For those who saw the first movie in the “Star Wars” saga in 1977, it was indeed a “long, long time ago.” Still, this most successful of film franchises through the years has usually delivered the goods for the most part. From generating billions of dollars at the box office (with merchandising earnings going even higher) to spawning sequels that range from superb (“Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”) to decent (“Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith”) to disappointing (“Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi”) to downright horrible (“Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones”).
Here, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, director J.J. Abrams (the truly mediocre “Star Trek Into Darkness”) introduces new characters such as the Darth Vader worshiping Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, “Inside Llewyn Davis”), scavenger/pilot, Rey (Daisy Ridley, “Scrawl”), hotshot rebel fighter, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, “Ex Machina”) and the Stormtrooper with a conscience, Finn (John Boyega, “Attack the Block”) and brings back old friends (much to the delight of preview audiences), Han Solo (Harrison Ford, “Ender’s Game”), Princess/Gen. Leia (Carrie Fisher, “Sorority Row”), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew, “Killer Ink”), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, “Kingsman: The Secret Service”).
An admitted “Star Wars” fanatic, Abrams fills the film with multiple homages to the original, from a new wretched hive of villainy to a massive planet-destroying base to a final confrontation that tests the bonds of family loyalty even more than anyone could have ever guessed. It’s a nice balance of characters to root for (or against), but the plot often seems so much like the first installment (desert world where droid with hidden plans finds a sympathetic human, a young protegee learns about the Force, the battle between good and evil and even an attack upon the villain’s Death Star — only here it’s a literal Death Planet, and a visit to a cantina where costume designers get to put forth their best aliens) you might feel like you are watching the inaugural picture and Jimmy Carter is still President (except don’t expect Star Wars: The Force Awakens to be nominated for Best Picture or Best Director).
Plotwise, Leia sends her best resistance pilot, Poe, to the planet Jakku (which is littered with battles of the past, featuring giant decaying Starships, etc.) with his droid, BB-8 (R2D2’s inferior cousin) to get a map of the missing Skywalker from Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”). Discovering this, Kylo Ren, a bigwig in the First Order (the dark, malevolent Nazi-like organization that has risen from the defunct Empire), sends troops to capture the principals. One trooper, however, refuses to obey orders and aids in Poe’s eventual escape. Meanwhile, the droid has attached itself to Rey and she and Finn are chased across the landscape by Ren and his minions.
Soon, they steal the ages-old Millennium Falcon (the first cheers of recognition from the audience), which still manages to fly, and then run into Han and Chewie (to even more applause) and the recollection of good old days begin, with stunning aerial battles, amazing ground conflicts and plots by the First Order to destroy the Republic and counter plans by the resistance to destroy the bad guys. Sweet moments also take place such as Hans owing money to just about everyone in the universe, Leia and Han finally meet again after many years (having broken part because of their wayward son) and a most heartbreaking scene of all, which no doubt shocked just about every fan — or even casual fan — of the series.
While films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens tend to allow the special effects to dominate the characters (or at least the acting part of the equation; with only Sir Alec Guinness getting an Academy Award nomination for Obi-Wan Kenobi), there are several standouts in this episode. Ford, who surprisingly has only one Oscar nomination in his career (for “Witness”), does a very good job of bringing freshness and vibrancy to a beloved role, while Ridley’s Rey may be the best “Star Wars” character introduced since the original trilogy. She’s the kind of character a franchise could be built around . . . if she survives.
Trained by both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Abrams (who breathed new life into the stale “Star Trek” franchise with 2009’s “Star Trek” before crushing it with the sequel) is given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and does the best he can with what he was given (thank goodness he continues to utilize the talents of trusted colleagues cinematographer Daniel Mindel and editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey). Star Wars: The Force Awakens has the usual toy store tie-ins (a billion dollar money maker unto itself), but it also has identifiable men and women (and aliens) who often trip into their victories, as well as the silliness to remind us that a pop cultural phenomenon like “Star Wars” is still beloved almost four decades after its inception.
Not everyone will be satisfied with this project, but with box office records being shattered every day and a whole new generation being introduced to the characters and plots of the original trilogy, one cannot complain too much. Here’s to the future of this franchise and that it overcomes the second trio of movies. Good luck, Mr. Abrams.