When the Millennium Falcon is revealed, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” takes off — literally and figuratively.
Before that interstellar bucket of bolts puts in its first appearance, the picture concerns itself with introducing its new characters: hotshot X-Wing fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), morally conflicted stormtrooper FN-2187, shortly to be known as Finn (John Boyega), and most important of all, preternaturally capable scavenger of high-tech bits of futuristic space junk Rey (Daisy Ridley).
Director and co-screenwriter J.J. Abrams starts things off with a rousing spacehip attack — laser fire to the left, laser fire to the right — but it feels like he’s feeling his way into the story. And in the process marking his territory with a signature, though brief, lens-flare moment.
Characters have to be established, back stories have to be hinted at, and a cute little droid named BB-8 — think an orange-and-white beach ball with an antennaed headpiece and a vocabulary of boops and beeps — has to show up to instantly win the hearts of kids everywhere. And just in time for Christmas, too.
This is a passing-the-torch movie, but one in which Abrams references many of the original’s characters and iconic moments without being reverent in his homage-paying.
Finally, there’s the Falcon, looking battered and abandoned. Suddenly, there’s Rey at the controls, firing up the engine, and Finn at the main gun, firing at TIE fighters. And we’re off. Zooming high and fast and into the future of the franchise.
At the same time it feels we’re in the middle of a warm homecoming. It feels like a reunion, because pretty soon Han Solo and Chewbacca are aboard. Later, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Gen. Leia (no longer a princess) arrive.
It feels, above all, like a return to the place where the “Star Wars” saga began.
Because it’s been close to 40 years of prequels and sequels and endless books and comic books since the original picture came out, the element of surprise is long gone from this franchise. This is a passing-the-torch movie, but one in which Abrams references many of the original’s characters and iconic moments without being reverent in his homage-paying.
The villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is a cloaked, masked figure in black with a voice filter. He’s clearly related to Darth Vader, but in a way that’s surprising and fearsomely tragic. There’s a Yodalike figure, and a harking back to the Mos Eisely cantina scene.
Rey and Finn though feel fresh and new. Boyega brings an appealing sincerity to Finn, a stormtrooper with a conscience who can no longer stomach the planet-killing atrocities of what is now called First Order (formerly the Empire).
Ridley is the picture’s real find. Her Rey is fearless, forceful, resourceful, and with a hidden side to her personality that is slowly manifests itself and will surely be more deeply explored in the sequels.
“The Force Awakens” is full of headlong energy and plenty of quips, many courtesy of Harrison Ford. To Leia (Carrie Fisher) on seeing her after years apart: He: “You’ve changed your hair.” (Gone is the Danish pastry ’do.) She (deadpan): “Same jacket.”
Grizzled but surprisingly spry, Ford brings a lightness to his performance that we haven’t seen from him in a long time. He’s had a conflicted relationship with the character over the years (he wanted George Lucas to kill Han off at the end of “Return of the Jedi”), but here he’s relaxed and is clearly enjoying himself. And why not? “The Force Awakens” is a most enjoyable ride.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
☆☆☆☆ out of 5 stars
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill.
Director: J.J. Abrams
Running time: 2:16.
Rated: PG-13, for sci-fi action violence.
Star Wars time capsule
Here is some of what was happening in 1977 when the “Star Wars” saga first hit the big screen:
The first Apple II computer went on sale, with a base price of $1,298.
Jimmy Carter was elected president.
Elvis Presley died of a heart attack at age 42.
The New York City blackout lasted 25 hours.
Treaties are signed that will return control of the Panama Canal back to Panama.
165 people die in Beverly Hills Supper Club fire.
Oil begins flowing through the Trans Alaskan Pipeline.
A cyclone hits India, killing 20,000 and leaving 2 million homeless.
Seattle Slew became just the 10th horse to win the Triple Crown.
The U.S. population hits 216 million.
ABC airs the mini-series “Roots,” which went on to win nine Emmy Awards.