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'Star Wars: The Force Awakens': Was it worth the wait?

Kenneth Turan
Los Angeles Times Film Critic

Can the eager first-day viewers of the "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" trailer who saw it 112 million times online be all wrong? What about the true believers who purchased $50 million and counting worth of advance tickets — can they be mistaken about this film too?

No, they're not, but they can be only half-right, which is what they turn out to be.

FULL COVERAGE: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

Perhaps inevitably, this, the most hotly anticipated motion picture since "Gone With the Wind," has an erratic, haphazard quality to it. Though a definite improvement on the last three abortive "Star Wars" prequels directed by series creator George Lucas, "The Force Awakens" is only at its best in fits and starts, its success dependent on who of its mix of franchise veterans and first-timers is on the screen.

Director J.J. Abrams and fellow screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt have come up with some potent new characters and outstanding moments. When all goes as partisans hoped it would, you're glad you're in the room.

But "The Force Awakens" is also burdened by casting miscalculations and scenes that are flat and ineffective. Sometimes the Force is with this film, sometimes it decidedly is not.

That hit-and-miss quality was likely unavoidable given that Abrams and company needed to please different masters and satisfy diverse audiences in this story (set 30 years after "Return of the Jedi") of a search for mysteriously missing Luke Skywalker, part of an ongoing battle between good and evil.

Job One was passing the "Star Wars" torch to a new generation of actors while simultaneously ensuring that appropriate respect be paid to those who'd come before and helped the series earn $4.4 billion in worldwide gross. And both of those had to be done in the context of a story line that fit within an established cosmos bound by a lot of rules and conventions.

What this meant in practice is an overcomplicated plot and characters that carefully echo the first three "Star Wars" movies, sometimes in the look and style of particular individuals, and sometimes, at its most forced, in positing actual blood relationships between young and old.

At its best, however, "The Force Awakens" basks in the presence of an altogether splendid Harrison Ford who, unlike original costars Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, has a full-fledged, rip-roaring leading role rather than a cameo. Until he checks in midway through the film, appropriately craggy and battle weary, and elevates everyone's game, the pickings are slim.

"The Force Awakens" begins with that familiar crawl placing events "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," followed by even more words bringing us up to speed. The evil Empire has been replaced by the even more evil First Order, the Republic continues to fight the good fight, and everyone wonders where Luke Skywalker has been hiding for all these years.

The plot begins with ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) making a trip to the junkyard planet of Jakku to get a device with clues about Skywalker from local elder Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow, of all people).

On the verge of being captured by major evildoer and Darth Vader wanna-be Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Poe secretes the device inside a cute little rolling droid named BB-8 and tells it to keep out of trouble. Fat chance.

Helping Poe escape from the evildoers, including Domhnall Gleeson's General Hux, is Finn (John Boyega of "Attack the Block"), a former Stormtrooper who has had enough of the First Order ordering him around. Both men return to Jakku so Poe can retrieve the device. They get separated, and Finn runs into the brightest of the film's new cast members, young British actress Daisy Ridley, who plays a Jakku scavenger named Rey.

For if Isaac, perfectly cast in the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis," has too sour a persona here, and if Boyega frankly seems out of his depth, Ridley's spunky daredevil presence is exactly what the part calls for.

Also inspired are a pair of motion-capture performances. On the dark side, the great Andy Serkis gives us a sense of what thinking outside the box visually looks like with First Order top dog Supreme Leader Snoke. Pitching for the good guys is Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong'o, who shines as 1,000-year-old Maz Kanata, who runs a rowdy establishment strongly reminiscent of the first film's Mos Eisley Cantina.

At a certain point, Rey and Finn get hold of the legendary aircraft Millennium Falcon and team up with the ship's original crew, Solo and the redoubtable Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and the action begins in earnest.

Ford has been here before, and it shows. His "It's all true" speech, featured in the trailer, is a highlight, and his scene kinda offering Rey a job is the film's intergenerational high spot. Too bad all of "The Force Awakens" can't be that way, but even in galaxies far, far away, things don't always go as planned.


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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on December 16, 2015, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "at the movies - Harrison Ford's Solo effort saves the day - REVIEW" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe