Review: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

After much anticipation, it’s finally here: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”  Apologies for the delay in my review.  It’s a busy time of year, and I wanted to see the film for a second time to parse out my thoughts.  Plus, with the film having been out for over a week and having made enough money to fill 10 battle stations, I figure it’s safe now to talk about some spoilery plot points.

I’ve already written about what this universe means to me, so the big questions is:  Does director JJ Abrams’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” live up to its galactic hype?

Pretty much.  And that’s no easy feat.  Let’s dive in!

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From the title crawl, you know you’re in good hands.  “Luke Skywalker has vanished.”  Whoa!  No taxation or trade routes here, huh?  (I can see your eyes glazing over already.)  The film opens with the remnants of the Empire, now the First Order, attempting to intercept a map to Luke.  Squash the last remaining Jedi and there will be little hope for the Resistance.

A resistance pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) hides the plans in his BB-8 droid before he’s captured by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a disciple of the Dark Side.  The BB unit rolls through the dunes of the desert planet Jakku until he comes across Rey (Daisy Ridley), an independent and resourceful scavenger waiting for her family to return.

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Meanwhile, Kylo Ren learns what the droid is carrying.  A conscience-stricken stormtrooper (John Boyega), nicknamed Finn, helps Poe escape.  The two crash on Jakku in a TIE fighter.  Believing Poe to be dead, Finn finds his way to civilization, or the backwater planet’s version of it, where he meets Rey.  After a skirmish with the First Order, the two board the Millennium Falcon.  (I know the Force works in mysteries ways, but talk about coincidence!)

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The Falcon is picked up by none other than its former captain and co-pilot, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).  We learn that Rey believed Luke Skywalker to be a myth.  Han informs her and Finn that Luke went into hiding after a Jedi in training was seduced by the evil Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).

That pupil was Kylo Ren.  In one of the film’s most stirring scenes, he prays to the helmet of Darth Vader.  “I feel it again…the call to the Light…Show me again, the power of the darkness, and I’ll let nothing stand in our way.”  Just as Luke was tempted by the Dark Side of the Force, Kylo is tempted by the Light.  And why shouldn’t he be?  He’s Han Solo and Leia Organa’s son.

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Now, if a lot of this seems familiar — a droid carrying secret plans, a young person on a barren desert planet with aspirations for something greater — that’s by design.  Similar to this year’s “Creed,” this is as much a soft reboot as it is a continuation of the saga.  Would I have liked a little more daring and originality in the story department?  Absolutely!  Given JJ Abrams’s track record — I’m looking at you, “Star Trek Into Darkness” — I was pretty nervous about fan service, but the callbacks didn’t bother me much.  With one huge, planet-sized exception.  I’ll get to that later.  There certainly isn’t anything as eye-rollingly awful as Anakin Skywalker creating C-3PO.  (Sorry, I’ll try to stop referencing those.  They’re painful for me too.)

One of the things this film, the first in a new trilogy, needed to do was set up a cast of compelling characters.  And in that regard, “The Force Awakens” is aces.  Oscar Isaac’s Poe has all the charisma of a 1930s swashbuckling movie star.  Think Errol Flynn.  I loved that John Boyega’s Finn was allowed to be scared out of his mind and in over his head.  Few things are duller than a hero who’s completely and utterly confident in their abilities.  If they aren’t concerned for their own well-being, why should we be?

It’s a testament to the film that I wasn’t twiddling my thumbs while waiting for the original cast to show up.  But even they deliver…mostly.  Carrie Fisher doesn’t do much with the very little she’s given to do.  But Harrison Ford — I haven’t seen him this engaged by a part in years!  This is a far cry from “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

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The two MVPs are undoubtedly Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren.  Much has been made about Rey being too perfect, which is to say she excels at everything she does.  She’s a good pilot and mechanic.  She’s strong with the Force and can more than hold her own with a lightsaber.  While I can’t argue that she doesn’t have many defeats (if any at all), I profoundly disagree that the character, as a result, is uninteresting.  Rey is filled with longing and doubt, fear and incredulity at her own abilities.  Ridley owns the role.  There are some wonderfully evocative, dialog-free moments.  When we meet Rey, she sleds down a sand dune after acquiring some scrap.  A fighter pilot helmet strapped to her head, she wistfully looks out at the empty desert landscape.

And then there’s Kylo Ren.  All too often, studios — I don’t wanna name names so let’s just say Schmarvel — are content to prop up empty, soulless, uninteresting villains to give their heroes something to hit.  Not this guy.  Unlike Darth Vader, he’s still in flux — a villain that hasn’t quite hatched from his cocoon.  His impenetrable mask and Driver’s icy delivery hide an interior that’s filled with uncertainty.  A petulant young man, he’s prone to violent, lightsaber-swinging outbursts when he doesn’t get his way.  From the moment he stepped on screen and stopped a blaster bolt from hitting its mark, I knew I was in for a treat.

(Seriously, the sound design in this film is incredible.  The Force now has an audible presence, as though the air flexes when it’s in use.  It feels more powerful and dangerous than it ever has before.)

Though the film has its dark passages, JJ Abrams and co-screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt imbue it with a sense of humor.  It’s maybe the funniest entry in the series.  I get a chuckle just thinking about BB-8’s lighter thumbs-up.  Abrams is known for his acrobatic camera, but he and DP Daniel Mindel dial it back here.  We’re allowed to appreciate the scale of this universe, whether it’s a star destroyer eclipsing a moon or Rey dwarfed by the massive engines of a vessel.  Abrams also made good on his commitment to return to practical effects.  Though puzzlingly, there are a couple poorly executed CGI characters. Still, I enjoyed the assortment of puppetry, make-up and animatronics bringing the corners of many scenes to life.

Now for that troubling bit of fan service.  The First Order has a super weapon not dissimilar from the Death Star, though it’s much bigger as the film eagerly points out.  This monstrosity has been carved out of a planet and has the power to destroy entire star systems.  Complete with an easily exploited weakness, the new baddies seem incapable of learning the lessons of the Empire.  Not being revealed until the mid-point, this Starkiller Base barely has a screen presence.  Its annihilation of five planets is met with a shrug rather than a shriek.  Contrast that with the harrowing destruction of one planet in the original “Star Wars.”  Every time the film cut to this storyline, I felt the otherwise brisk pace come to a grinding halt.  While many of the tropes and archetypes feel lovingly constructed, this truly seems like filmmakers going through the motions.

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“The Force Awakens” never achieves the storytelling efficiency of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, especially the first two entries.  In many respects, it feels like the most episodic of the films, even more so than “The Empire Strikes Back” and its infamous cliffhanger ending.  Many questions are left dangling, right down to the tantalizing final frames.  (Luke!)  Though it may be a little frustrating, I suppose we are in that era.  It feels like a backhanded compliment to say that this latest entry is better than the prequels, but it’s way better.  JJ Abrams and company have done a good job setting up the board for grand chess master Rian Johnson.  I am very excited to see where he takes the story in Episode VIII.

What did you think of “The Force Awakens?”  Did the fan service elements bother you?  Comment below!

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Lists: Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of 2015 (Part 2 of 2)

If you missed the first half of my list, be sure to check it out. Now, my five most anticipated films of 2015!

5.) “Inside Out”

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Release Date: June 19th

The last few years have been a bumpy road for Pixar.  We got “Cars 2” and “Monsters University,” which both felt like cash grabs.  But “Inside Out” will be Pete Docter’s first time in the director’s chair since “Up,” and I’m holding out for the studio’s return to form.  The film has an intriguing premise, centered around small creatures who live in our bodies, each representing and governing a particular emotion.  It’s an original production — only the second out of Pixar’s last four films — by screenwriter Michael Arndt, who previously wrote “Toy Story 3.”  I’m hopeful that he and Docter will bring the balance of humor and pathos that made “Up” and the third Toy Story so remarkable.

4.) “Crimson Peak”

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Release Date: October 16th

I’ve written before about what a valuable and distinctive voice Guillermo del Toro is in pop cinema. After delivering big-budget science fiction films like “Pacific Rim” and “Hellboy II,” del Toro returns to the genre where he cut his teeth as a director. “Crimson Peak” is a horror film with a bang up cast, including Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston (as husband and wife) as well as Jessica Chastain. It was reported out of Comic Con 2014 that del Toro’s gothic story called for a particularly extravagant chandelier, but the studio wouldn’t approve the expense…so naturally he bought one out of pocket. Del Toro’s passion and willingness to put his skin in the game is one of the things I find most endearing about him. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for his latest.

3.) “Spectre”

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Release Date: November 6th

Even after the excellent “Casino Royale,” Sam Mendes took the Bond franchise to a whole new level with “Skyfall.” He returns to the director’s chair for 2015’s “Spectre,” and Daniel Craig is back as 007. Having established Moneypenny and the new M (played by Naomie Harris and Ralph Fiennes respectively) in the last outing, this new entry reboots another familiar Bond element: the terrorist organization known as SPECTRE. It’s still unclear who’s playing the juicy part of Blofeld, the organization’s leader, but surely it’ll be newcomer Christoph Waltz or Andrew Scott. Either would be a fantastic choice! Audiences are probably familiar with Waltz’s Oscar winning turn in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” Scott is a bit more of an unknown, though if you’ve seen BBC’s “Sherlock,” you know he can play The Evil Mastermind like nobody’s business!

2.) “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

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Release Date: December 18th

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

I’ll never not be a Star Wars fan, but after the utter disappointment of the prequels, it was hard not to approach this project with a bit of skepticism. Then they announced J.J. Abrams as the director, a very solid if unsurprising choice. Cast announcements were made: John Boyega, Adam Driver, Max von Sydow, Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, and…the cast from the original trilogy! And then they released that teaser — filled with wonderful tactile details and scratching all the right nostalgic itches while still leaving a lot of mystery. Instead of doubts, now I have questions: What’s happened in the years since the events of “Return of the Jedi?” How will the original cast be integrated into this new trilogy? What causes the Force to awaken?

God damn it, I’m excited!

1.) “The Hateful Eight”

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Release Date: Fall 2015

What’s the only thing that could topple Star Wars? Why Quentin Tarantino, of course! A force in his own right, his films are like a full course meal. You get your comedy, drama, action, indelible characters, great music selections, and incredible dialog. You also get fantastic actors, and “The Hateful Eight” is full of them: Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Kurt Russell and many more. Set just after the Civil War, it’s about a group of bounty hunters that get entangled in a dangerous plot…but are there any other kind in the world of Tarantino? Of all his films, “Death Proof” is the only one I could take or leave, and the rest I adore. Simply put, he excites me more than any other filmmaker working today.

Here’s the complete list:

1.) “The Hateful Eight”
2.) “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
3.) “Spectre”
4.) “Crimson Peak”
5.) “Inside Out”
6.) “That’s What I’m Talking About”
7.) “Avengers: Age of Ultron”
8.) Steven Spielberg’s Untitled Cold War Thriller
9.) “Silence”
10.) “Tomorrowland”

And here are some honorable mentions:

“Macbeth” — Screen adaptations of Shakespeare tend to be hit or miss, but this one stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Yes please!

“The Sea of Trees” — Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe star as two men lost in a forest near Mt. Fuji. Gus Van Sant directs.

“Midnight Special” — The latest from Jeff Nichols, the director of “Take Shelter” and “Mud.” Stars Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Michael Shannon.

Thanks for reading! What films are you looking forward to in 2015?