Early in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, our new protagonists Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) find themselves at the controls of the Millennium Falcon — her in the pilot seat, him manning the blasters. They’re in separate parts of the ship, but they’re each saying the same thing, a pep talk to themselves: “I can do this, I can do this.” It’s a funny, human touch; it’s also something of a meta-moment for director J.J. Abrams, who finds himself piloting what is arguably the most valuable and beloved franchise in Hollywood. At risk of setting too low a hurdle, he does not screw it up.
Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) do so savvily and carefully, with a story that extends the exiting mythology and icons while setting up hand-offs to, perhaps literally, the next generation of characters. This is easier said than done; lean too hard into callbacks and nostalgia and you’re just making big-budget fan fiction (or courting the meaningless label of “fan service” – news flash: all sequels are basically fan service), but push too hard in new directions or to introduce new faces, and you risk alienating your audience (or, worse, making the prequels).
So Abrams and his co-writers wisely start with the introductions, fleshing out the new players – Finn, a Stormtrooper whose crisis of conscience leads him to join the forces of good, and Rey, a tough scavenger on a journey of her own – while meticulously parsing out reunions with the old gang throughout their adventure. And Abrams’ direction is certainly affectionate for the previous pictures; aside from the obligatory opening logline/title/theme/plot scroll (good luck not getting goosebumps when that first John Williams stinger hits), it’s got plenty of visual and narrative callbacks, from the cheeseball wipes to the clipped British accents of evil (actual dialogue: “I won’t have you question my methods!”) to the Reifenstahl staging (a good deal clearer this time around, and on the other side, thank goodness) to terse interactions on long walkways over vast voids of nothingness.
Some of this is a little much; the big climactic mission sounds an awful lot like Jedi’s, which sounded an awful lot like Star Wars’. But for the most part, such moments feel less like wink-wink homage than a keen understanding of why we liked those original movies; when Dan Mindel’s camera lingers on the bonkers creatures in the rough space cantina, for example, it’s less a case of doing something Lucas did, and more a reminder that what separated those early films from so many of their blockbuster offspring was the patience to stop and look at all the cool stuff they’d made.
And occasionally, the picture slyly turns our expectations and preconceived notions inside out. At the beginning, it seems to set up fairly straightforward analogous characters to the original trilogy’s lead trio: Finn as Luke, Rey as Leia, and cocky flyboy Poe (Oscar Isaac, terrific) as Han. But as we find out more about Rey, and spend more time with her, it becomes clear she’s not fitting into any established boxes (nice touch: the way Finn stops short of jumping into a scuffle when he sees she can handle herself, and even glances around quickly to make sure no one saw him thinking she needed his help). And Finn’s arc is a good deal more complicated than expected. There is, first of all, something borderline subversive about his introduction, about the notion of lingering on one of those usually anonymous white-suited bad guys, while the subtext of his backstory – the robotic number he initially identifies with is “the only name they ever gave me,” and he later explains, “I was taken from a family I’ll never know, and raised to do one thing” – suggests the casting of a black actor in the role is both delightful and deliberate.
Both Boyega and Ridley shine in roles that will clearly make them stars; Isaac gets the swagger of his character, and the humor too. The only performance that doesn’t really work is that of Adam Driver, in the proto-Vader role of Kylo Ren. And frankly, he’s fine when he’s wearing the new variation of the iconic black mask of villainy; wisely jettisoning the irreplaceable heavy-breathing Vader voice for something creepier and draggier (the voicebox timbre eerily recalls the killer’s 911 recordings in Zodiac), there’s a mystery and danger to the character which evaporates on the two occasions when the headpiece is removed and the familiar vocal inflections return and we’re reminded, oh right, that’s Adam from Girls.
Meanwhile, in spite of his legendary grumpiness and general indifference to the role, Harrison Ford is better here than he’s been in years. Watch his face when he first hears the name Luke Skywalker and the gentle way he replies, “Yeah, I knew him,” and reflect on how only actors like Ford and Carrie Fisher can invest those moments with that kind of weight and pathos – because they’ve lived with these characters for this long, and bring to them not only their own baggage, but ours. (See also: Sylvester Stallone in Creed.)
Then again, the entire movie walks that line: aware and enamored of the series’ past, yet bent on engaging and entertaining us on its own terms. What a relief it is to hear actual, intentional laughter at one of these movies (nothing made the prequels more of a slog than their ponderous self-seriousness); the unrepentant joy of an audience having a great time is infectious. Abrams’ direction is energetic, and his action beats are well-executed – the on-screen geography and cause/effect are clean, the movement is fluid, and the editing is thankfully restrained – while his compositions are frequently gorgeous. The Force Awakens does what the original films did well – and is also its own, thrilling thing. Because beyond the surface thrills there’s a real, beating heart; as ever, this is a Star Wars about abandoned children, lost parents, desperation for family, and finding one’s true, best self. By the end of that first scene in the Falcon, Finn is able to say, “I’m getting pretty good at this!” And by the end of The Force Awakens, so can J.J. Abrams.
The Force Awakens opens tomorrow night, you shouldn’t have much trouble finding it.