Re­view: Film cov­ers its bases, but soars only oc­ca­sion­ally.

It’s at its best only in fits and starts; Har­ri­son Ford shines

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - FRONT PAGE - By Ken­neth Tu­ran Los An­ge­les Times

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 plus in ad­vance tick­ets? Can they be mis­taken too?

They’re not, but they can be only half-right, which is what they turn out to be.

The most hotly an­tic­i­pated movie 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. At its best “The Force Awak­ens” basks in the pres­ence of a splen­did Har­ri­son Ford, who has a rip-roar­ing lead­ing role rather than a cameo.

“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 wannabe 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.

Ri­d­ley’s spunky dare­devil pres­ence is ex­actly what the part calls for.

Pitch­ing (in mo­tion cap­ture) for the good guys is Lupita Ny­ong’o, who shines as 1,000-year-old Maz Kanata, who runs an es­tab­lish­ment strongly rem­i­nis­cent of the first film’s Mos Eis­ley Cantina.

At a cer­tain point, Rey and Finn get hold of the leg­endary Mil­len­nium Fal­con and team up with the ship’s orig­i­nal crew, Solo and Chew­bacca, 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.

PHO­TOS COUR­TESY LU­CAS­FILM

Peter May­hew as Chew­bacca and Har­ri­son Ford as Han Solo re­turn to the screen in “Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens,” di­rected by J.J. Abrams. The movie opens to­day.

Daisy Ri­d­ley as Rey and John Boyega as Finn in “Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens.”

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