In theaters Friday, December 18
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Remember at the end of The Empire Strikes Back when Princess Leia declares her adoration to Han Solo?
With that in mind, here goes …
You love Star Wars.
So does director J.J. Abrams.
That’s why Episode VII of the cherished franchise is a hugely entertaining victory for the masses. Thrilling and knowing in all the right places, it’s sure to satisfy fans that have breathlessly awaited its arrival for years. Unfamiliar with Jedi lore? You too will give in to the force of cinematic excellence.
Because I want to live to see Episode VIII, rest assured this is a spoiler-free review. You will not read here about [redacted] or [redacted]. However, I must underline a crucial point: Though original trilogy icons Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill are top-billed in the credits, this movie — not to mention the future of the saga — belongs to the newbies.
The standout is Daisy Ridley as a scavenger named Rey. As she tells it, her parents abandoned her in a junkyard when she was a child. She’s feisty and instantly likable. Her partner is John Boyega’s former Stormtropper Finn. Early on, he symbolically takes off his helmet, goes rogue and fights for the good guys. Along with an adorable droid named BB-8, Rey and Finn help the Resistance on a … shall we say, an A-list mission. During this hero’s journey they meet a few of our old friends, including scoundrel turned Jedi pilot Han Solo (Ford) and princess turned General Leia (Fisher). And Chewie! (Solo without furry Chewbacca is like sci without the fi.) Stopping them is the evil First Order, which rose from the ashes of the Empire. Its chief warrior, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), vows to finish what Darth Vader started.
Thus concludes the plot recap. (See, that wasn’t so bad, right?)
Ridley and Boyega are a striking pair. In this modern era of kick-ass heroines such as Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior, it’s no longer a novelty for smart females to rule the school. Yet that shouldn’t diminish what Ridley accomplishes. She possesses the can-do traits required for this important role, as well as the appealing presence. Wielding a lightsaber, she gives the cliché “girl power” a whole new, deep meaning. Boyega, meanwhile, shows ample charisma and gets some of the best lines in the movie. Exasperated determination works well on him.
Things are more problematic over on the dark side. In short, the First Order is no Evil Empire. As its commander, Domhnall Gleeson’s arrogant General Hux borders on the caricature and is quickly forgettable. And Driver lacks the appropriate menacing snarl, especially compared to the great James Earl Jones as Vader. At times (you’ll know when) you’ll be hard-pressed not to think of this would-be galactic villain as Hannah’s boho ex-boyfriend on Girls. Considering his substantive storyline, this is the film’s major flaw.
But oh, how the rest of it soars. Commend Abrams for taking the lightsaber/baton from creator George Lucas and fulfilling some ridiculously lofty expectations. Even the most hard-core Star Wars nerds (saying that with love) would applaud the mythology continuity and nuanced inside jokes. And when it came to certain awe-inspiring battle sequences in the sky, the audience in my New York City screening did applaud. They also cheered at the first sight of the three veteran stars — whose lived-in faces were blessedly not given the CGI treatment. (Ford’s Solo may have been de-iced in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, but his wry smile should be frozen in time forever.) This has the ideal look of a true non–Jar Jar Binks Star Wars film, and thanks to that classic score from John Williams, the ideal sound.
Most important, Abrams lets adults awaken their youthful spirit — the one that bought action figures, watched the original trilogy on a loop and got immense joy out of believing in a galaxy far, far away. During the holiday season, this may be the greatest gift of all.