Directed by JJ Abrams | Written by Lawrence Kasdan, JJ Abrams, and Michael Arndt, based on characters by George Lucas | 135 min | ▲▲▲△△
A friend of mine was struggling to manage his expectations of the return of the Star Wars franchise. “The movie doesn’t need to be better than the original trilogy,” he remarked, “It just needs to be better than the prequels.” In that, JJ Abrams has definitely succeeded, though that may be damning his new effort with faint praise.
Best not to dwell too much on the plot details of the seventh Star Wars extravaganza, and first by Disney, but I will say this: someone has gone missing, and what our heroes and the resurgent forces of the Dark Side are looking for is a detailed map to locate said absent character. Why this map exists, why it’s in pieces, and what it’s doing in the hands of Max Von Sydow and Oscar Isaac, is never satisfactorily explained… along with much else.
There’s plenty that doesn’t work in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. It’s deeply, self-consciously indebted to the original Star Wars movie, to the point where it feels like a remake rather than a sequel. Look out for cute droids carrying secret information, a teenaged pilot on a desert world who doesn’t recognize their special affinity with The Force, and a planet-sized weapon powerful enough to destroy other celestial bodies that can only be disabled by a buzzing attack from x-wings. The lack of originality here is startling, even for Abrams, a capable action director but also the king of fan fiction.
In the first act especially, Abrams seems unwilling or unable to trust his new characters are interesting enough to have them sit still for longer than 10 seconds without having to run from explosions. As with most recent features, the 3D is a totally pointless gimmick… but for one shot of an especially pointy star destroyer.
All this said, the 10-year-old in me couldn’t help but cheer at what Abrams got right. He’s absorbed the look and feel of Lucas’ original film and its sequels, offering up some great battle sequences, some terrific practical creature effects, and wrangled John Williams to provide a thrilling update to his iconic score.
The young cast do all that’s required of them, with Adam Driver particularly fine as a rage-filled antagonist with a Darth Vader fixation and daddy issues, and Daisy Ridley shining as the female lead.
The return of the first cast is a big draw here, and I can’t deny the joy it gave me to spend time with Han and Chewbacca again. That those moments feel so poignant may be simple nostalgia, but the crowd I saw it with greeted the arrival of every familiar face, and even spaceship, with applause. That’s nothing to sniff at. Too bad Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford don’t manage to muster much excitement for each other.
Yes, the film’s shortcomings are manifest and manifold, but I can’t deny that it’s frequently something the prequels almost never managed: It’s fun. I was having too much of that to let all the problems bother me.
For my look back at the original trilogy through more mature eyes, go here.