Arriving on screens with a strategic, not half bad recasting, Star Wars: The Force Awakens almost feels new. But as the TIE fighters and X-Wings tangle in their familiar dance and scrappy heroes cut down stormtroopers with their blasters, the echoes of earlier films can’t be ignored. It’s a pattern for J.J. Abrams, who has made a career out of ransacking the attics of more creative artists like Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek) and Steven Spielberg (Super 8).
Here again, Abrams proves a dab hand when it comes to blowing the dust off a creaking franchise and supercharging it for another decade or so of corporate profits. Still, and by definition, the product is not original. Set 30 years after the second Death Star was blown to smithereens in Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens starts by reintroducing old problems. Even though the Republic has mostly won the war, the Resistance is still battling the Galactic Empire, now called the First Order.
All of this sounds familiar. Also familiar: on a desert planet that looks a lot like Tatooine but for some reason isn’t, a rebel pilot named Poe (Oscar Isaac) is taking possession of this movie’s McGuffin, a map showing the location of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). The galaxy’s last Jedi Knight went missing after he was betrayed by the Sith-like black cloaked-baddie Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Poe trusts the map to a cute little roly-poly droid, who bonds with lonely scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), just before they team up with stormtrooper deserter Finn (John Boyega).
Soon the trio has the First Order on their tail and they’ve enlisted the help of a certain big walking carpet and his smuggler buddy to deliver the droid to the Resistance. Or, at least, this is what Rey thinks. We see that Finn, smitten, has her convinced he’s more freedom fighter than opportunist. We also see that his story can’t hold up, because, as Han Solo (Harrison Ford) reminds him, “Women always find out.”
It’s fun to be reminded of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back by the crew’s dashing escapes and roaring about in the Millennium Falcon. As in Abrams’ Star Trek reboots, the mechanical plotting is overshadowed by an ensemble’s crisp comedic timing. Just a few minutes of Finn and Rey’s awkward flirtation bring more warmth than Lucas managed in the entire prequel trilogy. The couple’s charming interplay, as well as Isaac’s brash scene-stealing, auger well for the series down the line.
As forces are marshaled for another showdown between the First Order and the Resistance, however, The Force Awakens returns to pleasures of the past instead of generating new ones. One after the other, memorable bits are spiffed up and presented as reminders of what franchise fans have seen before. It’s true that nostalgia can carry a movie surprisingly far. But it can also curdle into déjà vu. Much of what transpires in the last quarter of The Force Awakens is pulled from the original trilogy, although it’s been reshuffled just a bit.
It’s a step back. Say what you will about The Phantom Menace — and there is precious little good to say about that plasticine bore — at least it expanded the Star Wars universe and told a different story within it. Sadly, that story involved Jar-Jar Binks and Japanese caricatures, but it also raised the question of slavery (the Republic’s clone army) and, in the Senate scenes, even ventured into a debate over the usefulness of democracy versus authoritarianism.
The Force Awakens presents hints of a similarly resonant story line, in particular with Finn’s early scenes. He’s introduced in a scene where Ren orders his stormtroopers to massacre a village of civilians and Finn balks. Traumatized by the brutality before him, his helmet smeared with a bloody handprint, Finn rejects his designation as a nameless drone. Of course, it isn’t long before he’s gunning down his former stormtroopers without a twinge of regret.
Delivering repeatedly to expectations, relentlessly attentive to franchise protection, The Force Awakens is, in the end, a fun but shamelessly pandering cash grab. Stuffed to the top with recognizable moments and marketed by a machine calibrated with military precision, it’s less a movie than a launching pad for yet another series of interlocking tentpole blockbusters.
Is The Force Awakens a good night out? Mostly. Is it going to live on in the memories of viewers like the original films still do, so forcefully? Not a chance.