J.J. Abrams potently remixes a modern myth for a new generation in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

December 23, 2015

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from Indy Week 

Remember the moment near the end of the original Star Wars when Luke Skywalker pilots his X-wing through a last-ditch run on the Death Star, turning off his targeting computer to rely on the Force instead?

That’s what director J.J. Abrams does with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the gargantuan commercial and artistic endeavor opening wide on Friday. He’s delivered a triumph in an unexpected fashion, flouting the usual reboot expectations and grooving with the Force to essentially make a disco remix of franchise mythology.

Dodging spoilers with this release is an especially tricky business, but I’ll be careful. Still, if you want to go in totally fresh, stop reading and go forth secure in the knowledge that you will have a blast.

Now, then. Three decades have passed since the events chronicled in Return of the Jedi, and the galaxy is still in turmoil. The collapse of the Empire has created a power vacuum, and the fascist First Order has stepped in as a new villainous force. Most worrisome—Luke Skywalker, the last of the Jedi, has disappeared.

On the desert planet of Jakku we meet our new heroes. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a hotshot Resistance pilot, finds an unlikely ally in the morally conflicted Stormtrooper FN-2187, or Finn (John Boyega). We also meet the resourceful scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), who plucks bits of high-tech debris from derelict space cruisers half-buried in the sand. The early scenes of wrecked Star Destroyers and Imperial Walkers are like a new kind of ruin porn from a galaxy far, far away.

Over on the Dark Side, the mysterious Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wears a mask and cape designed to evoke the figure of Darth Vader. Details on his actual identity are among the first of the script’s many unsettling surprises. Ren’s master is a menacing alien with the unfortunate title of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis in a motion-capture performance).

As the story progresses and more characters are put into play, it becomes clear that Abrams isn’t creating a new Star Wars story so much as he is retelling the original saga, but with all the components mixed up. Rey is a little bit Luke and little bit Leia. Poe is a little bit Han and a little bit Luke. Snoke is part Vader and part Palpatine. At least Rey’s companion droid, the cleverly-designed BB-8, is straight-up—he’s R2-D2 with a new form of locomotion. The narrative shape of the movie is familiar as well. A droid with coveted information sets the story in motion, and it ends with spaceship dogfights above the surface of a planetary doomsday device.

What’s thrilling is watching how skillfully Abrams ups the ante as he recycles sequences from the original trilogy. Remember the cantina scene from the first film? Abrams one-ups it. Luke’s prophetic cave hallucinations in The Empire Strikes Back? Abrams upgrades that, too. When Han Solo and Chewbacca drop in, it doesn’t feel forced. It feels like a recursive algorithm holding the narrative together. The script, by Abrams, Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan, is a small miracle of pop-culture craftsmanship.

Speaking of Han Solo, I’m delighted to report that Harrison Ford is terrific in The Force Awakens. He’s one of the very best parts of a very good movie. There’s a lightness in his performance, and for the first time in a long while, he looks like he’s having fun onscreen. It’s no cameo, either—he’s at the center of the movie almost all the way through, along with Rey, Finn and the dark knight Ren.

Not everything clicks into place: As Leia, Carrie Fisher isn’t given much to do; the political state of affairs between the First Order and the Republic isn’t clear; the pace is a twinge too speedy. But it builds to satisfying crescendo—watch how Abrams updates the series’ signature cross-cut editing in the final battles. And the quiet coda is just about perfect. The last image is a gorgeous visual metaphor for what the filmmakers have accomplished.

It’s helpful to keep in mind the notion that myths are stories we tell ourselves over and over again, in different guises and different eras. Star Wars is one of the great tales of our modern mythology, and The Force Awakens successfully re-imagines the legend for a new generation.

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