Roughly one hour into my screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the digital projector showing the print conked out. One minute, I was hanging with Han Solo, Chewbacca, and all my old pals, and the next, like that, I was plunged, sweating, disoriented and gasping, into the disappointing real planet we walk around in every day. About the original Star Wars, Roger Ebert wrote in 1977, that “my imagination [forgot] it is actually present in a movie theater and thinks it’s up there on the screen. In a curious sense, the events in the movie seem real, and I seem to be a part of them.” For all the excellence and good cheer of The Force Awakens, its signature achievement is its ability to return us to that real world of those first three Star Wars films. Suddenly, as if nothing has happened, as if 30-plus years have happened in a blink, we are back. George Lucas’s prequels barely felt as if they had any connection to the original films at all—they were like watching an aging lounge starlet fail to remember the words to her famous songs right after being hit in the head with something blunt and heavy. But The Force Awakens is a wondrous magic trick, a piece of pop art that both conjures up long-forgotten memories and attempts to incept new ones. The world of Star Wars is so evocative and specific we still dream of the ice planet Hoth, or the Mos Eisley cantina, even though we only spent a few scant minutes of screen time there in the first place. The Force Awakens lets us live in those dreams again.
Much of this magic is a conjuring from American cinema’s great mimic, J.J. Abrams, a man you wouldn’t trust to create anything particularly original on his own—his sole original property as a filmmaker, Super 8, played like a bad Spielberg cover band—but Abrams is precisely the person you want to save the franchise. Star Wars, a culture phenomenon so powerful and encompassing that it has become a sort of public trust, needed fixing—we needed to be reconnected to it in a way Lucas himself proved unable to achieve. More than anything, Abrams is a fan, like we are, and he approaches Star Wars with the exact right mix of awe and purpose. He knows that we want to see Han, and Leia, Chewie, R2, and the whole gang again, but he also knows what we really want is that feeling that we have soared out of our seats and living up in that specific world of wonder and myth. There are new stories in The Force Awakens, and good ones, but the story we are being told is one we have been told before. But we needed it to be told before; we needed to come back here.
the film begins, it is 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi: Luke Skywalker has vanished, Han Solo is out
swindling again, and Princess Leia is now General Leia. The Empire is gone, replaced
by First Order, an even more frightening empire with a taste for Nazi
imagery. But this is not the Empire’s story, or at least not just its story. First, we meet Finn
(John Boyega), a stormtrooper who improbably, and intriguingly, grows a
conscience and helps a rebel pilot named Poe (Oscar Isaac, oozing leading man
charm) escape a new villain, Kylo Ren, and the dark side of the force. Along
with a somehow-cuter-than-R2-D2-robot named BB-8, he meets Rey (newcomer Daisy
Ridley), who like Luke, is a scavenger from a desert planet who imagines a
bigger, better place. The details of their plot, and how they come across our
friends from the earlier films, are familiar—maybe a little too familiar at
times. (The balancing act of homage and reinvention is a difficult one, and once
or twice, Abrams veers a little too close to outright repetition.) But Abrams
is smart to give us new characters—three heroes and our villain—who are their
own people, telling their own stories. It’s Han and the gang who are the supporting
characters, not the other way around. (In a nice touch, the young kids, like
the audience, can’t believe they get to hang out with the legendary leaders of
the Rebel Alliance they’d been told about when they were children.) Basing the
story around them isn’t just a smart corporate move—eventually Harrison Ford
and Carrie Fisher are going to be too old to build a franchise around, if
they’re not already—it recasts the tale for a new generation in a fashion that
feels true to the last one. Finn, Rey and Poe have shades of Luke, Leia and
Han, but they’re different and compelling and sympathetic all on their own. They
feel as true to the spirit of what Lucas initially created as the Tauntauns or
Yoda. They’re kids with dreams, like the rest of us.
It helps that they’re played by such appealing actors. Ridley, in her first major screen role and definitely not her last, has a resolve and strength that constantly surprises even her; during one sequence, she turns your traditional damsel-in-distress scene on its head in a deeply satisfying way. And I’m gonna love watching her banter with Boyega for the next however-many films. Impressively physical and imposing in his breakthrough role in Attack the Block, Boyega is lighter on his feet here: funny, relaxed, bewildered and, yes, heroic. They’re a perfect team. They mesh effortlessly with the old cast, from Leia to C-3PO to even a cameo spot by our old friend Admiral Ackbar. (Abrams resists the temptation to have him say, “It’s a trap!”) But in a year where Sylvester Stallone is receiving plaudits, and even Oscar buzz, for returning to Rocky Balboa one more time, Harrison Ford, frankly, blows him off the podium. Ford famously derided his Han Solo character, and these films, for years after he was done filming them, but he has obviously made his peace with them both: This is the most delightful, powerful performance Ford has given in years. It’s delightful just to see Solo again, and Ford plays along with that, but then he takes it a little bit farther than you were expecting: There is deceptive power and depth to what Ford is doing here, an old movie star deciding to go ahead and give it his all this time, to be at one with his audience one last time. Indiana Jones may an all-time movie icon, but Han Solo launched a specific sort of American hero Hollywood has been trying in vain to recapture ever since. This is the character Ford will be remembered for.
The movie only occasionally slips into too much fan service. (The Mos Cantina scene, all told, is maybe a tad on the nose.) Abrams restrains himself, as much as he can anyway, from turning this into cosplay or fan fiction: He stays true to his (and our) memory of the first films without turning The Force Awakens into The Traveling Star Wars All-Star Greatest Hits Revue. The film re-creates the world of Star Wars without reinventing it or veering too far into a nostalgia lane; it remembers that this is the start of its own series, and we’re going to need to care about Finn and Daisy and the gang as much as we care about our old friends. It’s a near-perfect bit of alchemy: To create, and re-create, at once. It scratches the itch you’ve been waiting 30 years to scratch and make sure to get you on the hook for more. It is precisely the Star Wars movie that you want it to be. This is the one you were waiting for. You may be waiting just as intently for the next one.
(Note: This is where I come to you with a confession. The screening of the film I attended, with five minutes left in the film, broke again, this time for good. The spell, the reverie, it snapped once more, and this time, after re-entering that world for two more hours, we were unable to return. Considering the anticipation of this film and how transfixing it is, I was sort of impressed my fellow audience members did not set their seats on fire. So it is possible that the last five minutes of the film feature a Human Centipede-type scene involving Ewoks that Abrams snuck past Disney. I don’t know. I didn’t see it. I recognize that this review is inherently incomplete without the final five minutes—it is only the highly unconventional circumstances of this particular film, and the fact that this is our first Grierson & Leitch review at the New Republic, that even spurred me to write this review without seeing a complete version—and for this I do apologize. I will be back to see it again on Thursday night, with the rest of you, to see the whole thing uninterrupted. To be honest, though, had the projector not went kaput with five minutes left, I would have been there Thursday again anyway.)