A palpable sense of nostalgia pervades the best parts of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. With a story set 30 years after The Return of the Jedi, director J.J. Abrams is using our memories as his sandbox.
The rusted wrecks of Imperial Cruisers and fallen AT-ATs dots the landscape of the desert planet Jakku. This isn't Tatooine, but we've been here before. We're back to that elemental battle of good vs. evil, a wild western setting down on worlds that look alien and yet familiar.
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If this newest iteration is guilty of anything, it's that it hews too closely to the Star Wars blueprints. From the iconic opening crawl, there is a distinct sense of déjà vu. The Rebel forces have been replaced by the Resistance, the Empire by the First Order. A droid holds a secret map, while a new black-hooded bad guy with a vocoder voice readies another massive weapon.
Still, in the hands of Abrams and co-writers Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) and Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strike Back), what's changed is the new level of self-awareness in the characters. Oscar Isaac is Poe the pilot, who scoffs at villain Kylo Ren's impractical head gear. Daisy Ridley is the surprisingly capable scavenger Rey, while John Boyega is Finn, the ex-stormtrooper fleeing the First Order.
Anyone who had the pleasure of watching Boyega in the sci-fi romp Attack the Block has glimpsed his potential. I don't think anyone knew he was this good, because he's never been given a character with so many facets. His Finn is nervous, overconfident, gung-ho and terrified — often in quick succession.
That Finn joins forces with Rey, a stubborn scavenger eking out a slave-like existence, is all the more appropriate. Following in the footsteps of Frozen and The Hunger Games, Rey is a heroine who needs no rescuing. Ridley channels the kind of intensity and determination the role demands.
Eye candy, but no CGI overload
When it comes to spectacle, this space opera offers a buffet of eye candy. Shooting on film and relying on practical sets when possible, Abrams isn't trying to compete with the smorgasbord of CGI Star Wars creator George Lucas opted for in the last three films. The director, who came to the series as a fan, understands the totemic power of the bulky Millennium Falcon swooping into barrel rolls or a squadron of X-Wings skimming over water. Mix that with the music of John Williams and your inner child is sure to be vibrating.
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Along with the trusty, ole Millennium Falcon, the stars from the original series also have a few miles on them, but they've got them where it counts. Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew (as everyone's favourite furball Chewbacca) are better than ever. Harrison's Han Solo has seen better days: his hair is a scraggly mess and his forehead is creased with worry lines deeper than Beggar's Canyon. Ford played Solo as a curmudgeon when he was young and handsome, but now he's simply perfect — and nicely complemented by Fisher as General Leia.
Much of the pleasure of Force Awakens rests in how Abrams embraces the world of Star Wars, but also subverts it on occasion. Like Lucas, he has a flair for the mythic, but adds flashes of humanity — a trick picked up from his mentor (and Lucas contemporary) Steven Spielberg. And then, of course, there are the little things that delight. The soundscape. The roar of approaching Tie Fighters. The flickering buzz of a three-bladed lightsaber. And BB-8, surely the cutest droid since you-know-who.
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In a way, what Abrams has delivered is a remix: call it Star Wars Greatest Hits. It's a great reintroduction to the world we escaped to some 40 years ago.
Now that they've gotten started, however, let's hope what follows will have a little less reverence to the original.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.