You can’t force the force.
If faithful fans of the “Star Wars” franchise have learned anything in the 32 years that have passed since the last watchable film in the series - “Return of the Jedi" - flickered across movie screens, it’s that the magic of George Lucas’ intergalactic space fantasy could not be replicated with intergalactic budgets alone.
It needed something more. And that something is present in nearly every frame of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the best movie in the franchise since 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.” For many fans, it will displace “Jedi” as the third-best “Star Wars” film and wash away memories of the ill-begotten prequels like bad dreams that never happened.
There is nothing adventurous about it. Everything in it is a barely updated version of an old character or plot point, the difference between two successive versions of an iPhone. Aside from its enlightened casting, it treads no new ground, explores few new issues, challenges no preconceptions and makes no attempt to recruit skeptics. It is, instead, a beautifully photographed, 136-minute apology for the 16-year detour “Star Wars” devotees were duty-bound to take through Lucas’ late-career misadventures.
As one of those fans, and as an appreciator of Abrams’ work to revive the similarly wayward if less lucrative “Star Trek” franchise, I couldn’t be happier about any of this.
If you put a franchise fan who was 10 years old when the first movie came out in a laboratory and systematically mined the nostalgia center of his or her brain, you would not be able to produce a more honest or faithful reduction of what the words “Star Wars” means to a generation of moviegoers into whom its lovable mythology has been genetically encoded.
Abrams succeeds by recognizing and meticulously recreating four essential elements from the original trilogy that were notably absent from the prequels: practical effects, three-dimensional characters, credible acting and humor.
The first and most important is practical effects and makeup, which lend “The Force Awakens” the rough-edged feel of intimacy and immediacy that no CGI-driven movie has yet been able to accomplish. From the fantastically gritty characters who populate Abrams version of the old-west Cantina from the first film to a purpose-built Millennium Falcon, Rick Carter and Darren Gilford’s production design produces an authentic world in which the cast looks and feels at home.
As for the characters, Abrams teamed up with “Empire Strikes Back” co-writer Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt to give us a troupe of marvelously charming rebels and villains modeled directly on Lucas’ originals. Daisy Ridley’s engaging Rey, an independent-minded orphan with a mysterious connection to the force, mirrors Luke Skywalker’s origin story. The petulant Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, whose menace is more than phantom), the requisite masked villain, traces a direct line back to Darth Vader in style and substance. Even BB-8, the film's physically impractical but constantly adorable droid, is the beloved RD-D2 without wheels.
An unexpected but welcome addition of moral ambiguity comes in the form of Finn (the excellent John Boyega), a sometimes-hapless former storm trooper who defects from the First Order to join the resistance (read: the Empire and the Rebellion) and teams up with Rey and ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to foil the Order's evil plot. To the inevitable joy of "Star Wars" fans everywhere, they can only do this with the help of some old friends: Harrison Ford's haggard and hilarious Han Solo, who is the de facto star of the film; Carrie Fisher's softer and decidedly less sassy Leia; Peter Mayhew's Chewbacca, in fine growl; even R2-D2 and bumbling C-3P0.
Trademark traces of Kasdan's snappy writing are everywhere in the dialogue, especially in the mildly snarky banter Han constantly dishes out, and in the excellent chemistry between Finn and Rey, each of whom spends plenty of time with lightsabers drawn against seemingly impossible odds.
There is no need to say much about the story, because it is the only story there ever is: Nazi-esque bad guys have an evil weapon that will destroy all that is good in the universe. Underdog good guys hatch an improbable plan to stop them. Fledgling love interest here, lightsaber battle there, happy ending with requisite sequel-friendly question mark.
The appeal of “Star Wars” was never about the story anyway, which is what its critics sometimes miss. It’s about defining for children and young adults the line of demarcation between good and evil, about producing the feeling of being both at home and impossibly lost, of having one foot in the Old West and the other on the forest moon of Endor. It’s about the reassuring notion, however naïve it may be, that whether it’s long ago in a galaxy far, far away -- or just at your neighborhood theater in 2015 -- the good guys will always win.
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens"
3.5 stars (out of 4)
Starring Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega and Daisy Ridley. Directed by J.J. Abrams. 136 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence.