J.J. Abrams fulfills expectations with ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Three and a half stars

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.

When George Lucas decided to embark on the Star Wars prequel trilogy, misguided as it may have been, it was the artistic and personal vision of a single filmmaker, revisiting the defining work of his career. Now that Disney owns the Star Wars franchise, though, personal considerations are no longer part of the decision-making process. J.J. Abrams may be the director and co-writer behind the space opera’s seventh installment, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but the true auteur is the Walt Disney Company, carefully crafting a brand extension for its multibillion-dollar investment. In a way, that benefits The Force Awakens, since everything about it seems calculated to entertain the widest audience possible.

Abrams and co-writers Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan (who worked with Lucas on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) know how to put together an exciting story, and they’ve come up with some excellent new additions to the Star Wars character canon. It’s hard to imagine any fans coming away from The Force Awakens feeling the anger and betrayal that some expressed after watching Lucas’ prequels. But it’s also hard to imagine anyone holding this up as their favorite movie in the franchise. It’s an entertaining but ultimately lightweight bridge between the classic movies and Disney’s apparently never-ending slate of upcoming feature films.

Even the much-hyped return of classic characters has been a bit overstated. The main characters of The Force Awakens are not the original-trilogy trio of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), but rather scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and reformed stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), who team up to protect the ultra-cute droid BB-8 from the evil First Order. BB-8 is holding a top-secret map to the location of Luke Skywalker, who’s gone into hiding as the First Order has risen from the ashes of the sinister, galaxy-spanning Empire.

In broad strokes, The Force Awakens rehashes the plot elements of Lucas’ 1977 series opener. Its main character is a struggling peasant who lives on a desert planet. Its primary villain (Adam Driver as the helmeted Kylo Ren) is a literal Darth Vader wannabe. Its story is set in motion by a droid hiding a message about a Jedi master in exile. And its climax centers around the destruction of a planet-size weapon (like the Death Star, only much bigger).

All of these elements are handled with style and verve by Abrams and a talented crew, and Ridley and Boyega make for engaging and likable new series leads (Ridley in particular should become a major star after this). Han Solo is the only classic character with a significant role (Leia, now a general, gets maybe 10 minutes of screen time, and Luke far less than that), but the plot sets up bigger things for those old favorites in future installments. As he did with his Star Trek movies, Abrams balances nostalgia with modernization, and here he also preserves Lucas’ visual style, full of wipes and irises and pans across fields of stars. He proves to be a responsible steward for a vitally important corporate portfolio.

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