So, how does the now Disney-owned, J.J. Abrams-directed new addition to the franchise stack up? It is familiar territory for the long time fans, which can be a Light Side or Dark Side of the Force, depending on your preference.
The movie focuses on AWOL stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), who helps Poe (Oscar Isaac), a pilot of the former Rebel Alliance, now the Resistance, escape the clutches of Darth Vader imitator Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order, which rose from the ashes of the Galactic Empire's defeat in “Return of the Jedi.” When their vehicle crashes on the desert planet Tatooine—I mean Jakku--he gets separated from the resistance pilot, and meets a parts-scavenging woman called Rey (Daisy Ridley), who coincidentally encounters a rambunctious little droid, which has a map leading to Luke Skywalker, who vanished long ago. They also bump into Chewie and Han, who have been running from some personal problems of their own.
The whole film is one platter of fan service. The star fighter battles are thrilling, with CGI that actually isn't that terrible, except for a certain multi-eyed, tentacled alien that rears its head/body. When the camera focuses on the Millennium Falcon, which Rey calls “garbage” when it is off screen, a mix of nostalgia and adrenaline wells; the wookie and the scoundrel cannot be far behind.
As great as the insider references and the cameos are (“It's a trap!”), it is a little too nostalgic.
Much of the first act is basically the same setup as the original 1977 movie. As great as it was to see the Millennium Falcon back in action, its dog fight with two enemy fighters seemed vaguely familiar. I was waiting for Rey to utter Han's advice to Luke, “Don't get cocky,” when Finn manned the same turret that Skywalker had on his first adventure with Solo.
The beeping, rolly-polly droid, BB-8, is a soccer ball equivalent of R2-D2, who also had some important information that a certain farm boy had to help transport to safety. What is Rey if not a female Luke Skywalker, stuck on her own farm of sorts and learning about her destiny in the war raging across the galaxy?
Our heroes visit a seedy watering hole that might as well be the Mos Eisley Cantina, populated by aliens from across the galaxy. The writers did not forget for that scene a diminutive, wise sage Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o), á la the pointy-eared Yoda. The final assault on the enemy base was the Death Star trench run, beat for beat, except with a much larger “Death Star,” so to speak. I'm sure Leia was thinking, “This again?”
The writers seem to not have a lot of confidence in writing a new script. The movie doesn't tread new territory with the characters. References are made to Luke going off to teach a new generation of Jedi, and how Kylo Ren was once his student, but destroyed his efforts. That story sounds more interesting than the main story line the viewer is supposed to be invested in. While having a woman as a captain in the First Order is great, Captain Phasma is underutilized, and her character is not fleshed out enough. How did a woman rise through the ranks of an otherwise patriarchal organization? Did the First Order provide greater incentives for women to join?
Overall, “The Force Awakens” is not the prequels, but it does feel a bit too safe, which is great if that is what you are looking for. As underwhelming as the prequel trilogy was, at least George Lucas wasn't afraid to explore other facets of the universe he created, and even take a risk with the bumbling amphibian Jar-Jar Binks, whom I really hope is revealed in the next Star Wars movie to be the villainous mastermind that Reddit claims him to be.
Final score: Three Death Stars . . . out of Five.