‘The Force Awakens’ Marks a Return to Fun for ‘Star Wars’

In Movies & TV by April Snellingsleave a COMMENT

The new Star Wars film opens with a bold promise: “This will begin to make things right.” It’s a line spoken by a robed and bearded Max von Sydow, who’s talking about a map that will hopefully lead the good guys to a certain missing Jedi. But he could just as well be announcing director and co-writer J.J. Abrams’ determination to get the franchise back on track after George Lucas’ famously disappointing prequels.

It was an ambitious goal, but Abrams has succeeded. At its best, The Force Awakens is a rapturous, soaring adventure movie that almost perfectly mimics the tone of the 1977 original and its first two sequels. At its worst, it still coasts along nicely on the considerable charms of its cast, both old and new, and the sheer power of the nostalgia it so effectively evokes. Best of all—and unlike the last three installments—it’s a lot of fun.

Abrams, who has made a career of minding franchises, directs the film like the superfan he is, and it often feels more like a mixtape than a sequel. It’s best not to go into much detail about the plot—which is ironic, since Abrams and his co-writers (including The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi scribe Lawrence Kasdan) have approached The Force Awakens as a greatest-hits compilation of Star Wars plot devices. There’s a son estranged from his father, both men on opposite sides of a war that pits scrappy rebels against a planet-destroying regime; there’s a restless youth who regards the stars from a dusty desert planet; there’s a hotshot pilot (two of them, actually); a grungy little droid that carries vital information; a helmeted and black-clad villain who takes orders from a mysterious despot; and more outer-space dogfights and funky aliens than you can shake a lightsaber at.

What’s really remarkable is that Force takes these hand-me-down elements and weaves them into something that’s both familiar enough to satisfy longtime fans and fresh enough to earn legions of new ones. It smartly turns that balancing act into a plot point. It’s not a spoiler to say that the trio of characters at the center of the original films—Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa, and Harrison Ford’s Han Solo—are the stuff of legend to the three young heroes of Force. It’s as much a movie about fans of the franchise as a movie for them; the new stars echo the classic characters, but they also revere them and, like so many Star Wars fans, have grown up on stories of their exploits.

And if the torch must be passed, it’s hard to imagine a more likeable cast to take it on. The prequels never managed to cough up a single truly memorable character (unless you count Jar Jar Binks, who stood out for all the wrong reasons), but Force gives us several. There’s Finn (John Boyega), a turncoat stormtrooper whose crisis of conscience puts him smack-dab in the middle of an intergalactic war; Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a daring flyboy running missions for a group of rebels known as the Alliance; and, best of all, Rey (Daisy Ridley), a tough-as-nails desert scavenger with a knack for all things mechanical. How they come together, and how their paths intersect with those of the series’ most beloved characters, is best left unspoiled.

Heroes are nothing without villains, of course, and Force has a heavy lurking in every shadow, from a Darth Vader heir apparent called Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to a towering being known only as Supreme Leader Snoke (a motion-capture role filled by Andy Serkis).

By its very nature, The Force Awakens doesn’t quite land with the impact of the original Star Wars. When that film hit theaters, there hadn’t been anything like it; Force, in contrast, succeeds because of how firmly it’s anchored in a beloved franchise and familiar mythology. It trades a sense of discovery for a sense of return—different pleasures for sure, but both have their advantages. It’s impossible to truly duplicate the experience of seeing Star Wars on the big screen for the first time. But I suspect that, 30 years from now, someone will be saying the very same thing about The Force Awakens.

April Snellings is a staff writer and project editor for Rue Morgue Magazine, which reaches more than 500,000 horror, thriller, and suspense fans across its media platforms. She recently joined the lineup of creators for Glass Eye Pix's acclaimed audio drama series Tales from Beyond the Pale, an Entertainment Weekly “Must List” pick that has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

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