I remember May 1999 like it was yesterday. It had been 16 long years since the release of Return of the Jedi, the final episode of George Lucas’ original trilogy of Star Wars films, and I was still a little bit in shock that a new trilogy of prequels was happening. I couldn’t have been more excited.
And then the film, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, opened, and my excitement turned into fear—fear that we still had two more of these prequels to come. For fans like me who’d grown up with Star Wars as a central part of their childhood, the movie was a disaster. Sure, I tried convincing myself that the movie had merit, but a plot involving intergalactic trade embargoes was akin to tuning into C-SPAN. And boy, was that tow-headed moppet who played Anakin Skywalker annoying. Sadly, he wasn’t half as irritating as Jar Jar Binks, a computer-animated character that was Lucas’ idea of kid-friendly comic relief, a despised creation that proved one of the filmmaker’s worst ideas since he decided to have the Ewoks—an army of forest-dwelling teddy bears—help defeat the evil Galactic Empire back in 1983.
Truth be told, the prequels did improve, but the lack of compelling characters like the original trilogy’s Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and Chewbacca was a huge detriment. Worse, the CGI overkill that had crept into Lucas’ special editions of the original films returned with a vengeance in the prequel trilogy, overshadowing any human drama.
So, imagine my trepidation when a new trilogy (Episodes VII-IX) was announced in 2012, alongside the news that Lucas had sold his production company, Lucasfilm, to Disney. If Lucas himself hadn’t been able to recapture the magic of his original trilogy with his tedious prequels, think of the horrors that might await us at the hands of someone new, particularly if the person hired to steward the series was J.J. Abrams, who’d directed only one film that I enjoy.
Well, make that two. Turns out, it is possible to go home again.
“Chewie, we’re home,” announces Harrison Ford, who’s reprising one of his most iconic roles as Han Solo, everyone’s favorite scoundrel and smuggler, as he enters both the movie and the Millennium Falcon, the space-faring freighter audiences last saw him piloting in the summer of ’83. And when Chewbacca (once again played under mounds of yak hair by Peter Mayhew, even after twin knee replacements) growls in agreement, I can only wonder why Lucas hadn’t returned to these terrific characters himself.
Princess Leia is back, too. Still played by Carrie Fisher, Leia is a general now, heading up the “Resistance.” It’s been more than 30 years since the Rebel Alliance destroyed the second Death Star, and a new threat to the galaxy has risen from the ashes of the defeated Empire: The First Order. The next generation of white-armored Stormtroopers is commanded by General Hux (Ex Machina’s Domhnall Gleeson) and his mysterious enforcer, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver of HBO’s Girls), a black-clad, mask-wearing worshipper of Darth Vader, a young man who kneels before an altar containing the fallen Sith Lord’s burnt helmet—when he’s not throwing tantrums and cutting up everything in sight with his crimson-bladed “crossguard” lightsaber.
This follower of the Dark Side is apparently unaware that Vader returned to the Light, redeeming himself before dying in the arms of his son, Luke Skywalker, during the final act of Episode VI.
Speaking of Luke (Mark Hamill, who’s now the same age that Sir Alec Guinness was when he portrayed Obi-Wan Kenobi in the ’77 film), the last of the Jedi Knights is nowhere to be found at the start of Episode VII – The Force Awakens. The movie’s traditional opening title crawl informs us that Leia is looking for her twin brother, and she’s sent her best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, another Ex Machina alum), on a mission to locate the missing Jedi.
It’s here on the barren sands of the Tatooine-like planet Jakku that we eventually meet the rest of the film’s refreshingly diverse new cast: Finn (Attack the Block’s John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who flees the First Order when he develops a conscience; scavenger Rey (charismatic newcomer Daisy Ridley); and BB-8, a spherical orange-and-white droid who might be more adorable than the returning R2-D2.
Abrams successfully rebooted a stagnant science-fiction franchise with 2009’s Star Trek, and now he’s performed the same feat with Star Wars. He and co-scripter Lawrence Kasdan (a fan favorite writer on both Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back and Episode VI – Return of the Jedi) have brought the gang back together in style, and they’re still backed by the music of 83-year-old composer John Williams, who, other than Anthony Daniels (who returns as C-3PO), is the only person to have worked on every episode.
While the picture takes time to realize its full potential, the final third is among the most emotionally satisfying acts of all seven films. I’d been bracing myself to make the easy joke and refer to this movie’s director as “Jar Jar Abrams,” when the real fool is me, a fan who lost faith along the way. Thankfully, the Force has finally reawakened.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens ***1/2
Starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker and Max von Sydow. Written by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt, based on characters created by George Lucas. Directed by J.J. Abrams. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.