NEW YORK (CNS) — With “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (Disney), the most popular series in film history resurfaces after a 10-year hiatus.
This is the seventh installment in the franchise as well as the first feature in a planned third trilogy. Like its predecessors, it’s essentially a family-friendly piece of entertainment, with only interludes of peril and combat barring endorsement for all.
At the controls is J.J. Abrams, creator of the television show “Lost” and the man who rejuvenated another iconic science-fiction franchise via 2009’s “Star Trek.” Hiring Abrams was a smart decision, not least because the savvy director — who also co-wrote the script with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt — could bring a steady hand to the project and allow producer George Lucas to concentrate on selling Lucasfilm to the Walt Disney Co.
Few risks were taken, particularly on the technical side. The visuals aren’t novel or awe-inspiring, but they’re sufficiently well-crafted to transport viewers where they need to go.
The primary objective seems to have been to safely pass a beloved and lucrative property from one generation to the next. This applies to the behind-the-scenes talents (as mentioned above), the fan base and the cast of characters. Abundant humor and the introduction of a pair of compelling new heroes, both portrayed with irrepressible vitality, are the keys to a successful hand-off.
Thanks to an accessible plot, “Star Wars” neophytes, if they exist, won’t find themselves adrift in a forbiddingly alien galaxy, however far away. And there’s enough complexity and allusive layering to satisfy those fully immersed in the saga.
“The Force Awakens” takes place 30 years after Episode VI, “Return of the Jedi.” Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last warrior battling on behalf of the chivalrous Jedi Order, has exiled himself.
His twin sister, Leia (Carrie Fisher), the general leading the Jedi-friendly Resistance (successor to the Rebel Alliance), wants to find him. So, too, does the First Order, an army in the service of the Dark Side. Masterminded by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), this fascistic sect is bent on killing Luke and forestalling a Jedi uprising.
Leia sends her best fighter pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), to the barren planet Jakku to retrieve information on Luke’s whereabouts. When Poe and his droid BB-8 separate during a skirmish, the spheroidal machine meets a young female scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley), and a disaffected First Order Stormtrooper called Finn (John Boyega).
With the First Order mounting another attack, Rey, Finn and BB-8 commandeer a familiar looking, rusted-out freighter lying in a desert junkyard. Since this turns out to be the Millennium Falcon, it’s not long before that vessel’s famed commander, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and his furry co-pilot, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), appear. (Droids C-3PO and R2-D2 make brief appearances later.)
The good guys’ principal antagonist is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a descendant of arch-villain Darth Vader and a disciple of Snoke’s who’s so torn between the upright and evil sides of the conflict that he has terrible anger issues. More ominously, First Order has a new, highly destructive weapon that makes the Death Star of earlier chapters look like a child’s toy.
The action builds to a gripping lightsaber duel in a snowy forest that ends all too quickly. Abrams never dawdles, which, as a rule, is a virtue. Yet, because he’s not a great visual stylist, his staging and framing often lack artistic flair.
This makes viewers long for Abrams to linger over sequences that do have more panache. His focus, however, is on lucidity and character development. When it comes to the movie’s look, he sticks to the “Star Wars” template. On balance, that’s a more than acceptable trade-off.
If there are moments you suspect you might be watching the cast-reunion special of an old TV show — John Williams’ majestic music counters that feeling to a degree — it’s largely attributable to how stiff and weather-beaten Ford and Fisher appear.
That’s not ageism. It’s a criticism of the pair’s acting and, more positively, a result of the contrast between their turns and the fresh, energized performances delivered by Ridley and Boyega. The senior duo can’t help seeming superannuated in comparison.
It’s doubtful that a movie has ever been more widely or intensely anticipated. Fueled by marketing ploys, a publicity avalanche and a glut of merchandise, this frenzy can obscure some of the things that have made “Star Wars” such a cherished and enduring cultural hallmark.
They include: entertaining story lines about the perennial struggle between good and evil; lovable heroes and hiss-worthy villains, both drawn with mythic characteristics; an integrated science-fiction vision; riveting chases, battles and action set-pieces; and the celebration of classic values such as courage, honor, and fealty.
Early on, Ray and Finn buck themselves up by repeating the same line, “I can do this. I can do this.” Perhaps an awareness of the utility of self-confidence and the necessity of trying your hardest are the best takeaways from “The Force Awakens.” By displaying these qualities themselves, director Abrams and his team get the job done — and then some.
The film contains much stylized fantasy violence. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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John P. McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.