Do. Or do not. There is no try. Take your money, they shall. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” J.J. Abrams’ best movie by fourteen, well, maybe twelve parsecs, will satisfy most and annoy few. “Force” is a sleek machining of a platonic ideal of a memory of George Lucas’ original trilogy, after pleasure seeps into recollection and over generations becomes warm vapor, pop-cult hallucination. Any twinges of nostalgia are countered with bittersweet awareness of the ravages of time and the leaving of life.
Anticipated plot turns are implemented with dispatch. (Oedipus remains the most stubborn critter in the Lucasfilm legacy.) After the de rigueur opening title crawl and tilt down onto an expanse of starlit cosmos, the lengthening, broadening black form of an encroaching battleship crosses the frame, prow distending until it resembles an upraised middle finger. (Surely not intentional!) But there’s much fun in the first spoken line, as if addressing the now-disappeared prequel trilogy: “This will begin to make things right.”
Luke Skywalker has been missing for years. Characters new and old, light and dark, converge to find him. Military havoc and hubbub soon slow and the screenplay, by Abrams, Michael Arndt (“Toy Story 3”) and Lawrence Kasdan (“The Empire Strikes Back”) smartly arranges strands to bring the cast together in fraternity and in war, with a tart trace of Howard Hawks in its strong, not-quite-androgynous heroine, the assertions of codes of honor, and bursts of genuine humor, not limited to references to the earlier pictures.
A village massacre is the first scene of scale and scope, tableau and landscape. Battle wreckage, familiar in form, is wittily repurposed in several scenes. Scenes of figures and shapes sheltering in the skeletal remains of vast, fallen starships offer frissons almost as intense as those of the human figures’ fates. The ruins of battles past supply grit and grunge, while other design elements, such as the B-B8 droid are cute, shy of kawaii. Minutiae and minor figures from past episodes rest upon horizons, populate a cantina scene, or dart beneath fighter wings at air bases.
Heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) is warrior when warranted, worrier always, her stolid stance matched by a willingness to follow her instincts, which build and grow each time she engages them. The primary costume design for her desert scavenger is practical yet flattering, elegantly designed, simple and simply gorgeous, a simple tunic, lightly draping cropped pants, feminine but not sexualized, windings of gauze and layering of muslin, expressive in motion and at rest. There is a brilliant rhyme with the garments of a character Rey will encounter late in the film, crumpled within rude raiment of harsh hemp and coarsest burlap. While her tailored rags comprise the most singular costume, the entire production is an understated eyeful.
Rey plants herself at the center of many of Abrams’ frames, and he’s especially keen on how the light falls upon her slightly athletic calves, with the costume directing the eye ever toward that attribute. And light also falls into the tiniest bite of a scar on her right cheek and onto her near-elfin ears. “Luke Skywalker—I thought he was a myth!” she exclaims, brightens, and the light shifts in the most minuscule way, pronouncing that tiny mark, suggesting, in a series littered with masks, that many more marks may mar that marvelous armature of a face in the time ahead of her (and the narrative).
Abrams has said he wants his cast to resemble the audience itself, and even the most full-to-bursting frames are multiverse-multi-culti, starting with the British Ridley, Guatemalan Oscar Isaac and Nigerian-British John Boyega. “This is what we look like,” Boyega’s readily flustered but genial military deserter Finn says, then murmuring “Some of us.” With Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Max Von Sydow. 132m. Widescreen. Previewed without 3D. (Ray Pride)
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens Thursday, December 17, possibly on a screen near you.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.