Movie Review: ‘Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens’


Star Wars: The Force Awakens Ph: Film Frame © 2014 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved..

***MINOR SPOILERS BELOW***

Plot:  Set several decades after the events of Return of the Jedi, the new First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire.  Among the leaders of this evil new regime are cruel General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), dark side Force wielder Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and his mysterious and secretive master Supreme Commander Snoke (Andy Serkis).  Only the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) has been able to hold the First Order at bay.  When Leia dispatches intrepid pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) on a secret mission to the desert planet of Jakku, the First Order learns of this mission and sends Kylo Ren after him.  The information these two seek is nothing less than the secret location of the last known Jedi in the galaxy–Luke Skywalker.

Review:  Star Wars fans if you were severely disappointed by the prequels I say this:  REJOICE!  The Force Awakens is the Star Wars film you are looking for.  Director JJ Abrams has crafted a visually stunning, face paced narrative, rife with new strong characters and some of the old ones you know and love.  While not a perfect film, The Force Awakens FAR surpasses any of the prequel films and stands tall as a Wookie in the pantheon of Star Wars movies.  From the moment the opening text scrolls across the screen, accompanied by John Williams’ signature score, I couldn’t help but be swept back to my childhood watching the original trilogy on VHS.  Thankfully, that feeling never left me through the whole film.

Undertaking a Star Wars film is no easy feat and I’m sure Abrams, a huge Star Wars fanboy himself, certainly felt the pressure to deliver a good movie.  Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt, and Abrams’ script manages to recapture the joy of the original trilogy and while the film occasionally veers a little too much into nostalgia, the good outweighs the bad by a longshot. Also no midi-chlorians, no wooden acting, and most importantly no Jar Jar Binks.  In fact no Gungans at all.  Meesa so happy ’bout dat one, jaba jaba.

JJ’s made some excellent choices in creating The Force Awakens, including toning down his signature “lens flare” shots and utilizing practical effects on a much broader level.  CGI is typically only used when it’s needed, most often with space battle scenes (which did not disappoint) and Snoke, whose appearance is so vast and imposing that using a suit would have been impossible.  Abrams also keeps the pacing tight, punctuated with plenty of action and little exposition.  However, lest you think it’s all action, don’t worry, there’s plenty of emotional moments where nary a blaster is fired. Dan Mindel’s cinematography is very reminiscent of Gilbert Taylor’s style, the cinematographer of A New Hope, with the space battles rivaling any we’ve previously seen.  There’s a particular one early on in The Force Awakens on Jakku involving a certain iconic ship that is absolutely astounding to watch.

 

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Speaking of that iconic ship, its iconic pilot Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his co-pilot the Wookie Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) are also back. Of all the returning characters, these two get the lion’s share of the screen time.  Ford notoriously blasted the character that made him a household name for years, but he looked like he was having a blast in The Force Awakens.  I won’t spoil what he’s been up to the last few decades but suffice it to say he’s regressed in his old age.  Han’s relationship with Leia is also markedly strained due to circumstances integral to The Force Awakens plot.  To her credit, Fisher slips right back into the role of Leia easily and wears the mantle of command well.  She seemed to be having just as much fun as Ford was throughout the movie. However, those hoping to see a lot of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) will be sorely disappointed, although the little we do see is EPIC.

As great as it was to see the original characters back in action (even Nien Nunb and Admiral Ackbar show up) the heart of The Force Awakens is in its emerging new characters, Finn (John Boyega), Rey (Daisy Ridley), and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  Abrams and company chose well when selecting these guys.

Boyega brings us a character in Finn (originally designated as Stormtrooper FN-2187) that Star Wars fans have never experienced before.  We’ve always seen Stormtroopers as mindless automatons.  Finn is the first time we’ve seen a person inside the suit and more importantly, one with a conscience. Finn cannot stand the mass violence and destruction that the First Order imposes and makes a dangerous decision to abandon the First Order. How it comes about is one of the highlights early in the film.  Finn serves as the real heart of the film.  A lot of the humor (sometimes too much) comes from Finn and you can’t help but fall in love with his good nature, his bravery, and his sense of adventure.  He’s a person who seeks purpose in this life and a chance to be a force for good.  I’m surprised Star Wars fans haven’t started a hashtag called #WeAreAllFinn.

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Daisy Ridley’s character Rey meanwhile serves as the Luke Skywalker type. Rey is someone whose past is shrouded in mystery.  Abandoned by her family on Jakku when she was five for unknown reasons, Rey spends her days scavenging for metal amongst wrecked Star Destroyers while living in an abandoned AT-AT walker. Her burgeoning Force abilities are something that scares her rather than excites Rey however.  It isn’t until she’s forced into a desperate situation with Finn and droid BB8 (Bill Hader, yes THAT Bill Hader) that the course of her life begins to change.  Rey possesses much more confidence than Luke ever did however.  And, as you’ll see, she’s just as good of a pilot if not better than he was.  It’s great to see such a strong female character on the screen who’s independent, resourceful, and loyal. There’s been a dirth of strong female characters in the Star Wars universe for far too long.  Ridley’s taken up the mantle and run with it.  She’s an amazing young actress.  I loved everything about her performance and I can’t wait to see not only where Rey’s character goes next, but also where Ridley’s career goes as an actress.

And then there’s Kylo Ren.

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I say this with no hyperbole:  Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is second only to Darth Vader when it comes to Star Wars villains.  He’s brutal and ruthless yet he’s also conflicted about his own actions.  Ren revels in his dark side power but he’s scared he won’t be as powerful as Darth Vader and live up to the expectations of Supreme Commander Snoke.  In a strange twist, Ren finds himself in a reverse Luke Skywalker situation.  Kylo constantly battles the temptation to fall to the light side of the Force.  It makes for a multi-layered and complicated villain and performance.  I couldn’t help but wonder what the prequels might have been like if Driver was cast as Anakin Skywalker rather than Hayden Christensen.

My quibbles with The Force Awakens are minor.  I was not impressed at all with Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux.  Gleeson played him like a Nazi crony and it came across as corny and cantankerous rather than evil.  Serkis’ Snoke also looked a lot like the orc Bolg from The Hobbit films.  Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma also comes across superfluous and underutilized. Abrams and crew could have written her completely out of the movie and it wouldn’t have made a difference.  Conversely, Oscar Isaac’s amazing Poe Dameron was if anything underused.  And of course there is a another Death Star like weapon in The Force Awakens which is a little repetitive…at least until you see how cool the weapon is!

Minor blemishes and all (I refuse to call them warts), The Force Awakens reminds us all why we fell in love with Star Wars in the first place.   I had a goofy grin plastered on my face for the whole two plus hours.  The majority of the audience did as well.  To know that the torch will pass to a new generation of children (one of which will be my own son Quentyn) just warms my heart more than an Ewok campfire.

The biggest disappointment about The Force Awakens was watching it end. To know that I have to wait eighteen more months to see what happens next pains me.  At least we will have Star Wars: Rogue One in between.

The Force has awoken my fellow nerds.

The magic is BACK.

My rating:  9/10

You can follow me on Twitter as Darth Gandalf @DarthGandalf1

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