“Luke Skywalker has vanished” read the first words of the iconic yellow-text scroll we’ve come to expect from each new entry in the Star Wars franchise, and with them J.J. Abrams has established a framework from which to construct the inaugural entry of this new trilogy: a search for the past that allows for liberal borrowing from its extant mythology’s proven strengths.
The Force Awakens is another of Abram’s competent, reverential, and blessedly humorous reconstitutions of an established fantasy world, this time with an added benefit of the inherent, deep-seated emotional attachment many have to this particular constellation of characters and milieus. There’s a new crop of heroes and villains here, but they’re all directed to seek counsel from the old ones, a tact that both serves to elegantly fill in some narrative gaps in the 30 years that have elapsed since 1983’s Return of the Jedi, and form an extended metaphor for Abrams’s own earnest recycling of the story structure and dramatic beats of George Lucas’s original film.
The plot here is a basic inversion of 1977’s A New Hope. This time it’s a female protagonist, Rey (Daisy Ridley), who’s winnowing her life away on some desert planet until the arrival of a messenger droid (a cute tag-along, BB-8, that’s more WALL-E than R2D2) sets her on a mission to deliver a map with Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts. And her male counterparts are this film’s joint Leia surrogates: a pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac), who’s taken prisoner by the First Order (formerly the Empire), and a rogue stormtrooper-with-a-conscience, Finn (John Boyega), who frees him.
A series of divine coincidences leads three of these four characters (Poe is estranged from the rest of the cast for much of the film) aboard the Millennium Falcon, which leads, like a homing beacon, to the smuggling freighter of its former owners, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford). The new baddies—including a constantly screaming General Hux (Domhall Gleeson), the Vader-masked Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and a CGI hybrid of Galactus and Voldermort known as Supreme Leader Snoke—pursue our heroes, and inevitably, a certain series-rhyming casualty follows.
Abrams is with little doubt the best director to helm these familiar beats since the late Irvin Kershner, and if his franchise entry doesn’t boast The Empire Strikes Back’s particularly potent concoction of drama or space-opera romantic sweep, it does serve as an always welcome corrective to the current franchise climate of gloomy self-seriousness, calibrating its tonal alchemy to Spaceballs-worthy silliness (“I can’t understand you in that mask”) with a surprising, and welcome, frequency.
This levity makes it difficult to find too much fault in the film even when it exists less as a meaningful extension of its world than as a fan-service deployment device, in part because every eye roll-worthy moment (another Death Star to destroy?) is preempted by the film’s own built-in eye-roll response gag (”...but bigger!”). Also because its affectionate call-backs are doled out with such underlying competence, from the fleet narrative’s clean, three-act structure, to the convincingly deployed iconic visual grammar of wipes and agile dolly shots, to the strength of the performances. Ford, in particular, is better here than he ever was in the original trilogy, taking to his role as sage veteran and guide with a wiliness and scrappy, irreverent charm that informs the character of the film itself.
But The Force Awakens is still more or less a fetish object, a film that exists to inspire phrases like “It feels like Star Wars again” ad nauseam from a fanbase that equates the lasting impact of Lucas’s prequels as something akin to PTSD. Its analog grain, practical effects work (shrewdly augmented with CGI), and the impression, at least, of a new story in this universe being told, rather than the predetermined one we were subjected to last time, lend Abrams’s effort a baseline rejuvenation, one he and returning screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan stoke throughout with the kind of nostalgia this series has been exploiting since it first co-opted John Fordian vistas and plot points from Akira Kurosawa films. The strategy works because mining mythology gives the impression of discovery, but one hopes that having thoroughly dredged that particular well for all possible returns, the next Star Wars installment may go looking for this franchise’s future instead of safely dwelling in its past.