Film Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A loose remake of 'A New Hope' cleverly packaged as a new adventure, 'The Force Awakens' strives to unite old and new generations of 'Star Wars' fans and mostly succeeds. Expect the box office Force to be strong with this one.
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In the fifth-season premiere of the late, great collegiate sitcom "Community," creator Dan Harmon coined the term "repilot"—a way of acknowledging that the series would essentially be embarking on a new narrative course, while still drawing on much of its previously established continuity. At the time, Harmon was returning to the show after a network-mandated season-long absence (that's a nice way of saying he was fired, and then rehired) and needed a shorthand way of reassuring viewers that "Community" would be the same show as it was under his original tenure, while also changing certain elements to allow for new stories. Hence the term "repilot," which sounds similar to, but is substantively different from a "remake" or "reboot," where the continuity clock is generally set back to zero and the narrative starts over again with new characters, events and themes.      

Bear with me, because this analogy is going somewhere. Since leaping from the world of television to the world of franchise filmmaking, J.J. Abrams has repeatedly proven himself an experienced repiloter long before Harmon dreamed up that term. Climbing aboard film series that are already well into their runs, Abrams keeps many of the major elements in place, while tweaking certain details and introducing new ingredients that carry the universe forward. His debut feature, Mission: Impossible III, for example, dials back the lone-wolf tendencies Tom Cruise's super-spy Ethan Hunt displayed in the first two movies, re-centering him as an experienced IMF team leader with a reliable crew—something that's been used to great effect in the subsequent sequels. His reimagining of Star Trek, meanwhile, cannily ports Leonard Nimoy's Spock over from the original universe into Abrams' new timeline, thus allowing the recast Enterprise crew to pursue their own five-year mission while receiving the tacit approval—and occasional assistance—of someone who lived those stories the first time around.

But those movies are child's play compared to the high-wire balancing act of repiloting that Abrams has taken on in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The seventh episode in contemporary American cinema's most iconic franchise—and the first to be made without the direct involvement of its mastermind, George Lucas—The Force Awakens has to accomplish the Herculean task of launching a new era for that far, far away galaxy, while still making it recognizable to generations of moviegoers who have inhabited it in their mind's eye since 1977. Abrams' solution to this challenge is almost comically simple, but damned if he doesn't pull it off. The Force Awakens is built upon the same narrative bones as the very first Star Wars feature (which has since been re-designated as Episode IV: A New Hope), with just enough limbs replaced or added on to give it the appearance of an all-new story, one that establishes fresh stakes and conflicts that flow directly out of a familiar mythology.

If you've studied A New Hope as well as Abrams clearly has, you'll be amazed and, at times, a little annoyed, at how closely this story mirrors that one from the very first scene. Just like audiences in 1977, we spend the opening minutes of The Force Awakens watching a rebellion-minded soldier hide a very important piece of information inside a cute droid before being captured by the helmet-clad henchman of an imperial tyrant. But that soldier isn't Princess Leia Organa, the henchman isn't Darth Vader, the droid isn't R2-D2 and the Rebel and Imperial armies are no more. Instead, in this post-Return of the Jedi future, the galaxy has become a battleground between the virtuous members of the Resistance—led by now-General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher)—and the goons of the Empire-worshipping First Order, led by a new despot, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Acting on Leia’s orders, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) arrives on the desert planet Jakku and recovers a key piece of information that might point to the whereabouts of long-vanished Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Before he can complete his mission, he's interrupted by the arrival of First Order enforcer Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), whose taste in clothing hints at a strong Darth Vader fetish that’s very quickly confirmed.

Poe has just enough to time to stash the intel inside his trusty robot companion BB-8, which proceeds to roll itself across Jakku’s dunes until it crosses paths with a scavenger calling herself Rey (Daisy Ridley). She’s clearly destined for bigger and better things than hunting for spare parts of long-dormant machinery, but needs a push to begin her hero's journey—a push she soon receives from First Order deserter Finn (John Boyega), who fled his Stormtrooper unit after experiencing a Red Badge of Courage moment in his first firefight. Making their escape from Jakku aboard a certain "bucket of bolts” that rhymes with Terillium Talcon, the duo cross paths with legendary smugglers—and the spacecraft's previous owners—Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Allowing history to repeat itself despite his better judgment, Solo once again agrees to aid a scrappy orphan on a quest to help a troubled rebellion before it's wiped out of existence by the enemy's planet-destroying super-weapon.

Throughout The Force Awakens, Abrams’ appropriation of A New Hope’s narrative framework and dramatic beats is audaciously brazen; he wants the audience to experience the recognition in seeing a new cantina, another hidden fortress, or a tragic sacrifice. And there are times when that intense familiarity threatens to sink the movie, particularly in the plodding middle section when Abrams’ lack of original ideas for how to move the story forward are most pronounced. But that approach also works in his favor in two key ways: First, it soothes viewers who stormed away from Star Wars in the wake of Lucas’ much-derided prequel trilogy (in some cases, unfairly) by speaking directly to their memories of how the franchise actually began. Secondly, it lends The Force Awakens the same feeling of lore that permeated A New Hope—the sense that this was an ancient story being discovered by new adventurers. Abrams further emphasizes the mythic qualities of this universe through a vivid sense of scale; watching Rey scramble around the ruins of an oversized Imperial Star Destroyer or rest in the shade of a fallen AT-AT provides a subtle visual cue for how the shadows of the past loom over the present.

Future episodes in the Star Wars franchise will most likely diminish the initial impact of The Force Awakens, just as The Empire Strikes Back came to overshadow A New Hope. Where that film at least told a complete story, Abrams’ “repilot” conceit means that much of this one is given over to establishing fodder for subsequent episodes. Once the nostalgic glow wears off, you’re left with the slight sense that you’ve seen a two-hour “Next week on” promo rather than a tale that functions on its own terms. But there’s at least one element of The Force Awakens that won’t fade with time: the brilliant casting of the new characters poised to inherit the franchise. Every one of Abrams’ hand-picked choices—Ridley, Boyega, Driver, Isaac…hell, even BB-8—steps into this universe as if they’ve been making Star Wars movies forever. The relationship between Rey and Kylo will be particularly fascinating to watch unfold, and the actors are perfectly matched to carry that conflict forward. (Not that the returning veterans are slouches; Ford slips back into Solo’s leather jacket far more naturally than he dusted off Indiana’s fedora in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and cameos by Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2 and, yes, Luke are calculated for maximum audience impact.) The masterstroke—and drawback—of The Force Awakens is that the film devotes its energy to getting audiences excited for what’s to come, even if that means sacrificing some of its own storytelling Force in the process.

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