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Pop Culture Happy Hour: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' And Toys

Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in a scene from <em>Star Wars: The Force Awakens</em>.
Courtesy of Lucasfilm
Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in a scene from Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

This week's show is about exactly what you might expect it to be about: Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Screening scheduling left Stephen and me without the delights of Glen Weldon, who will provide super-spoilery thoughts in a Small Batch a little later (stay tuned), but we welcomed Gene Demby and Chris Klimek to bask in the glow.

And now a special treat: Because everybody comes to Star Wars with different backgrounds and wants different levels of detail, Chris (our best Star Wars universe guy) wrote a longer review of the new film that gives away slightly more than we did on the show but also goes into a lot more detail about how it fits into the franchise and what worked and didn't work for him. And you can find that review by scrolling down this very page!

In our second segment, we talked about the related matter of toys and merch marketing, which led to digressions into Master P, Knight Rider, and ... really a lot of strange things.

As always, we close the show with what's making us happy this week. Stephen is happy about the enormous stash of songs NPR Music just dropped for your ears to enjoy and about a movie he really enjoyed. Chris is happy about his Christmas mixtape, of which you will get to hear a couple of little snippets. Gene is happy just thinking about Attack the Block, and about a Cinemax show he's particularly enjoying. I am happy about my favorite fantasy draft ever, as well as the experience of catching up on a couple of terrific shows.

Find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter: the show, me, Stephen, Chris, Gene, producer Jessica, and producer emeritus Mike.

And read on for Chris' full review.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
by Chris Klimek

Here is a sampling of words and phrases that appear in the traditional three-paragraph exposition-dump that opens Star Wars Episode VII — The Force Awakens: "Daring." "Secret mission." "General Leia Organa."

Conspicuously absent: "Taxation." "Trade routes." "Galactic Senate." "Sarbanes-Oxley." "Cap-and-trade."

Pew-pew, phew-phew.

Another divisive term you won't find prominently featured on this thing: "George Lucas." The ruddy, pompadoured visionary who bolted Star Wars together out of Flash Gordon and Akira Kurosawa and Joseph Campbell and John Ford — who changed the industry, maybe for the worse, but so far forever — has been banished to the farthest reaches of the galaxy with a Disney check for $4 billion. Before he sold Lucasfilm in 2012, he did all he could to alienate his constituency of aging nerds. He will not be back as a Force ghost. The makers of the coming Star Wars films have been announced. The six old ones — only two of which, let us remember, were truly great — arrived over a span of 28 years. The Force Awakens is the first of six due just between now and 2020. This week may represent the last time that Star Wars Anticipation thrives as a sport, or that the prospect of a new entry feels in any way exotic.

So: Savor it, Rebel Scum! I mean no faint praise when I say the actual movie at the end of director and co-screenwriter J.J. Abrams' two-year hype trail does not disappoint, unless you were actually hoping to experience it with the guilelessness of a 10-year-old. It doesn't have the mystery or the intensity of The Empire Strikes Back, the series' 1980 high-water mark. It does have the humor. But it's a swashbuckling, emotionally resonant adventure serial that goes a long way towards repairing the damage done by Jar-Jar and Hayden Christensen and the Midichlorians. And long before that, by the Ewoks, the furry tribe that took down the most feared military armada in the galaxy with rocks and sticks.

Star Wars must keep pace with its descendants, so the body count is higher this time. We actually see stormtrooper blood, a first. The "First Order" of the Empire, having risen from the ashes of Death Star II at some point during the prior 30 years, has built yet another ultimate weapon. That's no moon, as some rakish smuggler once said — it's a planet. It has "Starkiller" in its name, which long ago and far away was Lucas' original moniker for the character he later renamed "Skywalker." In The Force Awakens, fan service goes deep.

But not so deep that agnostics will feel excluded, in the way that Terminator: Genisys and Spectre seemed unconcerned about viewers who hadn't taken the prerequisite courses.The Force Awakens is the type of corrective sequel (not reboot) that has become prevalent as franchises have grown old enough to require pruning, and the Internet has made it possible for fans to tell creators exactly what they want. (And to tell them instantly, loudly, and repeatedly when they're displeased.)

We'll never get a great, idiosyncratic movie like, say, Blue Velvet or Looper in this way. I chose those examples because the former's David Lynch passed on directing Return of the Jedi, and the latter's Rian Johnson is already making Star Wars Episode VIII. But this Socratic Method of filmmaking might, 40 years on, get us a solidly watchable (if overly reverent) Star Wars movie. In fact, it has.

Abrams, having previously done all he can to rebuild Star Trek in Star Wars' image, has now rebuilt Star Wars into something surprisingly like its old Carter-era self, albeit with better roles for female humans and nonwhite humans. The Force Awakens shares this virtue with 2015's other warmly-received resurrection acts from the 1970s, but it's more a satisfying reprise (like Creed) than a bold, unhinged upscaling (like Mad Max: Fury Road).

While The Force Awakens is perfectly safe for seven-year-olds, it's safe for 47-year-olds, too. The weightless digital environments and characters of the despised prequels are gone. So are the catatonic line readings and the fart jokes. (It's less notable that digital effects have made great strides in the 16 years since The Phantom Menace than that Abrams has the taste to employ them sparingly/invisibly, save for in one crummy scene that sticks out like a sore tentacle.) Abrams lured the original principal cast back. He's used tangible sets, props, masks, and makeup where possible. He's shot his film on film. He's omitted any scenes that would seem at home on galactic C-SPAN. Three decades have passed since the events of Return of the Jedi, and to the film's great credit — the script is by Michael Arndt, series veteran Lawrence Kasdan, and Abrams — it seems like that long. Nothing and nobody is how we left them in 1983.

Least of all Harrison Ford, whose bored mugging in Jedi's second half did that already-foundering toy ad of a finale no favors. Here, he seems reinvigorated to be Han Solo again. He and non-English-speaking first mate Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew again wears the hair-suit and performs the growls) are still flying risky cargo around the galaxy. Ford moves a little slower than he did even in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seven years ago, but he's a welcome presence, bringing something like the weary gravitas that Alec Guinness did in 1977 — when Guinness was a decade younger than Ford is now. (He may not look like much, but he's got it where it counts, kids.) Ford gets many of the jokes that work — and all the ones that don't, unfortunately. But those are few.

He plays exceptionally well with the two marvelous new characters who, more than anyone else here, shoulder the burden of the story: Daisy Ridley's Rey is even lonelier than young Luke Skywalker was. Tougher, too, scraping out a subsistence living as a scavenger of ancient warships on the sandy planet Jakku. (Is that why she knows so much about spacecraft maintenance? I'll buy that. Now tell me how she understands both Wookie and Astromech.) She finds herself on the run with equally symmetrical new face John Boyega. He's playing Finn, an Imperial deserter whose conscience somehow survived his from-the-cradle training. Like all the most compelling heroes, he's pretending to be something he isn't, until his deeds reveal who he is.

Also among the heroes are Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, a swaggering rebel pilot whom General Organa has tasked with that secret mission. BB8, the little rolling snowman-bot on sale for $149.99 at a Bed, Bath, and Beyond near you, is Poe's copilot, though they're separated early. He entrusts that bloopy little droid with a Macguffin of vital importance to the resistance. (This is what I meant by "overly reverent.") Even those two supporting players get more screen time than veterans Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, both of whom give the film a boost just by showing up. They'll have more to do next time, it's safe to say.

I'm less intrigued by the new class of villains: Adam Driver's Kylo Ren is a disciple of the vanquished Sith Lord Darth Vader, but his faith in the Dark Side sometimes wavers. That's intriguing, but Driver never really lets us see that conflict within him. His boss, Supreme Leader Snoke, feels more like a character from one of Peter Jackson's Tolkien extrapolations than from Star Wars, and not because he's 15 feet tall and played by Andy Serkis in a motion-capture suit. Unless it's for exactly that reason.

Abrams has never been an innovative storyteller — not on the big screen, anyway — but he's a reliable fixer, and a wiz at making old things feel fresh. And he certainly knows how to give the series' iconic characters and vehicles a duly grand introduction without interrupting the story to do it.

That's what this is: An introduction. While The Force Awakens ultimately echos its 1977 ancestor too closely to be the roaring aria in the sand that Fury Road was, Ridley's Rey is as rich a heroine as Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa. Her pal Finn's origin is The Force Awakens's freshest idea, and Boyega's performance is strong to enough to make us believe his conversion. You want to follow this pair through another few adventures together. I'm particularly primed for the Rian Johnson one.

Surely that's as much as you need, right?

One other thing: The two songs that Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote for the cantina scene are called "Jabba Flow" and "Dobra Doompa." There. Now you're ready, Young-Old Padawan.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.