IN THEATERS – “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens”

imagesStar Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (Dir.: J.J. Abrams)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

“Luke Skywalker has vanished.”

With those four words, strategically chosen by director J.J. Abrams and his co-screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt to begin the opening crawl of Episode VII, the Star Wars franchise returns to the world of things you give a rat’s ass about.  Nothing about trade embargoes.  Nothing about filibusters in the Galactic Senate.  No parliamentary procedure bullshit at all, just a terse and mysterious setup largely focused on characters that you like.

Anyone who goes way back with The Barnesyard knows my tortured history with the Star Wars franchise.  I won’t rehash it here, but sufficed to say that the words “George,” “Lucas,” “is,” “dead,” “to,” and “me” would probably dominate a word cloud made from my mid-2000’s movie blogs.   The infantile fussiness of the prequels flattened the Star Wars universe to the point of discouraging imagination, but The Force Awakens turns it back into a tangible and dimensional cinematic world.

imagesIt’s a real Star Wars movie; it’s just not a great Star Wars movie.  The Force Awakens is built on the framework of A New Hope, and there are innumerable callbacks to the 1977 original, at least several dozen in the opening twenty minutes alone.  There’s a real sense of overcompensation – it’s telling that while the prequels eschewed any sort of “Han Solo figure” (i.e., a clumsily charming rogue in a cool jacket) and focused almost exclusively on the monotonous, self-rubbing mysticism of the Jedis, The Force Awakens features at least three different Han Solo figures, including the actual Han Solo (Harrison Ford, making more of an effort than in Crystal Skull).

Abrams doesn’t set out to make or break myths, but rather to keep the old myths in circulation.  He takes the same irreverently respectful approach to Star Wars that he brought to his Star Trek pictures – it’s everything you loved about the original with a half-twist.  Abrams isn’t what I would call an “idea machine” – he takes an existing invention and puts a clock in it, and the tease is always better than the follow through.  After watching The Force Awakens, I’m actually somewhat excited for future Star Wars movies, and yet it’s hard for me to imagine children playing Kylo Ren vs. Finn the way that I used to play Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker. But for a film tasked with kick-starting a theoretically infinite number of sequels and spinoffs, and burdened with setting up stories and characters that may or may not ever pay off (Hi, Poe Dameron!  Bye, Poe Dameron!), a decent tease is good enough.