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Review: The force is strong with ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

Josh Shaffer's short guide to Star Wars

News & Observer columnist Josh Shaffer gives his short explanation for the very few who have never seen Star Wars.
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News & Observer columnist Josh Shaffer gives his short explanation for the very few who have never seen Star Wars.

I went into “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” as a virgin. I didn’t read a single Internet chat, watch any trailers, listen to any gossip, catch up with fan fiction or re-examine the first six films in the series. I didn’t even look at posters and still photographs. If you’d asked me who Daisy Ridley and John Boyega were, I’d have shrugged in ignorance.

I wanted to judge this movie without preconceptions or expectations, positive or negative. I came away thinking director J.J. Abrams, who wrote the screenplay with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, has pulled off a delicate balancing act, paying clever homage to the past – especially “A New Hope,” which kicked off the series 38 years ago – and spinning us neatly into the future, where two installments await.

Folks who require novelty from this series may fidget. A character whose parents have disappeared has access to Jedi powers but doesn’t yet know that. A Jedi-trained villain lured to the Dark Side dons a black helmet and huffs menacingly through its metal grille. A father-son love-hate relationship plays out violently. A beeping, 3-foot droid carries a holographic piece of information the good guys need to find a Jedi master in seclusion.

Leia (Carrie Fisher, acting more deeply than ever at 59) still leads a group of rebels, this time trying to defeat the Nazi-like First Order. They’re opposed by a wizard with supernatural powers (Andy Serkis in his usual motion-capture mode); his orders get carried out by metal-helmeted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and an icy military commander with a British accent (Domhnall Gleeson). Han Solo (well-aged Harrison Ford, of course) and Chewbacca (ageless Peter Mayhew) unexpectedly get pulled into the war.

Lest you think you’re in for dèjá vu all over again, to quote a stubby little sage – Yogi Berra, not Yoda – let me acquaint you with three new characters who win us over quickly: daredevil pilot Poe (underused Oscar Isaac), metal scavenger Rey (Ridley, who energizes every scene she enters) and deserting storm trooper Finn (the appealing Boyega), whose conscience prevents him from carrying out a massacre and makes him an asset to the rebels.

Speaking of the long-dead Yoda, we also get a big-eyed, alien dwarf (Lupita Nyong’o), who gives Rey and Finn wise advice. Even a virgin such as myself could immediately tell those two were not what they seemed, nor even what they thought they were.

Naysayers can write all these similarities off as lack of imagination or a desire to cash in on beloved icons, but I can’t see how or why you would continue the story of “Return of the Jedi” 30 years later without incorporating Han, Leia and Luke Skywalker. (He’s a crucial but mostly unseen presence in the new story.)

Yet I think the filmmakers have something else in mind. They’re telling us not only that evil can’t be eradicated – merely suppressed for a short time – but that it recurs in similar forms, as ugly human impulses surface again and again. Knock off Osama bin Laden, and you’re facing ISIS. Make your way through the Cold War, and you end up with Vladimir Putin.

And why shouldn’t there be a music-filled cantina full of spies and layabouts, some with an unusual number of eyes, on any planet? Why shouldn’t someone with a lust for power wish to dress and sound like Darth Vader, an intergalactic inspiration to tyrants everywhere? (Driver does a fine job as this conflicted recruit to cruelty.)

We can’t demand “realism” from this series, whether physically or emotionally. I’m not talking about the special effects, which play out handsomely in 2-D and seem themselves to be a homage to the novelties of 1977.

I’m referring to the feelings of the characters, the boy’s-adventure-story bond between Han and Chewie or Poe’s master-pet relationship with beeping little droid BB-8. Sex has no place here: However much Finn and Rey may be drawn toward each other, nothing more than a chaste kiss will pass between them. (Not a fraternal one, though. They’re not Luke and Leia redux.)

As George Lucas showed us long, long ago with his references to Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” myths about saviors usually follow the same template. If Hollywood’s going to extend the most famous movie myth of the past 40 years, “The Force Awakens” seems a worthwhile way to do so.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

1/2

Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac

Director: J.J. Abrams

Writers: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt

Length: 135 minutes

Rating: PG-13 (science-fiction action violence)

Theaters

Raleigh: Brier Creek, Carmike, Grande, Imax at Marbles, Mission Valley, North Hills, Six Forks, Wakefield. Apex: Beaver Creek. Cary: Cinebowl, Crossroads. Garner: White Oak. Morrisville: Park West. Chapel Hill: Lumina, Silverspot, Timberlyne. Durham: Northgate, Southpoint, Wynnsong. Roxboro: Palace Pointe. Smithfield: Smithfield. See full listings at Triangle.com.

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