★ ★ ★ ½
Spoiler alert: George Lucas was the ultimate spoiler for his own creation. His prequels to the original Star Wars trilogy (with the exception of the character of Darth Maul) stripped all of the mystery out of the saga and regurgitated it as a condescending CGI mess, like corn flakes spritzed with vitamins so that it approximates wholesome food. Nonsense about midi-chlorians, the origin of Boba Fett, the petulant “romance” of Anakin and Amidala, and the genesis of Darth Vader stole what should have belonged to playground debates and instead locked it away in joyless, orthodox “canon.”
But here comes director, screenwriter, and general reboot architect J.J. Abrams with candy and flowers, holding the door open with a landspeeder idling outside like a gentleman, promising he’ll make it all up to us, that the bad man is gone and he’ll never hurt us again. And it’s a patient wooing: The Force Awakens doesn’t hit the ground running, but instead opens on the junk planet of Jakku, where the bleached desert landscape is littered with the hulls of grounded Imperial Destroyers—as if Abrams is conceding right from the opening frames that this franchise has been strip-mined into oblivion, and he won’t try to pretend he’s not building on a graveyard. What you need now is the comforting and familiar, and he’s brought all of your favorite things to spruce up the place. Remember how you liked that charming smuggler rogue? That feisty princess? That short, wrinkly alien with wise things to say? The cute little beep-boop robot? The pseudo-Triumph of the Will pageantry of the Empire? That crazy bar with the alien band? That scary guy in a black mask? We’ve got all of them here.
It’s clear that Abrams was chosen for the task of shaking the dust off of Star Wars for Disney because of his reboot of Star Trek. But that reboot was more successful because the source material was a TV show, which means it was designed so that all of the characters could be reset to their original places at the end of 50 minutes plus commercials in order to do the same thing next week. Star Wars, on the other hand, is a neo-Joseph Campbellian myth, and myths don’t have sequels—there is no Theseus and the Minotaur Returns or Icarus II: Wings of Fire. Resetting the same archetypes and putting them in conflicts we thought were solved the first time around—you know, after the Death Star was blown up, twice—provokes an “oh no, not again” weariness usually reserved for the endlessness of real-world conflicts. The Skywalker family drama enters its third generation here (as if they were galactic Corleones), and as usual, the conflict is about how a facility with the Force comes as a package deal with an attraction to its dark side, as if Skywalker DNA contained genes for some kind of mystical bipolar disorder.
But that squabble lays the groundwork for two great performances, the first of which comes from Daisy Ridley. She is much more than just a spunky Keira Knightley clone or a suitably photogenic face for Disney to put on an action figure: She has the same grace, fire, and presence as Carrie Fisher in the original Star Wars—and then some. The other is courtesy of Adam Driver, whose portrayal of villain Kylo Ren is both thrillingly magnetic and shot through with sadness. When both he and Ridley are onscreen together, in two unforgettable pas de deux scenes, the air crackles with electric menace.
Critics are supposed to be impartial, but this film, a Star Wars reboot imbued with the hopes of billions of people hoping to return to the innocent, enthralled state of wonder they felt with the original movies, is impossible to review impartially. Its gravitational pull is too strong on our culture, and it’s imprinted too deeply on our collective childhood memory. No one can dispute that, thanks to millions of dollars and the (now Disney-owned) talents of Industrial Light and Magic technicians, The Force Awakens contains thrilling moments, and beautiful moments hearkening back to Star Wars’ now forgotten New Hollywood roots (like a shot of three TIE fighters backlit by a blood-red sun, as if they were helicopters in Apocalypse Now), and heartbreaking moments, and the welcome presence of beloved, long-lost friends. But the spark is gone. Han Solo may declare “We’re home” upon setting foot inside the Millennium Falcon once more, but there’s never a moment when this critic thought the same.
The Force Awakens’ under-the-wire inclusion on the American Film Institute’s list of the best pictures of the year was premature, and probably motivated more by relief than admiration. It’s nowhere near as good as fellow AFI pick Mad Max: Fury Road, and it’s certainly not better than other worthwhile movies released this year and overlooked by the organization, like Trainwreck or Welcome to Me or Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. (The more interesting parlor game is, now that Lucas has handed over the reins, which other directors deserve a shot at a Star Wars film? John Lasseter? Steven Spielberg? God forbid, David Fincher? Disney would never go for it, but who’s to say it shouldn’t happen?)
So few movies can be like the original Star Wars: loved by nearly everyone, but still feeling like a private dream made just for you (maybe this much anticipated sequel should have been the one subtitled “A New Hope”). Abrams has provided the next best thing by clearing out the dead wood and laying the foundation for the next chapter of what used to be a saga and is now demoted to a franchise. As a stand-alone movie, it’s enjoyable but not extraordinary. As a continuation of a franchise, it needs a “Warning: Under Construction” sign. But the craggy faces of the original cast offer this realistic platitude for audiences hurt by elevated hopes: Even if it’s true that we’ll never be young again, there’s always room to start over.