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Star Wars: The Force Awakens [review]

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Ten years removed from the disappointing prequels, Star Wars has returned from the dark side. That mixed bag of a trilogy, which has more to recommend than you may recall, made the prospect of even more movies a double-edged lightsaber. Why bother? one line of thought went. The magic is already gone, so perhaps it’s best to let sleeping banthas lie. A more cautiously optimistic perspective suggested that the series had already reached its nadir and could only ascend higher from there.

The Force Awakens does indeed bring balance to the franchise, recapturing the original triptych’s spirit in a way that pod-racing never could. That may come as a surprise to some, considering that George Lucas had nothing to do with it — he sold his brainchild to Disney for $4 billion in 2012, thus opening the door for this installment and the many to follow — but co-writer/director J.J. Abrams is clearly well-versed in the Force.

It’s as though Abrams re-watched the originals, made a list of everything that made them special, then re-watched the prequels and made a list of everything that made them lackluster. After obsessively cross-referencing them, he and his co-writers (including Lawrence Kasdan, who helped pen both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) decided not to reinvent the wheel but merely refashion it. Occasionally to its detriment, The Force Awakens lifts almost every major plot point from A New Hope, never seeming especially concerned with delving into the broader context in which this new saga takes place.

There are, for instance, new equivalents to both the Empire and the Rebels, but the overall power structure remains unclear. Who controls what, and what are they actually fighting over? Presumably these details are to be filled in over the next two entries. For the time being, that’s fine—The Phantom Menace overextended itself with a plot that was both convoluted and seemingly inconsequential (taxations on trade routes?), so there are greater sins than reverting to the familiar.

Abrams’s first directive was to do no further harm, and he succeeds in part by striking a deft balance between unobtrusive fan service and new characters who feel more at home in this faraway galaxy than Jar Jar Binks ever did. If, like this writer, you’re too young to have experienced The Empire Strikes Back when Luke Skywalker’s parentage was first revealed and too old to give the sand monologue from Attack of the Clones a pass, this may be the first Star Wars to truly feel like your own.

Anyone who wanted nothing more than to forget about midichlorians will luxuriate in the lived-in detail that Abrams has put together. Consider Jakku, a desert planet whose entire economy centers around salvaging scrap from decades-old spacecraft; the battle that brought these artifacts to their permanent resting place is never mentioned, nor does it need to be. An even bolder grace note involves the first stormtrooper to ever be humanized, eventually by having him take off his mask but first by smearing the blood of a fallen comrade on it. Without even seeing his face, we know this soldier’s loyalty to his overlords is faltering.

So while the boys are back in town — you half expect Han Solo to reveal an Old Guys Rule shirt under that trademark leather jacket, but he’s as charming a ne'er-do-well as ever — it’s the new presences that most excite. A skilled pilot whose wits are as quick as his reflexes, a conflicted devotee of the dark side, the shell-shocked stormtrooper, a Force-sensitive outsider, the most endlessly endearing droid this side of R2-D2—there are echoes of the past in each of these characters, but they resonate in new ways.

When our new heroes meet our old ones, it’s as though they’ve come across legends: the Millennium Falcon has become as mythic within the world of Star Wars as it is in ours. And (vague spoilers follow), as touched upon in all six previous films, where you come from isn’t the sole determinant of where you’ll end up. The prequels had their heart in the right place on this subject, but didn’t explore it this poignantly. Evil sometimes skips a generation; so does quality.

But even though The Force Awakens is as good as it is — and even if the next several are as well — we’re fast approaching a time when Star Wars ceases to be special. Maybe we’ve already reached it. In their own way, the prequels actually enhanced their predecessors’ collective aura—maybe Episodes IV through VI were lightning in a bottle, they made us think, and could never be replicated. This new one suggests that they can. As exciting as that is, it’s also a little sad.

We probably don’t need the one per year we’ll be getting until at least 2019. (Episodes VIII and IX are scheduled for 2017 and 2019, one-offs for 2016 and 2018.) Marvel isn’t immune to overexposure, and it’s doubtful that Star Wars will be either; one or more of these movies will inevitably squander some of the goodwill that Abrams has built. The Force Awakens makes for a fine palette cleanser nevertheless, both washing away the bad taste left by the previous trilogy and whetting our appetite for the four-course meal that’s about to be served. Savor it while you can.