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Everything Old is New Again

Walt Disney Studios
 135 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: J.J. Abrams 
Starring: Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

When I was watching Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, I kept thinking of the Peter Allen song, “Everything Old Is New Again.” Why? Because in the most eagerly anticipated movie since Gone with the Wind, director J.J. Abrams, the man who was supposed to save the most popular film franchise in cinematic history, and his co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, spent two hours recycling, reimagining, and reworking material from the first three Star Wars movies. To their credit, they did so extremely well, so that Force Awakens is a highly entertaining film. But I struggled to find anything original in that entire two hours.


Certainly, the plot of Force Awakens will seem very familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Star Wars movie. The movie takes 30 years after the events in Return of the Jedi and the overthrow of the Empire. Since that time, the governing Republic that followed has fallen into tatters. A new power called the First Order (which admittedly sounds more like the name of a boy band than an all-powerful evil force) is seizing control over most of the galaxy. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has disappeared following a disastrous failed attempt to train a new group of Jedi. The only survivor of Luke’s failed effort, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is one of the First Order’s most powerful warriors, a man who covers his face in a mask as did his idol Darth Vader.


No one knows where Luke Skywalker is, but the map to his location has been implanted in the programming of BB-8, a droid that resembles R2D2’s head on a rolling volleyball. BB-8 winds up with Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young woman who ekes out an existence scavenging for scrap on the desert planet of Jakku. When Kylo Ren’s stormtroopers come looking for BB-8, she and Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper who developed a conscience, take off in the only available means of transport, a broken down spaceship that turns out to be the Millenium Falcon.


Eventually, Rey and Finn team up with the Falcon’s original pilots, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his Wookie pal Chewbacca, to get BB-8 to another planet where they are to meet up with now-General Leia (Carrie Fisher) and other members of the Resistance. However, they are followed to the planet by the forces of the First Order. To make matters worse, the bad guys have a particularly nasty weapon at their disposal, an amped-up version of the original Death Star satellite. Now, the Death Star is an entire planet that, when fully charged, can destroy pretty much any planet that it targets.


As should be readily apparent from this plot synopsis, Abrams has filled his story with either familiar old characters (Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C3P0 and R2D2, who also show up) or updated versions of others (the Death Star, BB-8, a cantina that’s surprisingly like the one on Tatooine). Naturally, the Death Star has a weakness that can be exploited; I could almost hear Jeff Goldblum’s character from Jurassic Park warning the First Order about putting too much faith in their new weapon. The similarities between the First Order and Nazi Germany are quite blatant; the commander of their forces, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), is a cross between a young Peter Cushing and Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. The most impressive new villain is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who only appears as a giant hologram, and who seems eerily like Gollum on steroids with lots of teeth.


There’s a bit more originality involved in the characters of the new heroes in Force Awakens. Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the fighter pilot who originally rescues Finn when he defects, are obviously the spiritual descendants of Luke, Leia, and Han, but there isn’t a one-to-one correlation there. Instead, Abrams seems to have put all the character traits of the three original heroes in a hat and drawn them out and randomly assigned them to his new characters. This character development plays out in some rather interesting ways, as both Finn and Rey have their moments with the lightsaber, dueling with Kylo Ren.


What Abrams has done in Force Awakens is pretty much the same thing he did in reinvigorating the Star Trek franchise. He deconstructed the original material, with the help of Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back, and figured out what worked and what didn’t. And, let’s face it, original creator George Lucas, although he cobbled a lot of his material together from various sources, created some great characters and a mythos that has fascinated a generation of moviegoers. And then Abrams reassembled that material into what’s essentially a new version of the old storyline, aided by improvements in filmmaking technology over the last thirty-odd years since Lucas’ original trilogy.


J.J. Abrams has done a brilliant job of shepherding Force Awakens. The special effects are first rate, but they never overwhelm the story as they often did in Lucas’ later films. And, Abrams is quite fortunate to have another talented set of new actors in his lead roles, especially Daisy Ridley, who probably has the best chance of using this franchise as a springboard to fame as Harrison Ford did four decades ago. Even Adam Driver, who I thought originally was miscast as a villain, proves surprisingly effective when Kylo Ren finally takes off the mask (although there are some similarities there to Rick Moranis’ appearance in Space Balls).


But for all of Abrams’ excellent work here, as well as that of the actors and technicians, something is missing: any sense of originality or wonderment. In two hours of screen time, there was no character who appeared to bring something completely new to the franchise, the way Yoda and the Emperor Palpatine impressed audiences when they made their appearances in the original trilogy. When Abrams revamped Star Trek, he was operating under a different set of rules, those of the preequel. He was bound by the original Star Trek characters and universe that Gene Roddenberry created (although he came up with clever ways to tweak it). George Lucas faced the same problem in his Star Wars prequel trilogy, and one reason audiences never fully took to the prequels was the fact that they were inexorably doomed to end on a pessimistic note.


Force Awakens is a completely new movie, and there was absolutely no reason Abrams couldn’t have gone off in a new direction as he did over and over again on Lost. True, he couldn’t completely abandon Lucas’ universe, but in 30 years time, there was absolutely no reason to have that universe revert back to where things stood at the beginning of the first Star Wars movie. Yes, we do get to see what happens to the original characters (to a certain extent), and there is genuine triumph and tragedy, but there’s nothing in this movie that wows the audience. Abrams may have been understandably fearful of inflicting another Jar Jar Binks on the audience, but his judgment in these matters has usually been sound.


Force Awakens is the first movie of yet another trilogy, and we have 18 months to ponder the one big question left open by it (one which I will not spoil). And there’s every reason to believe that Abrams may be waiting until the second movie to introduce some new material so that audiences would be more receptive to change. But as it stands, Force Awakens is nothing more than an extremely slick remake, one quite entertaining and comforting for fans, but not, as the original movie was subtitled, a new hope.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) on IMDb