Here’s what I can tell you about the movie that ate the world this year, J.J. Abrams’ thirty-years-later sequel to Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Nothing. No, but seriously, if you like Star Wars at all, you need to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens for yourself, and I won’t spoil it for you here. I will say a few things, though, about this ultimate in critic-proof movies. For starters, it has a lot in common with Creed in its ultra-conscious, bottom-line-preserving fan service and franchise extension.
Especially for old-school fans, there’s nothing bold or particularly unexpected about the script by Lawrence Kasdan (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back) & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt or the direction by Abrams. Lucasfilm (sold away by founder and Star Wars creator George Lucas in 2012), Disney, and the creative trust have agreed on marching orders of staying true to the established universe, characters and style; inviting back old characters and establishing new ones capable of winning young hearts; and sustaining a “fresh” storyline, thereby splitting the difference of reunion movie and relaunch (not so subtly, returning favorite Han Solo keeps endorsing the young folks).
The big “innovation” here is to put a young woman front and center. Although Rey (Daisy Ridley)—the striking waif in question—proves conspicuously unconvincing in muscling opponents off their feet in an early fight scene (with what arms?), she’s entirely credible behind a blaster or the controls of the Millennium Falcon. If Rey is the new Luke, “best pilot in the resistance” Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and new recruit Finn (John Boyega) are the new Han, and orange is the new droid, by which I mean super-cute “one of a kind” droid BB-8 (who immediately calls to mind WALL-E). CGI characters Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) are essentially the new Yoda and Emperor, respectively; General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) the new Grand Moff Tarkin; and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) the new Darth Vader, with a twist (whew!).
Just about everything in The Force Awakens fills a slot to “pastiche” the original trilogy (and especially the original 1977 Star Wars), including the sandy, snowy, and forested planets—the last with a cantina—and Death Star-style HQ of mass destruction, complete with vertiginous drops. The strategy is both in keeping with Lucas’ creative approach of cyclical storytelling while serving as a stylistic rebuke to his digi-fied 1999-2005 prequel trilogy and double-down embrace of his analog Original Trilogy. As such we get varying degrees of screen time from Solo (Harrison Ford), who I can tell you is a major focus and still has the old chemistry with Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew); Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill); General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher); C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2D2 (81-year-old Kenny Baker “returns” only as R2-D2 “consultant”).
Ford’s the best thing about TFA and nails all the best lines, while the new cast acquit themselves admirably, suggesting future installments stand on solid ground with a set of reasonably engaging characters (and a likelihood of next director Rian Johnson getting more creative material to work with). In story terms, TFA can be dimwittedly obvious and self-plagiarizing, with little of real-world consequence and less that’s new to say (the new iteration of the Empire remains fascist, with Stormtroopers conscripted as child soldiers, while the Force remains a spiritual energy that can tip powerfully to good or evil). Abrams makes epic use of the frame when he can, which is most of the time, and visual effects and production design remain the franchise’s most convincing claims to artistry.
At this date in movie history, of course, artistry isn’t the point, so is Star Wars: The Force Awakens a fun-filled adventure at the movies and a license to print money? Yes and yes, with repeat business assured from pop-eyed kids, their tear-wipingly nostalgic parents and grandparents, and most fanboys and fangirls, who’ll side-eye Lucas to ask, “Was this so hard?”.
No tears for the multi-billionaire, but it's hard not to feel a little sad for the creator of Star Wars as he witnesses his creation (inevitably) reduced from space opera to sample-heavy pop song. We can make all the cracks we want about space-Senate hearings and trade tariff negotiations and Jar Jar Binks, but the prequel trilogy was—above and below its surfaces— creative, gutsy, and challenging in ways the Abrams-launched trilogy has yet to demonstrate; the prequels offered wild new sights right from the start (pod-racing and, oh, let's say Naboo), was pointedly politically relevant to its moment ("Nazis bad" has kinda been covered already, though I guess we'll always have space-Cheney) and proved thoughtfully and productively subversive in its treatment of its own iconic characters (visiting Darth Vader as a cherub and then a romantic deepened our understanding of his tragedy and our fallibility) and its overarching mythology (yes, even those clumsily established midichlorians, which put nature in conversation with supernature). Hopefully, TFA is teeing up Rian Johnson for at least some like opportunities where "X" marks the spot, but only time will tell.