[NOTE: This is a largely — though not absolutely — spoiler-free review of the film. There are a number of surprising plot twists that I am barely alluding to, if at all. But if you’re super-concerned about spoilers, you might consider seeing the movie first.]
“Give me those Star Wars,” sang Bill Murray as lounge singer Nick Winters in the late 1970s, “Don’t let them end!” And since the 1970s, there’s been constant pressure on Hollywood to do just that: Do whatever you have to, just don’t let those Star Wars end.
Nick Winters needn’t have worried. Not only did the Empire strike back (1980), but Jedi masters like Yoda have been trying to tell us ever since that there’s a Light and a Dark side, and why, really, should the Dark side ever go away? Not without a fight, it’s not.
So thirty years after Luke converted Vader to the good side and Vader threw his mentor down a shaft, the Dark Side is back and stronger than ever. Now remnants of the Evil Empire remain, but they’ve renamed themselves the First Order. The only thing that seems truly new is that director J.J. Abrams has put in some allusions to Nazi Germany and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. You just can't keep the bad guys down.
But the real meaning of Nick Winter’s song… “I hope these Star Wars will stay!”… is that the fans never wanted to give up the good feelings that the 1977 film inspired: the humor, the pathos, the sense of goofy-but-somehow-believable adventure. And here J.J. Abrams succeeded almost too well. My one major criticism of Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens is that Abrams has used the original Star Wars (Episode IV to the initiated) as a blueprint. He put all its major plot elements into a blender, along with some from Episode V, hit “BLEND,” and poured them into a slightly different cup.
For example, we’ve blown up the Death Star, let’s see, how many times? Two or three? Let’s do it again, and do it in almost exactly the same way! (The bad guys never manage to put sufficient shielding over the ventilation system.) Only let’s make it EVEN BIGGER, so big that Abrams couldn’t find a word for it. Just call it “The Weapon”… a planet-sized planet killer that can annihilate other planets at an interstellar distance. A fitting metaphor for an age in which we worry if North Korea has a nuclear bomb and can deliver it
There are some things that Abrams got right. The fans, it seems, don’t mind recycled plot elements, but there were two difficult things Abrams had to do: first, he had to find a way to bring back all three of the original Star Wars leads (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford) in a way that was believable and effective. Remember that this film is the first sequel to the original films, not a prequel, and fans of the original trilogy want to know: what have our heroes been doing for the last thirty years, while we’ve been growing up and trying to have a life?
Abrams succeeds admirably. To say much more along this line would be to give too much away, but I can say this: Harrison Ford, as Han Solo, is allowed to show up and, for a great deal of the running time, own the movie. He gets off more than his share of the good lines, too. It's enough to warm a Wookie's heart.
An even bigger challenge was to showcase these leads while handing off the proverbial baton to The Next Generation, Star Wars style. And here Abrams succeeds as well. The three new human leads are mostly unknown actors who prove themselves in star-making performances. There’s John Boyega as Finn, a storm trooper who gets an attack of conscience; Oscar Isaac as Po, a Resistance pilot who brags that he "can fly anything,” suggesting something of Han Solo’s old cockiness; and finally Daisy Ridley as Rey, the new Luke Skywalker.
Obviously, there’s a change in gender here. But Rey is not merely a female Luke (a “girl Jesus” as my niece said) but she’s the best young protagonist yet. She’s less whiny than Luke and less petulant and spoiled than Anakin. As she surmounts one danger after another, she almost suggests that women–at least some women–have an inner resourcefulness that men lack.
In any case, the baton is successfully passed to a trio of new heroes, none of whom is a white, Anglo-Saxon male. This helps bring balance to the Force, and moreover, may be especially appropriate to our own age, in which we’ve seen a half-Kenyan President of the United States and conceivably could see a woman president some day, too.
White males, this time, are relegated to the traditional villain role, with the presence of James Earl Jones’ voice sorely missed. In the prequel, that gap was filled by Ian McDiarmond as the Emperor, who in my opinion was the greatest of all Star Wars villains and who did much to lift the quality of the Star Wars prequels. The new film features Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, who’s basically a sad Darth Vader wanna-be. The Emperor he is not. Still, he manages to do something in this film that fans will not soon forgive him for.
And what about all those wonderful Taoist/Buddhist philosophy quotations? Sorry. Abrams went more for character and action, less for the philosophizing. If you want people standing around talking about the philosophy of the Force, you'll get more of that in the prequels.
As for not having McDiarmond around, well you can’t have everything. As Nick Winters sang, just don’t let those Star Wars end!