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A Rousing “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (Mostly) Shakes Off the Prequel Snooze

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015)

Approximately halfway through the new Star Wars, when Han Solo and Princess – now General – Leia meet for the first time in this film, they proceed to tell each other (for our benefit), everything that has happened since we last saw them, 32 years ago, in The Return of the Jedi. This is called exposition, folks, and when it exists for no other reason than to provide story information to the audience, it feels clumsy. As it does here. Rarely, except in weak screenplays, do actual living and breathing human beings state things openly: when you share history, you don’t have to. And we don’t need to be told all of the reasons for which these two beloved characters of the original franchise have become estranged. That’s what was so wonderful about the second film (my favorite) in the series, The Empire Strikes Back: Han and Leia had full conversations where they either didn’t say much, or said the opposite of what they meant.

So that’s part of what doesn’t work. What does work, I am happy to say, is much of the rest of the film. Unlike the three prequels, this new film is mostly well acted and coherently told. Perhaps it’s time to take a moment for a little (appropriate, of course!) exposition of our own, just to catch everyone up on the Star Wars universe, though if you haven’t seen the previous six films, then Star Wars: The Force Awakens is probably not for you … yet.

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away” … that would be California in the 1970s … a young filmmaker named George Lucas, fresh off the success of his second feature, American Graffiti (his first one, THX 1138, had bombed), wrote and directed Star Wars, a film inspired by Lucas’ love of the sci-fi films of his 1950s youth and Joseph Campbell’s seminal text about narrative storytelling, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The movie was not just a hit, but a blockbuster. Indeed, along with Jaws – directed by Lucas’ buddy Steven Spielberg – the film helped launch our current blockbuster era. It told the story of young Luke Skywalker, an orphan living on a desert planet, who finds himself swept up in the rebellion against the evil “Empire.” At the tale’s center lies “the force,” a mystic energy that only some trained adepts – known as Jedi Knights – can use to its full potential. Young Skywalker is befriended by one such Jedi – Obi-Wan Kenobi – who trains him so he can confront a former Jedi – Darth Vader – who was once trained by Kenobi, as well, before he went over to “the dark side” and pledged allegiance to the Empire. Along the way, Skywalker joins forces with Princess Leia, a leader of the rebellion; Han Solo, a swashbuckling smuggler; Chewbacca, Solo’s “Wookie” (like Bigfoot, only slightly friendlier) sidekick; and two droids (as in, robots) named C-3PO and R2-D2, as well as assorted others.

At the time – 1977-1983, the release period of the first three films – we just called the films by their original titles. Now, we have to refer to them as Episode IV, Episode V and Episode VI, since their place in the overall chronology sits in the middle. In 1999, Lucas released Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace – the first of three prequels – forever changing the nomenclature of the series. That film was followed by Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, in 2002, and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, in 2005. In these films, we discover the young Anakin Skywalker – Luke’s father – as he meets and is trained by a much younger Obi-Wan Kenobi before going over to the “dark side” and becoming part of the nascent Empire. The prequels, as they are now known, were not nearly as beloved as the first trilogy, because, well, they weren’t very good. While the arc of each story was compelling, the actual screenplays were exposition-laden and wooden, and the central character of Anakin – whether as a boy or a young man – was never played by an actor up to the challenge.

And now here we are. Lucas, himself, directed the prequels (he had relinquished directing duties after Star Wars, allowing others to tackle the first two sequels), but he has wisely allowed someone else to take the reigns for this latest entry (he’s not even credited on the script). J.J. Abrams (Super 8) is in charge, and we sense from the start that we are in good hands, much as we did when he took on the Star Trek franchise. We still have the signature blue “long time ago” title, and then the crash of John Williams’ iconic score as the yellow-outlined “Star Wars” splashes onto the screen, receding into the distance to make way for the expected introductory text crawl. Welcome to Episode VII.

So what do we learn in this opening (the perfect – and only – place for straight-up exposition)? It turns out that a new and sinister replacement to the Empire – defeated in Episode VI – called the “First Order,” has arisen, and is slowly reconquering the galaxy. Luke Skywalker, lead Jedi of the Republic, has been missing for years (which answers all of the fan questions about his absence from the promotional materials), having fled into exile for mysterious reasons of his own (sure to be answered – don’t worry – in the film to follow). His sister, Leia, has mobilized forces to find him, knowing that there is no way the Republic can resist the First Order without Jedi help. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in other words, could just as well be entitled Star Wars: The Search for Luke (and this way, Abrams could combine both “Star” franchises …).

Very quickly, this explanatory history over, we launch right into action. And very quickly, we find that we are in a film rich with visual and narrative echoes of the original Star Wars. It’s not an out-and-out copy, but it has no compunction about cannibalizing its own past. We’re on a desert planet again – Jakku, this time – where we meet a young orphan – a woman, Rey, this time – who suddenly finds herself part of the rebellion – against the First Order, this time – in large part due to a droid – BB-8, this time. Rey is played by newcomer Daisy Ridley (Scrawl), and she is quite good, immediately allaying our fears about another Anakin disaster. Soon she is joined by another excellent new recruit, Finn – or FN-2187, as he is originally known, since he starts out as an imperial stormtrooper – played by John Boyega (Attack the Block). Their scenes together are a delightful combination of comedy and action, taking what was old and making it fresh and new.

Speaking of old, it is not long before we meet up with our good friends Han Solo – played, as always, by Harrison Ford (so great in recent years as a grizzled veteran in films like 42) – and Chewbacca – played, as always, by Peter Mayhew – and soon, when the aforementioned reunion happens between Han and Leia – played, as always, by Carrie Fisher (now as much of a writer as actress) – the gang is almost all together again. Except for Luke, whose whereabouts the frantic members of the fractured Republic still seek. The First Order, you see, has developed a new planet-destroying weapon that will mean the end of all resistance unless the rebel fighters can find a way to destroy it first (again, “echoes” of film #1 with its Death Star).

And who is the face of evil here? First and foremost is Kylo Ren, a black-clad figure meant to he Darth Vader 2.0 – he even keeps his fallen idol’s old helmet as a keepsake – who has a connection to the Republic which I will not spoil here, but which I wish the filmmakers had held off on revealing until the big climax. Once we discover his origins, it’s not hard to guess what the main tragedy of this film will be. I was sad when it happened, but not surprised. In general, Kylo Ren is the other part of the film that doesn’t quite work for me. As played by Adam Driver (While We’re Young), he’s a mess – sorry, mass – of contradictory impulses that leaves him more neurotic than frightening. It’s too easy to see the trajectory the writers are building for him. One of the things I loved about Darth Vader in films 1-3 (now 4-6) was the slow way we got to know him and understand the complexity of his narrative. Here, we’re told everything about Kylo Ren, diminishing his mystery. Still, the climactic battle – predictable though it was – is a marvel of production design, special effects and cinematography, so there’s always that.

Where Abrams and his co-writers do a far better job with mystery is in Rey’s story. Who is she, and why is she important? You may guess – again, I won’t spoil anything here – but not until the end of the film do we know – sort of, maybe – where she comes from. Finn, too, is a cypher, and though he shares a lot of motivations with the original Han Solo, he can still surprise us. Other new actors pop up, as well – Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina) and Domnhall Gleeson (also Ex Machina) among them – and acquit themselves honorably – but this is really the story of Rey’s and Finn’s awakening, and they more than hold their own and earn a place in the Star Wars canon. Thanks largely to them – and to the joy in seeing our favorite characters back in fine form – Star Wars: The Force Awakens is, overall, a success. There are plot holes and inconsistencies, for sure, but they recede as quickly as the opening crawl as we revel in the speed and excitement of a dazzling sci-fi adventure that promises more delights to come.