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“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” Review: Welcome Back

TFA - PosterI can’t say it enough: I am a Star Wars fan.  I imagine that, if you were a child of the 70s or 80s, it’s nearly impossible to have feelings one way or another on the epic space saga George Lucas unleashed upon the world back in 1977. It wasn’t just the story or the heroes or the villains that have become ubiquitous.  It was everything.  The droids, the battles, the special effects, the dialogue…everything.  In so many ways, the tale of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader ushered in the modern era of cinema with all its good and its bad.  And like many, I too had issues with the Prequel Trilogy as well. I still maintain that all the elements to make that trilogy great are in there, but just not shaped right.  All the same, I thought that with 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, the chapter called Star Wars was closed.  The saga was complete.

Of course, with Lucasfilm being bought by Disney for $4 billion, that idea was quickly shelved.  You don’t spend that kind of money to just re-release the old movies or to put it out on new formats.  There’s billions to be recouped. So the news was swift: new movies, new sequels, new adventures. The long-running Expanded Universe was, in one swift pen stroke, destroyed. No more Mara Jade. No more Solo children. Chewie was still alive though (so that’s a good change). And with long-avowed Star Wars fan J.J. Abrams tasked with helming the first of these new movies, the expectation was that fans would (pardon the pun) feel the Force once more.  So…do they?

NOTE: Given the nature of the movie, I’ll keep spoilers to a bare minimum. It still means I have to say one or two plot things.  Feel free to not read anything until after you’ve seen the movie. All I’ll say here is: go see it.

The Force Awakens takes place some 30 years after the events in Return of the Jedi.  Unfortunately, the death of Emperor Palpatine and the loss on Endor didn’t quite end the Empire or their machinations.  Reconstituted as the First Order, they live on and continue on their quest of galactic dominance. Opposing them is the Resistance who, with the backing of the Galactic Republic, tries to stop them and put an end to their tyranny once and for all.  It is during a key mission to the desert world of Jakku that Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) runs into the First Order’s most dangerous agent, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Poe’s mission will eventually involve a reluctant warrior dubbed Finn (John Boyega), a nomadic girl named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and a BB-8 droid unit.  Before long, they will stand alongside legends and face off against monsters and villains for the fate of the galaxy.   TFA - Finn & Poe

The movie is surprisingly that simple and that is by design.  Compared to the nebulous machinations and the various factions that dotted The Phantom Menace, writer/director J.J. Abrams and his writing cohorts Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt set The Force Awakens to be far easier to digest.  This also means a streamlined plot that’s more akin to A New Hope than any other movie in the series. There’s a mission that the good guys want to accomplish and the bad guys want to stop.  There’s a droid with a key piece of information.  The quest draws allies and enemies which eventually draw in more allies and enemies.  Revelations are had.  Steps into new lives are taken.  Battles are fought.  If it’s a simple plot, it makes it so that audiences rely on the new characters to lead them through the galaxy far, far away and how it exists now.

Of these new characters, the biggest are John Boyega’s Finn and Daisy Ridley’s Rey.  Finn is far removed from Boyega’s tough-guy Moses of Attack the Block.  He is a man terrified of his past and what he feels is coming for him. He knows the evil at the heart of the First Order and wants to get as far away from them as possible.  But he’s also funny and he’s also brave and he’s willing to fight for the friends he makes along the way.  This dichotomy fuels his actions and lead him down a path that’ll make him a hero.

Meanwhile, Ridley’s Rey is, in so many ways, the heart of the movie.  Her story brings her from the dunes of Jakku to the snows of Starkiller Base and allows her to reveal so much of her character.  She has, in a way, become controversial for some audience members as she displays intelligence, cunning, skill and know-how that appears almost ordained.  This is because there is a mystery at the heart of this movie and it centers on Rey.  The Force Awakens gives us only glimpses of it and Ridley does well to show how she’s struggling with all of it.  I don’t doubt all the answers will eventually be forthcoming in the next two movies. It simply means this movie can feel slightly incomplete at this moment.

TFA - ReyAs for the rest, we get the most time with Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron who is a bit like Han Solo if Han Solo wasn’t so cynical.  He’s a smart-ass.  He loves to defy evil to its face.  And he’s the best pilot in the galaxy.  Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata appears to be a character full of answers which she cannot, for the sake of the plot, reveal all at once.  I do love how much affection she has for Chewbacca.  Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma is a glorified cameo with the promise of a bigger deal later on.  Domhnall Gleeson does a very good Nazi officer impression as the domineering General Hux — although his speech-making did have me wondering when Ron Weasley turned to evil.  And the digitally-created Supreme Leader Snoke is a placeholder for the next big baddie and Andy Serkis does a great job of calling back to those Emperor Palpatine images from the Original Trilogy.

Which brings me to Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren.  (Aside: no Kylo Ren is not Luke Skywalker. You can forget that “theory” now).  All of the marketing has made Kylo Ren to be the new Darth Vader and the simple fact is that he is not.  Not that this is a bad thing.  What he is makes him just as dangerous.  But whereas the Vader of the Original Trilogy was a monster in complete command of the fear he engineered, Kylo Ren is far from the finished article.  He’s a monster in training; capable of ordering the murder of innocents but not in control of the rage within him.  And the reasons for that are both tragic and terrifying for what they mean.

As for the classic characters, the one who gets the most screentime is Harrison Ford’s Han Solo.  Once again, he serves the function of bringing our leads to those fighting for freedom and justice.  But if the Solo of A New Hope was a rogue with a heart of gold, the one in The Force Awakens is a rogue with a broken heart.  Without spoiling anything, where he’s at when this movie starts making sense once things are revealed.  The same can be said for Carrie Fisher’s General Leia Organa.  The two of them were very devoted to who they were and, in times of crisis, turn back to those skills and personas.  It is interesting to see them interact as the old couple who’ve seen and experienced and lost a lot.  They and Mark Hammil’s Luke Skywalker manage to connect with us immediately thanks to their position in Star Wars lore, but it’s intriguing to see how the happy celebration on Endor didn’t mean “happily ever after” for them.

It’s no secret that J.J. Abrams loves Star Wars.  Fans of Star Trek have been complaining for years that, while good, his twoTFA - Chewie & Han Trek movies felt and sounded far more like classic Star Wars than Star Trek.  Given the chance to direct the comeback movie of this saga, he opted to make two key decisions.  First, he went back to as much a physical prop and set movie as possible.  Unlike the Prequel Trilogy, Abrams built sets, built props and created an environment that looked and felt like it shared the space with the actors.  No more green screens for his actors to wander into.  Second, he chose to follow in the visual palate established by Lucas, Irwin Kirshner and Richard Marquand in the Originals.  This allows the movie to feel more of a part of the greater saga and for the audience to not feel lost while new characters and settings take place.  Jakku is a new Tattooine and that helps.  Kylo Ren channels Darth Vader and that helps.  BB-8 is an adorable younger sibling to R2-D2 and that helps.  Everything in this movie is meant to make you feel right at home.

That extends to the score by the incomparable John Williams, who returns to create new music for the series.  He brings back some of the classic themes for characters like General Leia and Han Solo as well as create some great new motifs for Rey, for the First Order/Snoke and for the Resistance.  Likewise, the artists at Industrial Light & Magic – a company born specifically to create the effects in A New Hope – get to show off in new ways here.  I mentioned the props and sets, but the effects also find a way to blend in.  You’re never taken out by BB-8 or by the aliens involved or by the flying X-Wings or TIE fighters.

Another element that Abrams brings back is the humor.  I mentioned that Finn is funny and he gets a great deal of the best lines and moments.  So does Poe and so does Han Solo.  This is in stark contrast with the Prequels, which felt at times as if they were going to cave in with all their seriousness.  Not so here.  Abrams is helped in this by bringing in Kasdan – who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi – as he has a good knack for how characters like Solo and Poe should sound.  But every laugh and joke feels earned and not so shoed-in.  Everything is done so as to help the overall story.  That doesn’t mean they don’t have fun with it.TFA - On the Run

Did I like The Force Awakens?  Yes. Immensely.  Do I have questions about it now that I’ve seen it?  Of course.  Here’s the thing: I have faith that all the major mysteries the movie sets up will be answered in the upcoming sequels.  Does it borrow heavily from A New Hope?  Oh yes.  That charge is obvious and admitted to with pride by the makers of this movie.  That is no bad thing though.  By using a frame that audiences already know and like, Abrams and company are able to bring everyone back to that galaxy far, far away as well as introduce new generations to it without the need of a major flashback or story set-up.  This is a movie that’s easy to get into and embrace.

Most importantly, it is the springboard for a whole new series of Star Wars movies.  And if they’re anything like The Force Awakens, I’m glad for them.  This feels like the movies of old, full of the joy and excitement that made them such a big presence in my life and the lives of so many kids back in the day.  The tale of heroes and villains from a galaxy far, far away is back and that is a welcomed sight.  It has been missed.

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One comment on ““Star Wars: The Force Awakens” Review: Welcome Back

  1. Great review, I loved that J.J used practical effects

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