OK., spoilers first. The Millennium Falcon is back, although one character dismisses it as “garbage,” and you still don’t need an ignition key to start it. The Death Star has been replaced by what appears to be its elder brother, and at one point we see the two of them, rendered as holograms, side by side. Great balls of firepower! And the biggest news of all: Chewbacca has had his highlights done, just for the occasion. There’s definitely a new and strokeable touch of golden-blond about him. And why? Because he’s worth it.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is, as the title suggests, aimed squarely at anyone who was worried that the Force was asleep on the job. Not that you can blame it for dozing off. One virtue of the new film is that it encourages viewers to ask afresh: What is the Force, exactly? I always assumed it was something that George Lucas dreamed up after too many Tolkien-themed parties at U.S.C. Like the One Ring, the Force can be wielded for both good and evil ends, but then so can a set of screwdrivers. We learn, from this latest installment, that the Force moves through all living things, which sounds lovely, if a trifle nebulous, yet the uses to which people put it, in the course of the narrative, seem highly specialized and precise. For instance, if you find yourself shackled to a torture rack in the stronghold of your enemy, you can brainwash your guard into releasing your fetters and leaving the door open. Very handy. Better yet, if the hilt of your light sabre is partially buried in snow and you can’t reach it, the Force—manifesting itself as a superior wobble—can pull the weapon out for you, like a splinter from your thumb.
Needless to say, that simple motion will incite seat-dampening delirium among fans of the franchise, who will need no reminding that Luke Skywalker performed the same trick near the start of “The Empire Strikes Back,” when he found himself dangling upside-down in an ice cave, with his sabre stuck beyond his grasp and a shaggy white carnivore preparing to treat him as Carpaccio of Jedi. The new film is studded with details of that sort, as if the primary duty of the director, J. J. Abrams, were to reassure devotees that all is well, and that, whatever his frenzy of innovation, much remains the same in their favorite galaxy. It is decreed, say, that when two major characters, who have prowled around each other at a distance, finally meet for a showdown, it should take place on a thin spindle of bridge, above a gulping abyss. Anything less grand will not suffice. If you really think that a hero, under “Star Wars” rules, is permitted to sit down and confront his nemesis over a cup of coffee, as Al Pacino did with Robert De Niro in “Heat,” you’re in the wrong game.
The plot of “The Force Awakens” is itself an exercise in loyalty. Start with an eager but thwarted youngster, toiling away in the sands of an unregarded planet? Check. End, pretty much, with an eager and unthwarted pilot, zooming down the narrow canyon of a spaceship, with his wingmen taking hits on his behalf and a tiny yet crucial target in his sights? Check. In short, we are back where it all began, clinging to the form of “Star Wars” (1977)—or, as it was later rebaptized, “A New Hope.” What’s going on here? Is Abrams a chronic nostalgist, bowing so low to the fan base that his nose is rubbing against the floor? Or has he wisely concluded that, if it ain’t broke, he should not be fool enough to fix it?
All of the above, and more. “The Force Awakens” is many things: a reboot, a tribute, a valeting service, and, above all, a wrestling match, so adroitly wrought that lovers of the original may not even notice the skill with which Abrams pins down the object of their love and, where necessary, puts it out of action. I hate to say it, but he’s a critic—as all creators, and especially re-creators, must necessarily be. And he’s ruthless. Airtime, on his watch, is not index-linked to the graying memories of baby boomers but doled out in line with dramatic appeal; the more vexing you were back in 1977, the less welcome you are now. Those of us who were resolutely uncharmed by R2-D2 and C-3PO, for instance, regarding them as just another of those squabbling couples whom you can’t help hearing through the bedroom wall, will be pleased to learn that their presence in “The Force Awakens” is strictly cameo-sized. Also, what is the first thing we read as the opening titles snail their way up the screen? “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” Good. Chipper yet irritating, like a pet squirrel, he was always the most insubstantial figure in the saga, played by the most callow of the actors. So he has to go.
Yet Luke still has one destiny to fulfill: he must become an invisible hinge of the story. Everyone in “The Force Awakens” is trying to get hold of BB-8, a small rolling droid who appears to have wandered in from a Pixar short and who, unlike R2-D2, is physically able to descend a flight of stairs. (Ascent is another matter; no wonder we don’t witness the attempt.) Lodged inside BB-8, on a sort of memory stick, is a segment of galactic map, which, when added to the rest of the jigsaw, will show—either to reverential followers, or to vengeful foes—where Skywalker is. Whether and why he’s worth tracking down is never asked; the quest is what counts. If you had told King Arthur that the Holy Grail was, in fact, a $6.95 highball glass from Crate & Barrel, do you think he would have dismounted from his steed and stayed behind to play gin rummy on the Round Table? He would not.
Taking Luke’s seat, as the main protagonist, is Daisy Ridley. She straps herself in, swats aside any vestige of Mark Hamill, and takes command of the movie. Her character is Rey, a scrap-metal scavenger by trade, stranded without a family on the dusty planet of Jakku. “Luke Skywalker? I thought he was a myth,” she says, with the calm assurance of someone who knows herself to be solid flesh and blood. Frankly, she is twice the guy he ever was. Ridley is given plenty to do before she even delivers a line: proof not just that Abrams trusts her but that his obedience to the basic laws of action movies is intact. (We first saw it in “Super 8,” which also had a female presence, Elle Fanning, at its core. “Women always figure out the truth,” we hear in the new movie. George Lucas, look and learn.) Our first glance of any new performer, watching simply how she or he walks across the screen, can be more instructive than anything else—far more than the utterance of dialogue. Ridley has a firm gait, a determined sprint, and a talent for ad-hoc sand sledding, and Rey needs no help from anyone, thank you very much. “Stop taking my hand!” she cries, fleeing a fracas in the company of a stranger.
At first, the stranger has no name, though he soon acquires one. Finn (John Boyega) turns out to be an Imperial Stormtrooper with a conscience. I must admit, I never realized that such tender beings existed. It’s as though a member of the Hitler Youth had volunteered for Meals on Wheels. Anyway, off comes his helmet, and Boyega gives a fine demonstration of moral relief, as the sweaty burden of malice is lifted from his soul. Such, at least, is one reading of the scene; the expression on his face could equally be that of a grown man who no longer has to jog around in one of those white plastic codpieces, which never look quite as shatterproof as the wearer would like them to be. Not for a second, as a teen-ager, was I spooked by the Stormtroopers, and Abrams, I suspect, feels the same, which is why he dedicates one of the earliest shots in his movie to refurbishing their image—showing them all in a row, under lighting that flickers like a strobe. Just for once, they seem to be something other than outsize toys, although even Abrams can’t do much about the Millennium Falcon, which struck me, decades ago, as little more than a Lego kit waiting to happen.
And what of its proud owner? In contrast to Luke, Han Solo, still armed with his lopsided sigh of a smile, resumes his spot on center stage in “The Force Awakens,” and rightly so, for the franchise owes so much to Harrison Ford. Without him and Alec Guinness, after all, the first “Star Wars” would have been largely unwatchable; viewed again earlier this week, it came across as startlingly inept—barely written, often badly acted, and always poorly paced, with some sequences tumbling past in an embarrassed rush and others lingering like unwanted guests. Granted, the result made hundreds of millions of dollars, and acquired the patina of legend, but, still, “Star Wars” was emotionally as null as the interstellar void through which its vessels leaped. That gratuitous round of applause at the end, for the returning saviors, and thus, by implication, for the movie’s own bravado? I blocked my ears. And the comedy? Don’t make me laugh. Ford alone took the measure of the nonsense around him, and saw instinctively how it might flourish; his lazy sprawl, and his grumbling asides, encouraged the audience to step back and inspect the striving of other life forms, and other civilizations, from a laconic angle. He understood, as Bogart did before him, that a half-reluctant hero, with a fondness for cash payments, is sexier and more plausible than any pink-cheeked enthusiast who gets turned on by the dream of doing good. Ford became the ironist of junk.
Hence his conversation in “The Force Awakens” with Carrie Fisher, who turns up once again as Princess Leia, still unfazed but minus the cinnamon roll of hair glued onto each ear. Solo says, “Wasn’t all bad, was it? Some of it was”—a loaded pause—“pretty good.” Leia ponders. “Some of it,” she says. I like to think that Abrams had a similar chat, on the sly, with Lawrence Kasdan, one of his co-writers on the project. (Michael Arndt also gets a credit.) It was Kasdan, of course, who worked on “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Return of the Jedi,” and yet his efforts here suggest not so much a tour of the old galactic homestead as a step into another well-known terrain. With Kasdan and Ford back in harness together, as they were for “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” almost thirty-five years ago, “The Force Awakens” feels closer to Indiana Jones than it does to Lucas’s “Star Wars.” (Solo to Rey and Finn: “Escape now. Hug later.” Indy to a T.) By temperament, Abrams is more of a Spielbergian than he is a Lucasite. His visual wit may not be, as it is for Spielberg, a near-magical reflex, but nor is Abrams suckered into bombast by technological zeal, as Lucas has been, and the new movie, as an act of pure storytelling, streams by with fluency and zip. To sum up: “Star Wars” was broke, and it did need fixing. And here is the answer.
The new film also feels young. That may sound strange, given the grizzled and sardonic heft that Ford brings to the party, but his role has an elegiac strain, too, and he knows it. You can sense him passing the torch, without a fuss, to Ridley and Boyega, who is vivacious and affable from first to last; and also to Adam Driver, who plays Kylo Ren—the winner of the Best Black Mask & Cape Award in “The Force Awakens,” Darth Vader having presumably retired to spend less time with his family. So well is Driver cast against type here that evil may turn out to be his type, and so extraordinary are his features, long and quiveringly gaunt, that even when he removes his headpiece you still believe that you’re gazing at some form of advanced alien. The world of “Girls” seems far, far away. Ren sports a funky brand of light sabre, too, which blazes devil red not merely along the length of the blade but also athwart the cross-guard, so that he appears to be swishing a giant scarlet crucifix, like a vampire taking on his hunters.
One battle, in particular, is a feast for the ears as well as the eyes, for it unfolds in a wintry forest. In addition to the usual throbbing hum of the weapons, (jazzed up a little for this movie, I fancy), you can hear the sizzle of sabre on snow, and the slicing hiss as the fighters miss their target and fell surrounding pine trees by mistake. This is something I do not recall from previous chapters in the franchise: genuine cinematic texture, allowing the film, however briefly, to be felt, rather than merely enjoyed—or endured—as a thunderous volley of sensations. That doesn’t happen often enough in “The Force Awakens”; when Rey arrives at a verdant land for the first time (“I didn’t know there was so much green in the whole galaxy”), she is allowed only one deep breath before Abrams cuts it short, and moves on. But his registering of scale is delicately done, with bodies dwarfed by cavernous structures or natural hills and vales, and you can feel him struggling to remind us, as Lucas and the other directors never bothered to do, that making wars among the stars is, by definition, the last word in futility and folly. Everyone is wasted by space.
It is not for that reason, however, that I salute your courage in going to see “The Force Awakens.” Something more urgent than metaphysics is at issue, namely this: paying to watch a new “Star Wars” movie, in the wake of its predecessors—“The Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones,” and “Revenge of the Sith”—is like returning to a restaurant that gave you severe food poisoning on your last three visits. So, be of good cheer. “The Force Awakens” will neither nourish nor sate, but it is palatable and fresh, and it won’t lay you low for days to come. Worshippers of the older films will have every right to feel cosseted and spoiled, as random exclamations—“Weapon fully charged in thirty seconds!”, “It’ll take a miracle to save us now!”, “Let’s hit that oscillator with everything we’ve got!”—echo through the cinema like the barks of excited dogs. Heretics and infidels, like myself, will be gratified to have avoided a more parlous fate. Please forgive us if we snort into our sodas when Han Solo remarks, “The Dark Side, the Jedi—it’s true. All of it.” Actually, Han, it’s not. It’s baloney. But it’s fun to behold, for now. And how long is it until the next chunk, a spin-off titled “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” crash-lands at a movie theatre near you? One year. The Force is with us forever, whether we like it or not.