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Editor's Note: Alert! This post may contain spoilers.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the seventh film in the epic sci-fi series, begins at night on a desert planet much like Tatooine in the 1977 film that started it all. The best pilot of the Resistance (formerly known as the Rebels) has been sent looking for clues to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, the last magical Jedi knight in the universe, who has gone underground since he helped bring down the evil Empire at the end of 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.” By one account, he tried to start a school for young Jedi, it went bad, and he retreated into himself.
Some old gent in a hut gives the pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a map to Luke’s supposed location just as evil First Order (formerly the Empire) stormtroopers overrun the village. They’re led by a magical Darth Vader-like bad guy in a black mask named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who’s also itching to find Luke — apparently so he can kill him.
Just before Dameron is captured, he slips the memory stick with the map to his trusty robot sidekick, BB-8 (with an R2-D2-style dome head set upon a rolling ball body), which escapes across the desert sands. The stormtroopers massacre the villagers — well, all but one stormtrooper, who stands there aiming at the unarmed people, but doesn’t fire.
Before you know it, the cute little droid has made friends with Rey (Daisy Ridley), who ekes out a living selling metal scavenged from crashed star destroyers. Then she bumps into that stormtrooper, named Finn (John Boyega), who’s deserted the First Order and is now pretending to be part of the Resistance.
There’s so much potential in this set up — the captured pilot, the stormtrooper who quits because he can’t stomach the bad he’s ordered to do, the woman just beginning to discover her powers, and a villain who, it becomes clear, worries that he may have too much good in him. Add crazy spacecraft dogfights in which the camera often feels like a GoPro stuck to one of the wings and you’ve got the makings of something that might just possibly live up to our three decades of expectations. Maybe.
Finn connects with Rey and BB-8, just as Rey’s village gets strafed by First Order tie fighters hunting the robot. “How about that one?” Finn yells as they run for a ship. “That one’s garbage,” she says as she runs toward another ship that immediately gets blown up. “The garbage will do,” she says turning to … the Millennium Falcon. Which helps them escape into space, where the ship develops engine trouble (as always), and they get captured by a freighter …. piloted by a grizzled, graying Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his giant hairy partner Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).
“We’re home,” Han says. Us too.
George Lucas’ original trio of “Star Wars” films between 1977 and 1983 told the story of desert farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who buys a robot guarding a secret message from rebel princess Leia. He leaves his home to help the rebellion and meets smugglers Han and Chewbacca, a wizard knight, funny droids, a little green guru named Yoda, said princess (who is revealed after some flirting to be his sister) and, Darth Vader, the baddest guy in the universe (who is revealed after some laser swordplay to be his dad). He destroys the villains’ planet-killing space station, twice, and saves all that is good in the universe. But I don’t need to tell you that. It’s one of America’s defining folk legends — part Western, part samurai epic, part World War II fantasia, part California hot rod culture salted with Bay Area tech and new-age mysticism.
But that feels a long time ago now. And soiled by the three horrible prequels Lucas released from 1999 to 2005. (If you’re some sort of masochist and want a refresher on the prequels, I will only recommend this "Weird Al” Yankovic music video.) Since then “Star Wars” faithful have been awaiting a savior to restore the wonder and magic to the universe.
Back in 2012, the Oregon advertising firm Sincerely Truman issued a cheeky open letter in the form of a YouTube video to “Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams: “Here are four rules you can follow to make ‘Star Wars’ great again.” That video, which has racked up more than a million views, reminded that "Star Wars” is set in (1) the dangerous, Old West frontier, (2) it’s an old, lived-in universe, (3) the Force should be left mysterious, and (4) stories should avoid the cute and silly.
There were strong hopes that Abrams would be the guy to fix things. He helped create the TV series “Alias” and “Lost,” then rebooted the “Star Trek” film series, which were criticized mainly for being too “Star Wars”-y. In “The Force Awakens,” which officially opens Friday, Dec. 18 (though public screenings begin Dec. 17), Abrams follows the Sincerely Truman folks’ advice. But, I’m very sorry to say, something is missing.
Han and Chewie take Rey and Finn to a castle next to a woodsy lake to help them bring the droid and its map to the Resistance. Inside is a saloon (read cantina) run by a Yoda-type, a little old orange lady who professes to be no Jedi, but is sensitive to the Force. But First Order tie fighters swoop down to decimate the place — and capture Rey — before being driven off by Resistance X-wing fighters. (The air battles in the film are pretty astonishing.) Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) arrives as part of the mop up and has a tense reunion with her old flame Han.
They’re basically an old divorced couple. Leia seems to have buried herself in her work, becoming a battle-worn Resistance general. Han’s gone to seed, returning to his rascal roots as a not-very-good smuggler, and not as fast as he used to be. Again, wow, the potential in this material. But their scenes together are too brief, too undeveloped and the actors don’t seem up to the task of carrying the vast emotional weight. In general, the film hurries past key emotional points — the death of a planet, the death of a father, a soldier who abandons his side because he doesn’t believe in the cause any more.
The film’s strength is its images — tiny Rey crawling through the vast ghost town interior of the ruined star destroyer or leaning against a giant toppled AT-AT walker; the Millennium Falcon skidding across sand dunes as Rey learns to fly the ship; X-wing starfighters zooming over water to the rescue; the villians’ Starkiller laser beam streaming across the heavens to murder planets. This is the “Star Wars” we’ve been looking for.
A lot of things happen in this film. But the rush of excitement of OMG-a-new-“Star-Wars”-film begins to fade, and you might find yourself tallying up all the echoes of the original “Star Wars” trilogy — droid given secret info becomes pals with desert planet orphan; a cantina; a Hoth-like snow planet; a Yoda stand-in; a Darth Vader wanna-be; a (new) Emperor-type “Supreme Leader.” When X-wing fighters attack a Death Star-like Starkiller Base by swooping down a trench, just like in the original 1977 “Star Wars,” I groaned inwardly. At first, the familiarity appeals to our desire to return home to the original trilogy. But the repetition begins to feel like uninventive fan fiction. Things have new names, but it’s just the same Rebellion, just the same Empire. They’ll be forever flying down trenches trying to kill each other. But without the original’s feeling of urgency or a sense that much of anything is at stake.
“The Force Awakens” is a fun film, an entertaining film. It’s much better than the embarrassing prequels. But probably not quite as good as “Return of the Jedi,” the weakest of the original three. Because so much here doesn’t pay off. The various pieces of the plot don’t quite come together. Which is a disappointing surprise since Lawrence Kasdan, who worked on the screenplays for “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Return of the Jedi” and “Raders of the Lost Ark,” helped write this one. But it’s a problem that Abrams has repeatedly run into. He’s great at beginnings, and action, but he’s not so great at creating complex, menacing villains. Or satisfying endings.