This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
“Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens” is the film that J.J. Abrams was put on Earth to make, as evidenced by the "Star Wars" echoes in his hit series "Lost,” and the way he kept trying to turn "Star Trek" into "Star Wars." These tendencies could seem cutesy or irritating elsewhere, but they make sense in an according-to-Hoyle "Star Wars" movie. This new one, set 30 years after the events of "Return of the Jedi,” is funny, touching, and surprisingly light-footed. It boasts a lot of familiar elements, including Skywalker family mythology and another Death Star-type weapon, as well as self-aware lines about how things work in this series. The film ultimately runs up against the limitations of its own nature: like the James Bond films, the “Star Wars” movies are pretty much obligated to revisit certain elements, to the point where they might feel played out even if they hadn’t been raided by other films, TV shows and books (including Harry Potter). But it’s still an exhilarating ride, filled with archetypal characters with plausible psychologies, melodramatic confrontations fueled by soaring emotions, and performances that can be described as good, period, rather than "good, for 'Star Wars.'"
And it’s a treat to see beloved older characters placed beside new ones in situations that respect Lucas' myth-making but correct his flaws as a storyteller, including the default whiteness of his casts. Not only have Abrams and his co-writers, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, centered the story on a young woman and a man of color (played respectively by Daisy Ridley and John Boyega), they've made them so compelling and quirky that the film never seems to be putting an up-to-date wrapping on moldy clichés. Like all of the new characters, they seem to live and breathe. When they earn the respect of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) by improvising a solution to a technical problem, or grab a lightsaber and start swinging, the result is not merely a crowd-pleasing display of heroics; it’s an affirmation that a good movie with a good heart can serve as everyone’s mirror. (Spoilers from here.)
Decades after Darth Vader threw his master down an elevator shaft, the galaxy is still wracked by war. The Republic is still the Republic, but now they're not-too-secretly financing the rebellion against the remnants of the Empire, which has been supplanted by something called the First Order. The Empire went into retreat in "Jedi" when Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) turned his father back toward the light side of The Force. But the Empire’s remnants were tenacious. Now that Luke has gone into hiding following a disastrous attempt to train a new class of Jedi, they've gained strength and audacity, and built a variation of the Death Star that’s embedded in a living planet—basically an artillery cannon with intergalactic range. The re-branded Imperials look and sound even more Nazi-like than the villains from the first trilogy. One of the only scenes where Abrams completely overdoes it (which is hard to do in a "Star Wars" movie) is the rally prior to the super weapon's inaugural blast: the supreme commander of the First Order (Domnhall Gleeson) addresses tens of thousands of troops arranged in Leni Riefenstahl patterns, jamming his pasty face into the camera and practically spitting into the lens.
The plot kicks into gear on the surface of the desert planet Jakku. A wisecracking X-wing pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) acquires a fragment of a map that reveals Skywalker’s location from an Obi-Wan-like elder (Max von Sydow, groomed and costumed to resemble Alec Guinness). He hides it inside his trusty droid, BB-8, a rolling ball with a segmented head that can do dandy vaudeville double-takes, only to be captured by the film's chief baddie, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Ren is an iron-masked, black-clad, homicidally depressed warrior who flies into room-destroying rages and speaks to the recovered helmet of Darth Vader like Hamlet addressing Yorick's skull. When Ren removes his helmet to reveal Driver's long face and watery eyes, we may feel as though we're seeing the second coming of young Anakin Skywalker, who had good in him but gave in to adolescent power fantasies and let the Emperor corrupt him. “I can have anything I want,” Ren petulantly tells a captive who resists his mental probing.