REVIEW | ‘The Force Awakens’ with a strong start

The arrival of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — the seventh installment in George Lucas’ worldwide sci-fi phenomenon, directed and co-written by J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt — brings a combination of excitement and skepticism.

On the one hand, we’re getting another freaking “Star Wars” movie! The first one in nine years, something nerds have been dreaming about for years. Yet, there’s plenty to be suspicious about; the stench of the prequel trilogy (Episodes One, Two and Three) still lingers.

While each picture has a handful of great sequences, overall, they are disappointments, and while they will always be a part of the “Star Wars” mythos they’re the black sheep of the family.

Additionally, this latest installment comes with extremely high expectations. Everyone has their own ideas about what they want to see from another “Star Wars” film — will the final product live up to those hopes and dreams or be another crushing disappointment?

Fortunately, “The Force Awakens” is a very good film and a strong start for a new trilogy that could potentially be great. As the final words of the introductory scrawl fade off into space Abrams avoids tedious plot exposition and throws us into the midst of the action, moving full speed ahead.

The first act is tight, thrilling and, more importantly, fun. The screenplay achieves a near-perfect balance of comedy and drama. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it also packs quite the emotional and dramatic punch at crucial moments.

“The Force Awakens” excels the most in its focus on character (over special effects or action sequences), specifically the new blood. Abrams assembles an array of extremely talented, up-and-coming actors and wisely situates them front-and-center. Heading this youthful band is Daisy Ridley playing Rey, a scavenger who lives on the desert planet of Jakku. Ridley is phenomenal and is, in many ways, the core of the entire film. Rey is tough, both physically and mentally, yet raw and vulnerable at the same time, making her a three-dimensional character.

In a genre that’s still very much dominated by males, it’s refreshing that Abrams and company allow an unknown actress to shine in such a major cinematic event.

In addition to Ridley, there’s also John Boyega (another relatively unknown actor) as Finn, a Stormtrooper who’s having second thoughts about his line of work, and Oscar Isaac as hotshot pilot Poe Dameron. Also strong here is Adam Driver as the picture’s main baddie, Kylo Ren, sporting an intimating mask and black cloak, along with a tri-bladed light saber.

Going into the film, I was worried that Ren would be a one-note villain. But Driver brings a surprising amount of depth and humanity to the role, taking Ren far beyond a simplistic bad guy, revealing a damaged and insecure man.

There are plenty of other supporting characters — too many to name here — some more fleshed out than others. However, the quartet of Rey, Fin, Poe and Ren form a solid base that more than adequately supports the movie for the duration of its running time.

As to be expected “The Force Awakens” contains its fair share of nostalgia: references to the original films (when we first meet Rey on Jakku, she’s scavenging parts from old, decaying Galactic Empire ships buried in the sand), as well as the return of “Star Wars” veterans Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). However, in a year of multiple sequels and reboots of popular movie franchises that bang on the nostalgia drum too much without any good reason, the nostalgic bits in “The Force Awakens” rarely feel forced. Abrams and company incorporate these various characters and references organically, and in some cases, they play a rather substantial role in the central storyline.

Is “The Force Awakens” flawless? Of course not. The picture’s biggest issue is redundancy in regard to story. Structurally, the script is a little too reminiscent of the inaugural episode, “A New Hope,” which eliminates some tension and surprise. There’s a new galactic empire called the First Order and a rebellion and a droid storing valuable information that both parties want. This issue becomes most problematic in the film’s third act, during a lengthy climactic battle. Not only is this particular sequence redundant, it’s flat-out boring and feels more like an afterthought.

The unfortunate, unavoidable quandary the prequel movies found themselves in was, no matter how many characters, gadgets or exotic planets, the outcome —Anakin Skywalker turning to the dark side and becoming Darth Vader — had to be the same. Meanwhile, this new trilogy has no preset ending and could go in virtually any direction. The possibilities are endless, so to see Abrams and company hit one-too-many familiar beats is mildly disappointing.

And, yet, for all the familiar beats it hits and the occasional underwhelming sequence, “The Force Awakens” has a number of surprising weighty moments scattered throughout. In an age where so many PG-13 action films feel watered down and insubstantial, it’s nice to see that Abrams and company aren’t afraid to take risks and up the stakes within such a culturally treasured franchise.

For the most part, “The Force Awakens” manages to be respectful of the original features, while also realizing the need to move away from them, something I hope will continue on in the next two.

The picture serves as a great starting point for the new trilogy, featuring a group of fresh and talented faces that will hopefully take it in bold new directions.

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.