Friday, December 18, 2015

Review: Star Wars - The Force Awakens


The much talked about and ballyhooed return to the Star Wars universe with the first franchise film in 10 years is thankfully in the proper and capable hands of J.J. Abrams.  Abrams and a crew of relative unknown actors team up with some iconic greats from the series in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a thrilling, intense, old-school mashup that (like his Star Trek reboot) injects fresh new life into the greatest Science Fiction franchise in film history.  It is almost enough to label this film as a success in saying that it makes us forget all about Episodes 1-3 and everything George Lucas has touched since 1983.

I won't get into real specifics of the plot of the latest chapter of this space saga as I don't want to spoil anything for anyone.  I'll leave a few specific spoilers for the end of this review and they will be colored appropriately so you have to highlight the text to actually read them. Let's just say that we find the rebels (re-branded as The Resistance this time around) in a battle against The First Order (the new empire).  Finn, a defecting Stormtrooper played by John Boyega teams up with Rey, a scavenger young woman played by (Keira Knightley clone) Daisy Ridley and the cute BB-8 droid that everyone has seen in stores and in trailers to complete a secret mission in support of the rebellion.

The lead bad guy in this episode is Kylo Ren, a misguided sinister young man played with excellent creepiness by Adam Driver (Girls).  Ren and his gang of evil that form The First Order (including a strange masked appearance by Game of Thrones' Gwendoline Christie) end up in multiple air and ground battles against pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Issacs) and the rebel fleet.  The tie-fighter / X-wing battle sequences are almost worth the price of admission alone.  It's not a surprise along the way that the venerable legends of the saga, Han Solo, Princess General Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, etc.. help support the resistance. Harrison Ford in particular is amazing as Solo and it's a welcome sight to see the Millennium Falcon in action once again. Abrams manages to bring a lot of humor out of his actors at just the right time without going over-the-top.

The real testament to the success and high quality of this film lies in the five new leads (Boyega, Ridley, Driver, Isaacs and...yes... BB-8).  All are very likable (even Driver in his sinister motives) and seem to have that perfect charisma for this franchise.  Kathleen Kennedy and the team at Disney did an outstanding job in the casting department.  Ridley herself may be the undiscovered star here.  She has the perfect expressive face that exudes wonder, amazement and horror at times.  She seems to wear her emotions on her sleeves and it works very well in her role as Rey.  Both Boyega and Ridley have instant chemistry with Ford and the overall cohesiveness of the cast of this movie only adds to the entertainment it delivers as a whole.

Abrams does an amazing job with story pacing and the overall visual effects.  We get a lot of practical effects mixed with excellent CGI.  BB-8 is an engineering marvel and actually made me forget R2-D2 even existed for a while.  The computer generated effects in this film supplement the action on screen and are not in any way similar to the over-the-top "look at me" effects from Episodes 1-3.  George Lucas simply did not get it after Jedi and Abrams totally "gets it" with his effort here.  I'm a little anxious going forward knowing that another director will be in charge for the next film, but Rian Johnson (Looper) is a great choice and I hope he gets some tips from J.J. along the way.

Now I will get into some spoilers, so if you HAVEN'T seen the movie then please DON'T HIGHLIGHT the invisible text below.  If you HAVE seen it and want to read on, then please DO highlight the text below.  You have been warned........

We get a few interesting revelations in this film. One being that Kylo Ren is actually Han and Leia's son Ben (named after Obi Wan I'm sure).  It's clear that he has been turned to the dark side and hates his father.  Even more so when he puts a lightsaber through Han, ending a remarkable 4-episode run for arguably the best Star Wars character of all time. This had to be done as it sets up an overall hatred for Ren that will power the next two films.  Also, we FINALLY see Luke in the final scene and he looks very bad-ass as an Obi-Wan-esque Jedi warrior. It seems that Luke will end up training Rey in Episode 8 and it also seems that Rey's newfound jedi powers are a result of her probably being the daughter of Luke.  The family dynamics will be interesting to watch in the next film and as in Empire, we get a great cliffhanger to feed into the next story.  It's sad to see Ford move on from his iconic role but he definitely went out with a bang as opposed to his whimper as Indiana Jones. Two things I didn't like were very minor. One of which is that Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) seemed a bit too cartoony and strange to be the new "emperor" of this new trilogy.  Also, the overall plot is a bit too similar to A New Hope in that a droid has secret plans that need to be delivered to a rebel base in order to kill a giant spherical weapon (Starkiller Base).  Hopefully Episode 8 will venture into a more original plot path.  I do love the fact that we don't see Luke until the VERY end.  Watching him in the Yoda/Obi-Wan role after recently seeing him as an apprentice in A New Hope should be very fascinating to watch.

**END SPOILERS**

This is a wonderful homage to the GOOD films in George Lucas' catalog and sets the base properly for what should be an even better Episode 8.  Despite a few small flaws (shown in the spoilers above), this is pretty much the movie I was expecting when I saw the first trailer.  Once again, Abrams has delivered and is about to fill Spielberg's position as the master of mass entertainment.  It's also great to see John Williams once again fill the speakers with his trademark Star Wars melodies and I hope he gets another Oscar nod for his work on this soundtrack. Episode 7 gets a very high 4.5 5 out of 5 JRs (decided to bump this up a bit after some thought) for one of the best movies of 2015 and the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.