J.J. Abrams had the weight of Hollywood, if not the entire galaxy, on his shoulders.
As writer and director of the seventh installment in the “Star Wars” franchise, he was expected to satisfy two generations of fans, many of whom had been let down by the last three George Lucas-directed movies. On top of that, with the film’s reported $200 million budget, Disney was looking for something to blow the roof off the box office as well.
But if Abrams was having any sleepless nights, he can rest easy now. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a triumphant return to form for the iconic franchise — the best of the films since The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. It’s also a rousing introduction to new characters who will likely carry this world forward through two more planned episodes and assorted spinoffs.
Set approximately 30 years after Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi, Force paints a universe where the Empire may be gone but has been replaced by The First Order, a totalitarian regime intent on wiping out all traces of the Republic and any form of resistance. They pledge allegiance to the hideous Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis from “The Lord of the Rings” movies in another role that calls for his complete transformation.)
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But feisty resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), along with his trusty droid sidekick BB-8, aren’t going down without a fight. BB-8 has information on the whereabouts of the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who disappeared decades before without a trace.
The First Order, under direction of the villainous General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), wants this information, too, and imprisons Dameron. But he finds an unlikely ally in Finn (John Boyega), a renegade Stormtrooper who is rebelling against his programming.
This is a kick-off to a rollicking adventure that will also include Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young female pilot living alone on a desert planet who soon finds she has a higher calling, and old friends like Leia, now General Leia (Carrie Fisher), Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) in supporting but meaningful roles.
Abrams keeps things moving quickly, even at 135 minutes, and there’s a sense of humor — especially in the interplay among Finn, Poe and Rey — that never gets too campy. Visually, Force is impressive even though it is a bit of a throwback in terms of effects. (Abrams has been quite public in his desire to de-emphasize digital effects.)
And there are a couple of big surprises that will have hard-core fans humming until the next film comes out.
The actors strike the right tone with Englishman Boyega (from the cult film Attack the Block), Isaac (indie fare like Inside Llewyn Davis and Ex-Machina) and Ridley (mostly known for British TV) showing off a cool, easy chemistry.
With these three, Abrams has found a way to represent a global sensibility without coming off forced. And, as George Miller did with his Mad Max: Fury Road, he has crafted a strong female character in Rey, who can more than hold her own in this male-dominated world.
Nit-pickers can find complaints. The Stormtroopers are still such poor shots that they can’t hit the side of an asteroid. It’s a wonder these guys could take over a small town let alone a galaxy.
And why would Abrams use Iko Uwais and Cecep Arif Rahman, stars from “The Raid” movies — arguably the best martial-arts films ever — and not have them engage in a little rock ’em, sock ’em lightsaber throwdown?
But these are minor quibbles in what turns out to be one of the most enjoyable, escapist movies of 2015. It has enough magic and adventure to satisfy devotees of the original films who have been desperate for a new, worthy installment for decades.
And it will also capture the imagination of a new generation, some of whom wouldn’t know a wookiee from a sand creature.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
(out of five)
Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, Carrie Fisher
Rated: PG-13 (sci-fi action violence)
Running time: 135 min.