That giant wheezing sound you hear is a collective sigh of relief, heaved by now-legion generations of “Star Wars” fans, from toddlers to their grandparents, who can rest assured that the Force is still with the franchise they grew up on or grew old with.
After George Lucas’ original trilogy of the 1970s and 1980s, followed by a mid-career slump of prequels during which he threatened to squander the beloved universe he had created (we’re looking at you, Jar Jar Binks), the stakes are unusually high for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Lucas’ characters and inventions are now the property of Disney, which in its wisdom has enlisted J.J. Abrams to reboot the series, with the aim of preserving its core values but infusing it with enough novelty to create yet another cohort of die-hard fans.
It’s the kind of high-stakes quest worthy of Luke Skywalker himself, and – as he did with the 2009 reboot of “Star Trek” – Abrams has proved himself worthy of the charge. “The Force Awakens” strikes all the right chords, emotional and narrative, to feel both familiar and exhilaratingly new. Filled with incident, movement and speed, dusted with light layers of tarnished “used future” grime, it captures the kinetic energy that made the first film, from 1977, such a revelation to filmgoers who marveled at Lucas’ mashup of B movies, Saturday-morning serials, Japanese historical epics and mythic heft.
What’s more, Abrams has united the original cast with a group of newcomers who mesh seamlessly with their elders, in an ensemble effort that brims with the chops and brio of a great jam session. He’s gotten the band back together in a perfectly balanced performance of oldies and new riffs, respecting all that’s come before but never getting mired in minutiae or fatuous nostalgia.
Abrams isn’t coy or gratuitously manipulative when it comes to pleasing his audience. The minute the lights go down, John Williams’ brassy anthem starts up and the opening crawl begins, explaining that Skywalker has been missing for the past 30 years, during which time an evil empire known as the First Order has taken power. A resistance movement is fighting back, led by General Leia Organa, who as the film opens has enlisted her finest fighter pilot to find Luke and enlist his Jedi powers on behalf of the rebel forces.
That’s enough synopsis for “The Force Awakens,” which deserves to be enjoyed with as clean a slate as possible, plot-wise. It even seems churlish to go into too much detail about specific characters and their roles in this world of futuristic fascism and ragtag chivalry.
Suffice it to say that Abrams has done stellar work by casting actors who will be unknown to most filmgoers but who shoulder their responsibilities with skill and confidence. Daisy Ridley resembles the plucky younger sister of Emma Watson and Keira Knightley as Rey, a scrappy, steampunk-ish scavenger who befriends a wandering soldier named Finn (John Boyega). Oscar Isaac brings just the right amount of cocksure street smarts to his role as Poe Dameron, and Adam Driver is similarly right-on as a shadowy, somewhat simian figure named Kylo Ren.
It’s telling, and surpassingly cool, that the last time Isaac and Driver worked together was on a Coen brothers film, the New York folk-scene drama “Inside Llewyn Davis.” That says a lot about the taste of Abrams, who has a wonderful eye for faces and for evoking the worlds of bygone “Star Wars” films while introducing new ones.
Hopping from one planet to another – one a desert, one a verdant forest, one filled with snow-capped mountains, all populated by tribal settlements that show colorful layers of wear and tear – his protagonists engage in the firefights, chases, explosions, showdowns and startling Oedipal conflicts that viewers have come to associate with Lucas’s ur-narrative. (There’s even a visit to a cantina crowded with motley extraterrestrials, an establishment owned by Maz Kanata, played by an unrecognizable Lupita Nyong’o.) Most crucially, the director and his co-writers, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, leaven what could be a fatally self-serious homage with teasing, thoroughly delightful flights of humor.
As often as not, the funniest lines belong to Boyega, who at times resembles Kevin Hart in his slightly manic version of a reluctant warrior. Of course, the granddaddy of the form is Han Solo himself, played by Harrison Ford in an amusingly deadpan performance composed of gruff one-liners and one or two genuinely tender, even heartbreaking encounters with figures from his past. One of the most gratifying things about “The Force Awakens” is the fact that Ford and Carrie Fisher, as Leia, play much larger roles in the story than mere perfunctory cameos.
As for Ford and Fisher’s robotic co-stars, the bad news is that they have some competition as far as adorable droids are concerned: BB-8, a roly-poly little Wall-E of a creature, rolls, beeps and blinks with such puppy-ish charisma that R2-D2 and C-3PO might want to call their agents to make sure they’re in the next installment. That’s coming in two years, which, considering the film’s somber, quietly electrifying final scene, now seems as far away as the Galactic Empire.
“The Force Awakens” has succeeded where it counts most, in creating a cast of characters that viewers can spend the next several years rooting for, especially the spirited, resourceful heroine at its center. Put another way – and hallelujah for it – there’s not a Binks in the bunch