troll-like proprietor of a desert pawn shop.
None of the performances are spectacular; rather, they are carefully calibrated cogs in a big entertainment machine.
That said, newcomer Ridley is the breakout star, a young woman who can look anywhere from 15 to 23 (her actual age) and seems perfectly at home with the demands of a big action role. She’s the Luke Skywalker for a new generation.
Speaking of action…the big action pieces — chases through outer space, a dogfight between Resistance X-Wings and Order TIE fighters, a climactic light saber duel — are well-executed. Still, one cannot shake the feeling that too often “The Force Awakens” is regurgitating stuff we’re already plenty familiar with.
But then that’s the whole point of this exercise. “The Force Awakens” isn’t so much an emotional experience on its own account as it is a link to our shared affection for the original film back in 1977.
Abrams and company punch most of the right buttons, and if “Force” falls short of real originality — well, the fans don’t want originality. They want comforting familiarity with a surprise or two.
And they get it.