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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The Force Awakens

Unless you were vacationing on a swamp in Dagobah over Thanksgiving, you probably know that the teaser for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” landed.

I’ve been a fan of the franchise since early 1997.  That’s right, my first exposure to the galaxy far, far away was the theatrical release of the Special Editions.  (I promptly purchased the original trilogy on VHS, so I have seen it unaltered.)  When I say “first exposure,” I mean I knew nothing about George Lucas’s universe.  I’d seen a picture of Darth Vader somewhere, and having been a fan of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I assumed he was some sort of futuristic depiction of Shredder.

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I remember going to “Star Wars” with a friend, not entirely certain what I was seeing.  Is this a sequel?  A remake?  The effects looked modern, but the haircuts did not.  Like much of my generation…and previous generations…and generations since…I was excited by the expansiveness of the world, the memorable characters and the simple yet resonant themes.

But I’ve got no love for the prequels.  (Controversial, I know.)  I find them dramatically inert, despite material that’s actually pretty compelling.  I’m often drawn to stories about good people going bad.  Paging “The Godfather” and “Breaking Bad.”  The prequels also look very…plastic.  I watched the original “Star Wars” prior to the teaser release, and a couple days later, I watched the duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan in “Revenge of the Sith.”  The attack on the Death Star is still exceptional, with just a couple inserts that don’t hold up.  The duel, on the other hand, is only a few pixels shy of a video game.  Stunning when you consider the nearly 30 year difference, the larger budget for “Sith”, and that the Death Star sequence is more complex.

One of the things I appreciate most about the teaser is that it looks to return to the “lived in” science fiction universe that “Star Wars” popularized in the first place.  There are some great tactile details, like the water vapor surrounding the X-Wings as they roar across a lake.  The locations feel real, like the snowy forest featuring what might be the film’s antagonist.

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Admittedly, the teaser is scratching some nostalgic itches.  Stormtroopers?  Check.  Lightsaber?  Check.  Millennium Falcon and John Williams’s fanfare?  Double check!  I don’t imagine it’ll sway anyone who’s altogether disinterested.  Then again, these films are so steeped in our culture, it’s one of a few franchises — maybe the only one? — that probably doesn’t need to worry about educating the masses.

Within the signposts, there are some interesting twists.  I especially like the first image:  an empty desert expanse, then actor John Boyega pops into frame in what seems to be a nod to Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”  Dressed in a Stormtrooper outfit, he’s clearly concerned.  Whoa, a Stormtrooper!  Is he our main character?  And how great is it to see a person of color featured prominently in the first trailer for what will likely be the biggest movie of 2015!

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Then there’s the lightsaber hilt (pictured above), which has caused an uproar in parts of the fan community.  C’mon!  Technology in Star Wars has only ever been functional insofar as it looks used.  These films are as soft as science fiction gets — more fantasy, really — and everything is designed toward that aesthetic.

Where’s the practicality in having a cockpit inside a glass bubble that hangs off the side of a spacecraft?

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And what’s logical about invading a snow planet with large walkers that can sink or, ya know, trip?

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Besides, how many hands would a hilted lightsaber save?

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Finally, there’s the voice-over, delivered by Andy Serkis.  He describes an awakening in the Force, both the Dark Side and the Light.  What the hell happened?  What does it mean for Luke?  Have his powers been dormant?  The desert location featured in the teaser looks like Tatooine.  Did Luke seclude himself there like Obi-Wan?  I also thought it was pretty cool that they didn’t feature Mark Hamill or any of the original cast members.  No doubt they’ll show up in the first full trailer, but for now, the marketing is focused on new characters.

Given the prequels, I was pretty skeptical about another run of Star Wars movies, but Disney and Lucasfilm have gone a long way in reigniting my excitement.  J.J. Abrams is a solid if safe choice to direct Episode VII.  And I’m a big fan of writer-director Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “Looper”), so I’ll be excited to see where he takes Episode VIII and IX.  Of course there’s Gareth Edwards, director of this year’s “Godzilla,” currently working on the first spin-off.  And they’ve assembled a great group of performers for this first film.  I’ve mentioned Boyega, Serkis and the original cast, but there’s also Max Von Sydow, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaacs and Lupita Nyong’o.  With the strength of the teaser and the franchise’s new pedigree, the Force may have indeed awakened.