Tell me if you’ve heard this one: a small droid, in which is concealed information crucial to the success of the resistance, is marooned on a desert planet, where the droid joins forces with a young orphaned pilot who dreams of better things. A powerful lord, strong with the dark side of the force, searches for the droid, but the droid and the dreamer join forces with a disreputable character who wants nothing to do with the rebellion. They escape in a souped-up hot rod of a space-vessel called the Millennium Falcon.
If you are one of the six people in the first world who did not see the new Star Wars episode seven in the theater this weekend, you may think I’m talking about the original Star Wars (episode four: A New Hope). But of course I’m talking about the new film, which makes free use of many of the motifs of George Lucas’s original trilogy. If there is a knock on this movie, it may be that director J.J.Abrams is too concerned with paralleling that first trilogy, so that the film is more nostalgic than new. It might even be accused of pandering to the great horde of Star Wars fanboys more interested in seeing what they expect than being entertained by something new.
But that kind of criticism is mean-spirited and, in fact, quite wrong. It overlooks the fact that the unprecedented appeal of the original Star Wars trilogy was its clever and very deliberate use of the archetypal patterns of ancient myth and literature that psychologist Karl Jung recognized were part of the psychological makeup of the entire human race. The arduous journey of the hero, from initiation to apotheosis, the embodiment of aspects of the psyche like the Shadow and the Anima, the Wise Old Man figure and the helpful animals (here replaced by helpful robots—except, I suppose, in the case of the dog-like Chewbacca), all figured prominently in the first trilogy, and are back again here. It is a tremendous relief to find that there’s nary a Jar-Jar Binks anywhere in sight.
For what was missing in the second trilogy, beginning with The Phantom Menace, was precisely this kind of thing. One of the biggest problems with those not-unjustly-maligned movies was that Lucas, seduced by the dark side of computer generated images, misunderstood what had made his own first trilogy great, and made special effects the star of the movies, to the detriment of story and character. Audiences ooed and ahhed over the screen images but didn’t give a damn about the characters, and the end result was ultimately forgettable and, frankly, embarrassing. The latest installment of the franchise, however, keeps the special effects where they belong—used with prudence to advance the story line (in fact, as is true in almost all cases of 3D films, I suggest that you forego the 3D if you can and save the extra six dollars a ticket, or whatever it is, because I remember only once during the film that I even noticed anything 3D).
The Force Awakens already has characters that we care a great deal about: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), last of the Jedi knights who, having become the embodiment of Obi Wan Kenobe, has wandered off and now must be found (archetypal quest motif!) as a new Empire-like Fascist organization called the First Order has arisen to undo the freedoms of the Republic; Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), now General of the Resistance and still an embodiment of civilization, freedom, and sensitivity against the emotionally stultifying conformity of the First Order and their drone-like Storm Troopers; and most importantly for this film, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the archetypal outsider cowboy-type hero who still can carry an action movie even in his seventies. It’s been more than 30 years of real-time as well as movie-time since Return of the Jedi, and its three heroes have a lot of mileage on them, which only makes them seem the more real. The banter between Han and Leia is now what it was then, and a welcome relief from the stilted dialogue of automaton-like actors in the “prequel” trilogy.
Fortunately, Abrams has found three new heroes to whom the torch is passed in this film who seem to have the onscreen chemistry and acting ability of the original crew. Two of these are virtual unknowns: Daisy Ridley plays Rey, the lonely orphaned teenaged scavenger who proves to be more than she seems and is soon drawn to the Resistance. John Boyega (whose only former screen credit was the obscure Attack the Block), plays Finn, the renegade former Storm Trooper who only wants to get away to the outer galaxy but becomes a reluctant hero as he finds something that keeps him in the fight. To these add Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, the skilled and enthusiastic X-wing pilot loyal to Princess Leia and gung-ho in the fight against the First Order. Isaac’s performances in A Violent Year and Inside Llewyn Davis in the last two years have made him a rising star and shown him capable of great range, and his involvement with the Star Wars franchise should make him a household name, as it should the two newcomers. It is as much a delight to watch their interactions as it was Ford, Hamill and Fisher’s thirty-five years ago. Ridley is engaging and sympathetic (like a young Luke Skywalker!), Boyega funny and charismatic (like a young Han Solo!).
The film also introduces, as it must, a new dark lord named Kylo Ren—a black-masked figure, the archetypal Shadow, deliberately channeling Darth Vader, played with angst and subtlety by Adam Driver (Isaac’s co-star in Inside Llewyn Davis), who manages even at his worst moments—and they are some pretty bad worst moments—to retain some of our sympathy, and that is no mean feat. The actors click with an undeniable screen chemistry that suggests we are in good hands for the future of the franchise.
Part of this comes from Abrams’ able direction, of course, but a lot of it also comes from the script, and if we recognize the tone of the banter it is no doubt because Abrams co-wrote the screenplay with Lawrence Kasden, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter whose previous credits include the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. It could not have hurt to also include Michael Arndt, Toy-Story 3 writer and Oscar-winner for the Little Miss Sunshine screenplay. We can only hope that Abrams has the good sense to keep that talented combination together for future franchise scripts.
There are other treats in the acting ranks for viewers: C3PO and R2D2 are back, with a new droid, a roly-poly robot named BB-8, who can’t speak but gets his message across in spite of that. Peter Mayhew returns as Chewbacca (looking better-preserved than his partner Han), who has some of his best moments onscreen in this installment. Abrams has also raided the two other most successful of mythic/archetypal film franchises: Kylo Ren’s chief rival for power underneath the First Order’s new supreme leader is General Hux, played with wicked zeal by Domhnall Gleeson, whom viewers will recognize immediately as Bill Weasley from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, parts 1 and 2. And the supreme leader himself, a giant CGI monstrosity named Snoke, has a noseless face reminiscent of Voldemort, but is in fact played by Andy Serkis, famous for his portrayal of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit franchises.
In what essentially amount to CGI cameos, Lupita Nyong’o (Twelve Years a Slave) plays the wise old (dare I say Yoda-like?) proprietor of a disreputable watering hole named Maz Kanataa. Comic Simon Pegg (Shawn of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) appears as Unkar Plutt, a junk dealer on Rey’s home planet of Jakku. And finally, to add the kind of serious film pedigree that Alec Guiness gave the first trilogy, Max von Sydow appears early in the film as a member of the Resistance forced to stow valuable information in the droid BB-8 to hide it from Kylo Ren and his First Order goons. Von Sydow, the Swedish actor who cut his acting teeth on Ingmar Bergman classics like The Seventh Seal, became an international star when he played Jesus Christ 50 years ago in The Greatest Story Ever Told—a year before Abrams was born. If that doesn’t start the film off with the proper gravitas, I’m not sure what would.
Satisfying in every way, this is the most fun you will have at the movies this year, so go on and get your tickets, if you can. These really are the droids you’ve been looking for. Four Shakespeares for this one.