The bulk of the fans can put away their ropes, since I am not going to trash Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However, neither am I going to shamelessly praise it. J.J. Abrams’ new film does exactly what it sets out to do. It’s light, it’s fun, it’s entertaining. It makes no serious missteps, and it hits all the notes that’s expected of it. As it played out, I could see how carefully it hit all those notes, and how they were all gauged to draw whoops, laughs, gasps and applause from the audience. The audience I saw it with behaved accordingly, except there was no applause. (Maybe I had a dud audience. It happens. Only one person came dressed up — at least I think he was dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi, but he may have just been wearing a bathrobe. In Asheville, one cannot be sure.) Personally, I mostly enjoyed it, but was not blown away by it and can’t imagine wanting to see it again. But that’s to be expected, since Star Wars is not a part of my childhood, and it doesn’t tap into a well of nostalgia. For those who find deep meaning in it, and for whom its roots are embedded in their pop culture psyche, it is a different experience altogether — and I recognize that.
For the movie that The Force Awakens is — and the movie that the fans wanted — J.J. Abrams was the perfect choice. Apart from lens-flare (conspicuously absent here) and a clever way with a line, there seems no particular style or signature to his work, making him the ideal director to deliver a film where the chief desire was to reconnect with the original three Star Wars films from 30-plus years ago. He clearly knows those films — certainly Lawrence Kasdan, who was on board with the screenplay, does — and he has done a good job of replicating them. There’s little here that isn’t at least a riff on — sometimes an outright copy of — something from those first three movies. In a sense, I guess that’s OK when you consider that most of the elements in the original trilogy were drawn by Lucas from from the 1930s Flash Gordon serials he saw growing up. Who better to jump-start things than someone who watched the Lucas trilogy as a child? Right? Well, maybe — depending on what you want, but it’s getting awfully close to pastiche, or even fan-fiction, on a grand scale.
It’s not so much that the story is basically a reworking of the original trilogy — compressed to 135 minutes. It’s that it tries to recreate the exact same reactions to close approximations of things done all those years ago. This approach is apparently catnip to fans, but it is ultimately a little like kids playing Star Wars dress-up (or cosplay). At the point when we learn (and I don’t think this is a spoiler) that our new villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), doesn’t actually need that Darth Vader mask, but sports it to be like his hero, the dress-up aspect becomes hard to ignore. (That it also might remind you of Rick Moranis in 1987’s Spaceballs is another matter.)
None of this keeps The Force Awakens from being an entertaining time at the movies. Abrams has detected one of the biggest weaknesses (apart from the bad dialogue) in the prequels (which actually started in the first two sequels) — Lucas’ love affair with special effects for their own sake. Each film boasted more than the last (this was even a selling point) until the movies were almost subsumed by cluttered, incomprehensible frames filled with effects. Abrams has junked that and taken the new film back to basics. The effects are clean and to the point. Bringing back — well, more or less — the major players from the original film is mostly handled well. The new players are something of a mix, but Daisy Ridley as Rey is clearly the driving force there. Really, if you’re a hardcore fan, the movie offers you a chance for a little reunion — sometimes bittersweet — with old friends and introduces you to some new ones. It tells its story and stays true to the spirit of the original three movies — and maybe that’s all it needed to do. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.