“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” does the one crucial thing the Walt Disney Co. absolutely needed to happen in the first “Star Wars” movie under its corporate control: It successfully jump starts a film series that even many of the faithful thought was coasting on fumes when its last episode crossed the finish line a decade ago.
J.J. Abrams and company have brought back the zippy space jalopies and souped-up fighters, the tongue-in-cheek humor, the morning serial archetypes and all the guilty pleasures George Lucas established in 1977 but then struggled to reclaim more than two decades later.
As for how it measures up to INSERT YOUR FAVORITE STAR WARS MOVIE HERE or fits into the “Star Wars” canon that is holy writ to many — well, let’s leave that to fandom and its media acolytes. All that Disney could hope for has happened: Meaning most moviegoers will want to see the next “Star Wars” movie.
If you’re a real moviegoer rather than a movie fan, then “The Force Awakens” probably won’t be your favorite movie of 2015. Even for sci-fi action movies, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” itself a resurrection of a series many thought over and done, leaves “The Force Awakens” in its wake.
But in a relay race, you’re only as good as the last runner to grab the baton. Director/co-writer J.J. Abrams more than upholds his leg of this race to box-office glory.
“The Force Awakens” is a fast-paced, good-spirited, thoroughly approachable action movie that grabs and keeps your attention from first frame to last. It blends new with the familiar so that its demographics will, if anything, widen.
Abrams and “Star Wars” Supreme Leader, producer Kathleen Kennedy, have smartly brought back a few old hands, notably screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who helped pen the second and third “Star Wars” movies; John Williams, who uses his old score as a jumping off point to a bright new one; and in front of the cameras Harrison Ford as Hans Solo and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia.
The new movie, written by Abrams, Kasdan and Michael Arndt, is almost entirely a chase and a search. The chase is for a map that one of the good guys, Oscar Isaac’s top-gun space pilot Poe Dameron, gets from Max von Sydow’s Lor San Tekka (blink twice and you’ll miss him).
But Poe gives it to a cute little android called BB-8, that looks like an errant beach ball, who in turn falls into the hands of the movie’s two young leads, Daisy Ridley’s space scavenger Rey and then John Boyega’s Stormtrooper deserter Finn.
The bad guys are called the First Order but behave no differently than the Empire or Sith did previously. They chase our heroes all over that galaxy far far away where planets are like subway stops: Trains can drop you at any station but space is no place to hide since the First Order knows where you’ve landed even before you do.
The movie’s search, however, is for that original “Star Wars” hero, Luke Skywalker, who has gone AWOL for decades and even Princess and now General Leia doesn’t know where to find him. Somehow he is the Republic’s missing piece in a defense of its realm against the evil First Order. But where to find him?
Presumably Mark Hamill is paged to play a more significant role in the next “Star Wars” movie, which would be Episode VIII, than he does in this one, in which he but fleetingly appears.
So the young actors, Ridley and Boyega, do the heavy lifting (and with a tiny flirtation between them that may lead to something or not in Episode VIII), while Ford, acting ever so comfortable in returning to his iconic character after so many years, and his companion Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew, also returning) make with the wisecracks and pleasantries.
Isaac is on screen more than a little but barely registers, which is too bad since he’s a great actor and so far getting wasted here. Meanwhile no one is doing Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o any favors so far by putting her in a “Star Wars” movie since she only does the voice (albeit very well) of a leathery and tiny old bar owner Maz Kanata, who possesses Yoda-like wisdom.
Adam Driver takes on the role of the new arch villain, Kylo Ren, who struts around in a black and helmeted costume not unlike Darth Vader’s but by the conclusion of Episode VII he’s still a Darth Vader wannabe.
He also has supernatural powers that are inadequately explained as are Ridley’s, which come out of nowhere. This is a constant curiosity in this movie as are Finn’s motivation for deserting the Stormtroopers or Solo’s for showing up at all. Things are all so vague.
Good and evil have always been a game of Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe in the “Star Wars” films with heroism and villainy being as random as stars in the galaxy. So this along with vague motives and inexplicable rescues and cliff-hanging episodes continues to take place in a world more simpatico with fairy tales than science fiction.
When the original “Stars Wars” debuted in 1977, more than a few people wondered why it wasn’t made by Walt Disney rather than Fox since it so perfectly fit into the Disney vision of fairly tales and children’s stories. Well, now and at last “Star Wars” has come home.
When Walt Disney Co. put up $4 billion to buy “Star Wars” creator Lucasfilm in 2012, it brought the franchise into a magic kingdom where everything makes sense once you get through that Disney looking glass and enter its realm of fantasy.
And fans appear ready to embrace the new “Star Wars.”
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is expected to earn $1.5 to 2 billion in global box-office revenue. Four more films over next four years could bring the total somewhere near $25 billion if one factors in merchandising, video games, DVD sales and theme park tie-ins.
But everything hinged on how well Kennedy and Abrams revived the “Star Wars” spirit in this film. So — mission accomplished.
Opens: December 17, 2015 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production companies: Lucasfilm, Bad Robot
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Billie Lourd, Gwendoline Christie, Peter Mayhew, Dornhall Gleeson, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Max von Sydow, Mark Hamill
Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenwriters: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt
Based on characters created by: George Lucas
Producers: J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, Bryan Burk
Executive producers: Tommy Harper, Jason McGatlin
Director of photography: Dan Mindel
Production designers: Rick Carter, Darren Gilford
Music: John Williams
Costume designer: Michael Kaplan
Special effects supervisor: Roger Guyett
Editors: Maryann Brandon, Mary Jo Markey
PG-13 rating, 135 minutes