There’s nothing like seeing a favorite movie from your childhood for the first time in almost 20 years to make you feel old.
That’s about how long it’s been since I saw George Lucas’ first “Star Wars.” Of course, I saw it about 10 times in the theater in the late 1970s and many more times on VHS during the '80s, but the last time I saw “Star Wars” was in 1997 when Lucas released his digital VFX-heavy “Special Edition.”
Here at the close of 2015, I’ve just seen the highly anticipated “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which is as close to a carbon copy of the 1977 original as anyone is ever likely to get — or attempt.
There are two main goals behind director J.J. Abrams’ very intentional continuation of the “classic” “Star Wars” saga, and he succeeds on both counts.
Disney, which bought the rights to Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, needed Abrams to introduce new characters and set the stage for a slate of new products through at least 2019, in what will no doubt be the most lucrative movie universe ever created.
This film series casts a long shadow. Abrams also has to deal with the expectations and hype like no other movie since 1999’s “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.” And since Lucas’ prequel trilogy is widely considered to be a letdown (at least by those who grew up on the first one), the microscope is even more closely focused on “The Force Awakens.” That’s why the secondary goal is to convince fans across the globe that the old “Star Wars” magic is back; that the Force is strong with this one.
In a couple of very literal senses, it is.
On a purely cinematic level, Abrams recalls the first three movies by using outdated transitions like full-screen wipes and irises. He re-creates iconic shots with similar landscapes. He edits multiple action scenes together in the same time-space. He brings back classic spaceships, gadgetry and background characters — even if that character was only “classic” because it had its own action figure (and especially if that character is still clearly a person wearing a rubber mask).
The tasteful blending of CGI and in-camera VFX restores to this universe a tactile physicality that was missing from the Lucas prequels. And the aged look of all the locations and equipment — covered in sand and soot, with nicks and scratches — feels just right.
But in its effort to rekindle the Force, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” goes way beyond that, and here’s where it gets tricky: The script — co-written by Abrams, Michael Arndt and “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan — recycles nearly every single plot point and character from “Star Wars” and “Empire,” only with slightly different context.
There’s a lonely orphaned young person on a desert planet (Daisy Ridley) who stumbles across secret plans that lead to a world beyond the stars. There’s a young man (John Boyega) who must escape his past and quickly learn to care about more than himself. There’s a wisecracking spaceship pilot (Oscar Isaac) who escapes tough situations by the skin of his teeth. And there’s a powerful Jedi (Adam Driver) seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. The film smartly tweaks these well-worn formulas, however, giving powerful leading action roles to a woman and a black man, and avoiding the racial stereotyping that plagued the prequels.
If one were to create a checklist of all of the plot points in “Star Wars” and “Empire,” (like I’m sure the screenwriters did) they would be able to match about half of them up with identical moments in “The Force Awakens.” And no, I’m not talking about the many tributes to famous “Star Wars” quotes, although those are present as well. I’m talking about the main events of the story that ratchet up the stakes and build suspense. In an effort to maintain a spoiler-free review, I won’t go into this in detail. (Some fanboy probably will anyway, so look for that checklist soon at theplotawakens.com.)
So yes — very literally — the “magic” is back. But will the feeling of discovery ever return?
Maybe the planned and as-yet-unnamed “Episode VIII” (or the 2016 standalone one-off “Rogue One”) will bring it, but that just isn’t in the cards for “The Force Awakens.” The title of Abrams’ movie tells you everything you need to know: This reboot of the franchise awakens nostalgia and comes closer to rekindling the magic than any of the Lucas prequels. Set the stage. Stoke the fires. Make ‘em want more. That’s exactly what it does.
All of the new young actors are terrific, and out of the returning cast members, Harrison Ford especially gets it right. It’s such a warm, happy feeling to see Han Solo in such familiar settings, acting exactly as we always knew he would with new (familiar) challenges.
But “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” also points out the inherent problem with rebooting a long-dormant franchise and creating new serialized entertainment on the big screen. As pure escapist cinema, it clicks on every level, while also making plainly obvious something I’ve felt for a long time and never wanted to admit. And it’s probably the reason I haven’t re-watched “Star Wars” since 1997.
I’m not a kid anymore. That feeling — as much as Abrams and company try to re-create it — will never be the same again.
I’m not the same person I was when I was younger. Maybe the new sequels and spin-offs can be more adventurous and really take the “Star Wars” universe to new heights. “The Force Awakens” had me smiling, reminiscing, and critiquing all at the same time: It’s a western in space. A family soap opera. A hero’s journey. It hits all the marks, without any real surprises.
So, J.J.: Thanks for bringing the Force to a new generation. I sincerely hope it rises to new heights from here, and I’m happy the kids of today have something to thrill their imaginations as much as I did when I was a kid. I’m sure you can relate.
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is 2 hours 16 minutes and rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, excessive call-backs, and just enough artificial sweetener. It opens in theaters Dec. 17.