Scene for scene, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is as heedlessly entertaining as anything that’s emerged from the franchise. As a whole, though, its relentless pace resolves in memory as a blur. A great many things happen, and the movie scarcely takes a breath to register the import of the events. It’s enjoyable in the moment but leaves us little to chew on, to dream on. Even the much-ballyhooed final shot is needlessly goosed by the camera chasing itself around a cliff, as if director J.J. Abrams had handed the keys over to the 360-addicted Peter Jackson. “Stay calm,” says defected stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega). “I am calm,” says Finn’s new buddy, hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). “I was talking to myself,” Finn says, and the movie likewise seems to be checking its insecurity.
Calmness is in short supply here, which is a shame, because I got a welcome sunshiny vibe from much of the film. Here, after the tone of George Lucas’ prequels, which darkened and sickened into a saga of the degradation of a hero, is once again a Star Wars film full of goodness and optimism. Finn, kidnapped and trained from childhood to be a foot soldier in the bloodletting of the First Order (the new update of the evil Empire), finds himself unable to kill, and leaves his post. Which brings me to wonder how many other stormtroopers have second thoughts about their line of work but don’t get a chance to nope out of the corporation. They remain targets, as always, brainwashed or not. But never mind.
Some of the film meditates, albeit in rushed abbreviated form, on what it takes to become a reformed blackhat versus a fallen angel. The latter is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a masked baddie with a fixation on Darth Vader that will go unexplained here (we are in spoiler-free territory). Unmasked, Ren looks as much “just a kid” as the unmasked Michael Myers did in the original Halloween. He is torn, and chooses the dark side, as Finn opts for the light. The inherited royalty of the Force takes something of a back seat here; I didn’t hear the word “midichlorian” once, thank the Force. Whether or not one has the Force, what matters is the choice one makes in the crunch: will you use your power, whatever it may be, for good or for its opposite?
J.J. Abrams mostly uses his for good. Mostly. The movie has a nice, warming devotion to filling the screen with non-white-males, not only among its leads but in bit roles everywhere you look. At times, though, The Force Awakens is like an omnibus of favorite bits of business from the original trilogy, and Abrams drags the old hands on whenever possible, including General Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C3PO (Anthony Daniels), and of course Han Solo (Harrison Ford). The gravitas in the reunion of Leia and Han is due to these actors as these characters, not due to anything in the script, really. Ford seems awake and engaged, and can still get his voice up to a lion’s roar in the din of battle. Where’s Luke Skywalker? Well, he “has vanished,” as the opening crawl tells us, and most of the film is a chase after the map that may lead to his doorstep. This quest doesn’t seem as urgent as simply avoiding the clutches and blasters of Kylo Ren and his cadre of fascists, and when Finn just wants to run, we can understand why.
The movie’s restless motion can sometimes produce not heat but a kind of coldness that doesn’t take the full measure of death (although there’s a strong moment when Daisy Ridley’s Rey, the film’s emergent heroine, plugs a stormtrooper and then pauses a second — this is, after all, the first life Rey has taken). The new kids are fine: Boyega afraid but bravely pressing forward, Ridley vital and amusingly impatient at times, Isaac as uncomplicatedly moral here as he was complexly amoral in Inside Llewyn Davis and other films. Abrams more or less leaves his actors to their own considerable devices; as Richard Brody has pointed out, Abrams is a nostalgist and pastiche maker, not a visionary. But for the first time in at least a decade, this old Star Wars skeptic felt not resentment at more star wars but a sense of gratitude for the return of a corporate concern that at least gestures towards the possibility of altruism and redemption.