Movies

Review:
'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

The new 'Star Wars' film trots out the same tropes, which fans will surely love.
LASERS AND LIGHTSABERS: The much-anticipated 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' opens this weekend.

Darth Vader's iron dream is being continued, more than 30 years later, by a new helmeted menace called Kylo Ren. The interesting angle of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that there's a Napoleonic streak to this Ren. In quiet moments, he prays to the half-melted helmet of Lord Vader. It's a sacred relic, but he has doubts about his own power.

This new galactic menace is skilled in harnessing the Dark Side of the Force. Ren knows how to pull secrets out of a person's brain by merely gesticulating at their head. A reveal shows Adam Driver under the bucket-head of chrome and plastic, puffy of lip and Frank Langella-ish in demeanor. People bowed when Vader walked by, but Ren's not as intimidating. He endures back talk from one of his fellow officers, and has to like it—the film indicates that there is a certain amount of jurisdictional friction between the branches of the Imperial Army, just like there was in Hitler's Reich. Ren is ruthless and murderous, but he feels sort of bad about it. When he's thwarted, he smashes furniture with his lightsaber instead of strangling a subordinate.

Plunging into the politics of the Old Republic was part of the lethally boring side of the last three Star Wars films, as was George Lucas's disinterest in women. (In the three prequels, the film's females were arranged like wooden Geisha dolls on a shelf.) Here, the capitol gets melted in the middle of the movie, and no one really cares. But the emphasis on girl power is a new development. If there's nothing that pleases an audience more than a lady with a sword, consider their rapture at the sight of a lady with a lightsaber. The brave Daisy Ridley makes this movie—more than the battalions of animators and more than the glorious shots of locations in Ireland, Iceland and Abu Dhabi.

Ridley's Rey is a junkyard scavengeress, circumstantially marooned on the dune planet Jakku; there she encounters an Imperial army deserter named FN2187, or "Finn" (John Boyega, of Attack the Block). Finn is on the run after he helped a rebel pilot (Oscar Isaac) escape; a secret important to the rebellion is hidden aboard a droid they both know—the robot is typically wordless but eloquent. Pantomime is important in these movies: actors flailing around in suits of plastic armor or Chewbacca losing his temper. Abrams has to note the horror of the renegade Storm Trooper through body language and the blank face of his helmet, striped red with blood.

So much in this movie is stuff we've seen before—from the X-Wing dogfights, to the rebels lined up as if for a group snapshot at the end, to a catwalk duel audiences ought to shout, "Catwalk!" in the same way that they shout "look out for the fruit cart!" during a car chase. But one reprise is tender: a meeting between the General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and the grizzled, but still game, Han Solo (Harrison Ford); the dialogue is lame, but the exchange of glances say it all between them.

As an old hand to these movies (and as one who feels that they could melt all of them down except for The Empire Strikes Back) I couldn't get enough of the frost of disenchantment when these old lovers sight one another. This massive cinematic cornucopia of fights, starship battles, and planet-sized weapons is still "a Crackerjacks box full of nothing but prizes," to use Pauline Kael's phrase.

The way Star Wars: TFA is built, it can have neither ending or beginning. It's leading from a sequel and heading to a sequel; a temporary victory over the planet-blasting fascists of the First Order leads to new adventures farther down the line. Though the new characters acquit themselves with fierceness, I had more eyes for the old Bogart-ian hustler Solo and his grey-haired Wookie, still scheming in the troubled waters of a galactic civil war.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
PG-13; 135 Mins.
Valleywide


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