Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Movie Review: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'



We’ve been down this road before. A new “Star Wars” movie is announced and it quickly becomes the most eagerly anticipated motion picture of all time. I’ve lived through this phenomenon many times before and have always been desperate to keep my expectations in check. While I didn’t hate the prequels and enjoyed them for what they were, many fans did to where they looked at George Lucas as some heartless bastard who utterly destroyed what was most cherished to them. So with “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” I tried to keep my anticipation to a bare minimum as I felt any excitement I could ever have for this installment could easily undo it all in my own eyes.

Well, now having seen it, I can say that director J.J. Abrams has not only awakened the force with this movie, he has also reignited our childhood innocence with this “Star Wars” movie by bringing the franchise back to basics. Like the recent “Creed,” a spinoff of “Rocky,” it takes the story of its famous predecessor (in this movie’s case, “Episode IV: A New Hope”) and spins a new take on it with old and new characters joining forces to keep the dark side from destroying the light. Even if you feel like you’ve seen this before, what results is a highly entertaining and exhilarating motion picture that gets many of the things right the prequels messed up on and reminds us why we love going to the movies in the first place.

No one wants to spoil “The Force Awakens” for anybody as doing so would be like Homer Simpson ruining the big reveal of “The Empire Strikes Back” for those waiting in line to see it, so don’t expect this reviewer to do that as everyone should come to this movie fresh and experience it all firsthand instead of being forced to read the entire plot on its Wikipedia page.

What can be said is that it takes place 30 years after the events of “Return of the Jedi.” That one ended with the Galactic Empire being vanquished, but just like John Carpenter once said, evil never dies. What’s left of it has come to form the First Order which is once again hell bent on crushing every single part of the Rebel Alliance. As for the Rebel Alliance, it is now known as the Resistance which is backed by the Republic and features many veterans including Princess (now General) Leia Organa. Whatever peace was achieved in the 1983 movie has long since been undone by some Darth Vader wannabes, and those wannabes are now more ruthless than ever.

Into the mix comes Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger struggling to survive on the Tatooine-like planet Jakku who comes across a droid called BB-8 which has, you guessed it, secret information that the First Order is desperate to get their hands on. From there she joins forces with Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper who suffers a crisis of conscience and abandons the First Order without hesitation, and heroic fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to get the droid to the Resistance before the First Order crushes them without mercy.

Revealing anymore of the story from there would be hazardous to my health, but many characters from previous installments like Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Luke Skywalker are back to once again fight the good fight against an enemy that is hopelessly drunk with power.

The first thing I have to point out is how good the acting is. This surprised me a lot as the actors had to be acting opposite a number of things they couldn’t see, and the prequels were notorious for the wooden performances that came out of them. But each actor cast in “The Force Awakens” gives us characters that are not just mere archetypes the science fiction genre calls for, but interesting people who we want to follow right from the start. Many “Star Wars” fans get edgy when it comes to new characters being brought into the franchise (R.I.P. Jar Jar Binks), but the ones introduced in “The Force Awakens” are very welcome additions.

One major standout is Daisy Ridley who, before starring in “The Force Awakens,” was largely unknown outside of her native England. As Rey, she gives us a new female action hero for the ages who is self-sufficient and needs nobody to rely on, and she infuses her performance with tremendous heart and passion to where this character is not just another token female. Ridley makes Rey stand on her own from so many other female sci-fi heroes that came before her, and that’s quite the accomplishment.

Matching Ridley in one scene to the next is John Boyega who left a strong impression on audiences in the highly entertaining “Attack the Block.” As Finn, he spends a good portion of this movie in panic mode to where his performance could have been irritating to take in, but Boyega gives this reformed stormtrooper a cutting sense of humor and an energetic personality that makes him very entertaining to spend your time with.

Oscar Isaac proves to be a combination of both Han Solo and Luke Skywalker as x-wing fighter pilot Poe Dameron, making him into one of the most charismatic characters you could ever hope to find in the “Star Wars” universe. At first it seems like a weird career move for him to do a “Star Wars” movie after giving unforgettable performances in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “A Most Violent Year” and “Ex Machina.” But he makes Poe a wonderfully heroic character you want to travel all over the galaxy with, and he looks right at home in this franchise as a result.

Adam Driver provides “The Force Awakens” with its most fearsome antagonist, Kylo Ren. Some will dismiss the character as a Darth Vader wannabe, but that’s kind of the point. Kylo seeks to finish what Vader started as we saw from the trailer, and even he sees he has big shoes to fill. What Driver does is not make Kylo into a simple villain, but instead a character with some serious issues to sort out and who is dedicated to a struggle he has essentially been manipulated into. As a result, Driver makes the character into an unpredictable menace and one who is very dangerous to our heroes as a result.

Then there are the veteran actors who return to this franchise with more enthusiasm than they would have 10 years ago. It’s great to see Carrie Fisher back as Leia Organa, and that’s even though Leia’s accent has changed yet again. Peter Mayhew hasn’t missed a beat as Chewbacca, Anthony Daniels reprises his C-3PO role as though time never passed, and all Mark Hamill has to do is give a look to remind audiences there is no Jedi better than Luke Skywalker.

But this movie’s biggest thrill is seeing Harrison Ford back as Han Solo. It’s no secret that Ford has had a lot of edgy feelings about his involvement with the “Star Wars” franchise to where he distanced himself from all the fandom that came with it. But thanks to an unforeseen miracle Ford is back, and he actually looks happy to be reprising one of his most iconic characters. While Han Solo has only changed so much, Ford still imbues the character with a humanity that made him such an integral part of the original trilogy.

For a time it looked like it was not worth the trouble to do another “Star Wars” movie as what was once fresh had long since become the model for just about every science fiction film ever made. That’s what makes Abrams accomplishment with “The Force Awakens” all the more commendable because he makes us feel like kids again as we watch the action unfold onscreen. And just as he did with the “Star Trek” reboot, he puts as much attention on the characters as he does on the spectacle, and that makes us fully engaged in the way we should be when we go to the movies. “Jurassic World” may have been entertaining, but it can only dream of being as good as this.

Does “The Force Awakens” get a little too nostalgic at times? Sure, and the movie’s ending doesn’t quite give us the same elation as “A New Hope” did when the Death Star blew up. But Abrams and company have managed to pull of the impossible here; they made “Star Wars” seem truly exciting again. While we can’t resist picking away at the flaws inherent in the prequels, we couldn’t care less about any of the flaws in this one because watching it is just too damn much fun.

Whereas we came out of “The Phantom Menace” hoping that its follow up would be better, we’re coming out of “The Force Awakens” infinitely excited for what will come next.

* * * * out of * * * *

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