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'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' proves sequels are better than prequels

J.J. Abrams' reboot of a beloved but troubled franchise gets down to basics, basically by re-creating the original. And holy crap, BB-8!
Star Wars The Force AwakensStar Wars The Force AwakensStar Wars The Force Awakens

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’
Director:
J.J. Abrams
Stars: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega
Rating: PG-13
4 (out of 5) Globes

The good news comes early: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens with an ascending text crawl setting up a story that actually sounds fun. Back in 1999 “The Phantom Menace” began with the words “the taxation of trade routes.” All J.J. Abrams’ 30-years-later fan fiction had to do was not start like a C-SPAN transcript. It goes one, two, maybe three better. The text reveals Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished a la Paul Atreides at the end of “Dune Messiah.” He’s sought by warring factions known as “The First Order” and “The Resistance,” and we might not realize at first are actually the old, evil Empire and the old “Rebel Alliance,” renamed and repurposed but basically, after all these decades, the same thing.

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The same goes for “The Force Awakens.” It does what the dreaded prequels refused to do: It gives us what we want. And what we want is more of the same. The story is essentially a loose repeat of the original “Star Wars.” (We refuse to call it “A New Hope” on principle.) There’s another everyperson/maybe-savior —this time Daisy Ridley’s resilient scavenger Rey — living on a desert planet. She (rather than a he) happens upon another intel-hoarding, bleep-bloopy robot: the mega-super-duper-holy-crap-adorable rollerball BB-8. Nostalgic classics like the Millennium Falcon, beloved characters, another multicultural cantina, that John Williams score, those screen wipes, the Wilhelm Scream —all get dusted off and soldiered out for our delectation. Everything old is basically what it was before, only either aged or with different faces.

But it’s not exactly the same, just as “Creed," recently, wasn’t exactly a carbon copy of “Rocky.” The two new films are brethren, and if they succeed at anything, it's that sequels, even tardy ones, are superior to prequels and those dreaded origin stories that clog the multiplexes. Both have older versions of iconic heroes (here, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, Carrie Fisher’s now-General Leia) passing the torch to the next generation, including Rey and Finn (“Attack the Block”’s John Boyega), the latter a Stormtrooper who suddenly grew a conscience and turned turncoat. Sylvester Stallone gave his blessing to Ryan Coogler to take over the creative side of his series, and George Lucas did the same to Abrams and the coterie who will man his franchise from now into the infinite. (The sole major behind-the-scenes carryovers are composer John Williams and writer Lawrence Kasdan, who came in on “Empire” to loosen up Lucas’ staid, often undeliverable dialogue.)

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Both “Creed” and “The Force Awakens” don’t take the new job lightly, and even put the anxiety of living up to a predecessor into the characters. Adam Driver’s newbie Dark Side perpetrator Kylo Ren seems like a knockoff Darth Vader, with his mask and his cloak. But he knows it, and he anguishes over continuing the course, much as Abrams must have when he tried redoing a series whose fans have already been burned. His film tries to strike a balance between hitting all the comfort food beats and reworking them so they feel at least mostly fresh. “Creed” switched the race of its heroes; “The Force Awakens” switches races and genders. Rey is our real hero — an independent woman who refuses to be saved, even when outnumbered. At one point Finn runs to rescue her from a beating, only to stop when she badassedly turns the tables on her abusers.

We can’t, more or less legally, at this time spill much more on the plot, and especially a few of its fairly shocking turns, at least one of which was probably inevitable (but still shocks). But we can say its first hour is especially on point, with a plot that moves and twists like mad. It’s as though Abrams and team saw how leaden and heavyfooted the prequels were and tried to do the opposite. Gone is the overly digital, stiff look of the Lucas-directed prequels. This one, directed by a fanboy for fanboys, was shot on film, with shots that are expressive, poetic, magisterial, sometimes grainy — all the things the prequels weren't.

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Not to keep piling on those prequels — though they're maybe even worse than people say — but they were filled with Lucas posing great but frustratingly non-emoting actors as though they were statues in unmoving frames. Abrams, meanwhile, pushes his camera in close on faces of performers who are deeply feeling the material. It’s the humanity, not the whooshing of lightsabers and goofy aliens, that made “Star Wars” great. “The Force Awakens” gets that more than it gets anything, which is why everything from a gizmo made of two spinning balls to Harrison Ford — an actor not always happy to be on screen, and definitely not always happy to be forever Han Solo — teems with life. It’s not simply a newfangled old school “Star Wars,” or whatever that ideal is that perhaps mostly lives in our collective memory (though which can mostly consistently be seen in “The Empire Strikes Back”). It’s a living, breathing thing, with plenty of faults and all, but which can, at the very least, be said to be a pleasure to behold.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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