Thursday, December 31, 2015

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' review

Note: This review will contain mild spoilers for The Force Awakens, including a general summary of the plot. If you haven't seen it yet and you're attempting to go in completely blind, just know that it's awesome and come back to the review once you've seen the movie.

No movie in history has been more anticipated than Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Fans waited 32 years to see the return of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia to the big screen and after sitting through the misguided prequels, a lot was riding on this one for the Star Wars community and for Disney. This was the make or break movie- if The Force Awakens failed, the entire Star Wars enterprise could have been in trouble. I was counting down the days until December 17, gobbling up every single bit of information that I could find about the film. I don't remember ever being as excited for a film as I've been for The Force Awakens over the last year. The trailers were perfect, the buzz was ecstatic and the filmmakers behind it were extremely talented. But could it ever possibly live up to the insane hype?


Thankfully, Star Wars: The Force Awakens delivers. Taking everything that was good about the original trilogy and putting a modern spin on it, The Force Awakens injects new life into a franchise that seemed like it was on its last legs a decade ago. J.J. Abrams has reinvigorated this iconic series and given us everything that we could have possibly hoped for with this movie. Mixing wonderfully developed new characters with a heavy dose of sweet nostalgia, The Force Awakens is beautiful, thrilling, emotionally bold and a pure blast of fun. In simpler terms, it's everything you could want from a Star Wars movie.

Picking up three decades after the redemption of Darth Vader and the triumph of Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens follows a new group of heroes who team up with some classic icons to save the galaxy from a sinister new threat. As the movie begins, we learn that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished. General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) has been looking for her brother for years, but with very little success. However, Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow), an old ally of the Republic, has discovered a possible way to finding Luke. Realizing that this might be her best hope to finding the last of the Jedi, Leia sends her best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), to retrieve the clue on the desert planet of Jakku. Unfortunately, Leia and the Republic are not the only ones looking for the map. The mysterious new force user Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), under the command of the enigmatic Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), is also in pursuit of the map with the hopes of vanquishing the last Jedi once and for all.


After a vicious attack on a Jakku village by the First Order, Poe puts the map inside BB-8, a new droid who happens to be Poe's loyal partner, and is captured, leaving the droid on Jakku. Meanwhile, a rogue Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) decides to desert the First Order and help Poe escape. The two new friends crash on Jakku and Finn ends up finding the BB unit, along with a young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley). Rey simply wants to stay on Jakku and wait for her family, but circumstances force her to depart the desert planet. With targets on their back, Finn, Rey and BB-8 end up embarking on an adventure through the farthest reaches of the galaxy along with legendary smuggler and rebel fighter Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his trusty co-pilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Together, they will work to prevent the rise of the First Order and discover the force that they hold within.

There is a really big fear around the internet about spoilers for The Force Awakens, and even though I added the forewarning at the beginning, I tried to keep that synopsis as light on spoilers as I could (what I described is basically the first 30 minutes of the film). But you should know this- there's no way that you can spoil the film experience that is the newest Star Wars film. Watching the film with an audience gives you an indescribable feeling and even if you know the twists and turns, I guarantee that you will still be shocked at each one. I knew the general gist of the plot going in and I still had a blast. I maintain that it's not about what happens in a movie, but how it happens, why it happens and the emotional involvement that you have with the characters.


So with all that said, let's talk about this amazing film, shall we? But before I get too deep into what I love so much about this film, let's get this out of the way as well- yes, The Force Awakens is remarkably similar to A New Hope. That has been going around the internet for the last few weeks and it's undoubtedly true. But make no mistake- this is no mere copy of A New Hope. Director J.J. Abrams uses the template of George Lucas' iconic sci-fi masterpiece to tell a brand new story with some of the most well-written characters of the year. The beats are similar, but it's told in a fresh manner and it's told with energy and passion, with Abrams drawing on these archetypes to create instant icons like Rey and Kylo Ren. It's the equivalent of how every Bond film follows the same story. So to me, while it's noticeable, it is not an issue that detracts from the film.

The problems with George Lucas' prequel trilogy have been noted over time and I don't particularly care to go into detail over what made them not work. All you need to know is this- the prequels are a part of my childhood and they are pure Lucas filmmaking, but they fail to tell a good story and looking back on it, they're incredibly wooden and dull. But as I continue to look closer, I've come to realize that the prequels were a necessary evil of sorts. Without them, future filmmakers may not have realized what made Star Wars so special. Abrams takes all the wrongs from the prequels and fixes them in The Force Awakens, capturing the pure spirit of fun from the original trilogy. There are no trade embargoes, or flat characters or overly choreographed fights. Abrams has brought Star Wars back to its pulpy science fiction roots to create a blockbuster concoction that will be enjoyed for generations.


The biggest testament to the greatness of The Force Awakens is how it features so many great new characters. It would have been easy for The Force Awakens to be all fan service and tell the continuation of Luke Skywalker's story, and yet, J.J. Abrams knows that that story has ended. It's wonderful to see Han, Chewie and Leia again, but I had even more fun meeting this new batch of heroes and villains. Every new character is written expertly, blending the classic Joseph Campbell archetypes with a fresh spin on things. Daisy Ridley's Rey is the new face of this franchise and I don't think that Abrams and his team could have picked anybody better to fill this role. Ridley is a mostly untested actress, but she tackles the role with a toughness and an instant likability that will surely make Rey a feminist icon. But she's more than that- she's a hero that everyone can get behind. There's a level of mystery to Rey, but there's also a sincerity that makes her one of the most enjoyable new faces in this chapter.

John Boyega's Finn is a terrific addition to the cast as well and I truly feel that Finn is the emotional center of the movie. Rey very much follows the Luke Skywalker path to a T, but Finn is a bit of a different creation. He's a runaway Stormtrooper who refuses to continue to fight for the First Order after witnessing a brutal village massacre. Finn combines the wholesomeness of Luke and the rugged wit of Han Solo for one of the most enjoyable characters of the movie- the screenwriters know how to write dialogue for him and Boyega performs it to perfection. Finally, to round out our trio of heroes, we have Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron. He's the best fighter pilot in the Resistance and one of my favorite characters in the movie. Dameron doesn't have as much to do as he should, but Isaac continues to show that he's one of the best young actors on the planet. I can't wait to see more Poe (and hopefully more of Finn and Poe paired together) in the sequels. Oh, and BB-8's awesome. He's the fourth part of our new group of heroes and he's an immediately influential character. I can't wait to see more of him.


On the villainous side of things, there are four new characters- Domnhall Gleeson's General Hux, Gwendoline Christie's Captain Phasma, Andy Serkis' Supreme Leader Snoke and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren. Gleeson is deliciously Hitler-esque as the First Order's leader, despite it being a rather small part. Christie and Serkis don't have a whole lot to do either, although we've been promised that the two characters will have expanded roles in the sequels. But from the first scene on, this is Adam Driver's show. Kylo Ren is the best villain of the year, a complex and interesting meditation on Darth Vader. He's by far the most compelling character in the movie and I loved everything that Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan did with Kylo. To say more would get into spoiler territory so I'll leave it there for now. Just know that we're going to be talking about this character for a very long time.

But there's probably one other question that is still on your mind- how does the original cast do in this new landscape? The answer is that they all do pretty fantastic. Harrison Ford has the most screentime of the original trio by a wide margin, and he's appropriately brilliant. There's a reason that Ford seemed excited to be involved with this project- Kasdan and Abrams have written a brilliant arc for him and the dialogue is so fantastic. Everything feels like something Han Solo would say. If Ford doesn't get an Oscar nomination, it'll be shocking to me. In addition to that, Carrie Fisher proves that she's still an actress. Even though she may be absolutely nuts (in a good way) off the set, she instantly transforms back into the iconic Princess (oh, excuse me, General) that we all know and love. Her scenes with Ford are tender and emotional, and the moment that she's introduced made me well up with tears. As for Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.......well, I'll let you find that out for yourself.


The acting is great and it's only amplified by the wonderful screenplay by Abrams, Empire Strikes Back screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt. The story isn't anything revolutionary, but I absolutely love the way that it takes the events of the originals and gives them a mythic quality. In this universe, Luke, Leia and Han are mere legends. Some believe in the Force and the Jedi, but many others think of them in only mythical terms. Just like Creed and Jurassic World, The Force Awakens tells its tale from a legacy perspective and it tells it in a real, grounded way. It may have seemed like our heroes saved the day and that all was well at the end of Return of the Jedi, but that's just not the way the world works sometimes. Things happen and I love the true tragedy and sadness that lies at the heart of the original characters in this film- they've experienced so much in 30 years and they've grown. They're in similar, but different places and it allows for them to have their final arc of redemption. It's brilliant character screenwriting by the three men in charge.

But it's not all sadness and tragedy in The Force Awakens. No, this is certainly the most fun you'll have in a movie theater all year. People bash J.J. Abrams all the time for reasons that are valid (wrong, but valid), but I don't think that any other director could have made this film with the vigor and pizzazz that he brings to the table. The pacing in The Force Awakens is brisk and terrific, constantly moving the film along, stopping only rarely to dole out exposition. Just like Lucas did in A New Hope, Abrams gives you a sense that there's a lot that we've missed in between Episodes VI and VII. Our characters are in a different place and the galaxy has evolved immensely. In addition to that, Abrams is a terrific physical director and all of the action scenes are sheer awe-inspiring spectacle, blending the classic special effects of A New Hope with a new digital look. Gone are the blue-screen dominated days of the prequels- this is another film that has a tangible look to it and that's one of the best things about the movie.


The Force Awakens is a flawed film. There are problems. There are a few too many things left unexplained and some coincidences that are just plain silly. And yet, The Force Awakens is, without a doubt, a great film. It's great because of what it brings us back to. Star Wars feels like Star Wars again. Wonderfully drawn characters, edge-of-your-seat action, modern mythmaking- it's all there. The Force Awakens is spirited in a way that we haven't seen since 1980, filled with charm, humor and sadness. The Star Wars franchise was always about going on a roller-coaster ride of action, comedy, and emotion. It was a Saturday morning serial done on a big-budget. J.J. Abrams has resurrected that feeling, giving the proper role for an older generation and welcoming a new generation of instantly lovable characters. His task was huge and he did remarkably well.

The Force Awakens made me laugh. It made me cry. It made me cheer. It gave me hope for the future of Star Wars. That's all I ever wanted it to do. And it lived up to every expectation. J.J. Abrams has delivered a masterclass in modern blockbuster filmmaking, returning us to a galaxy that we can't wait to visit again and again. Filled with dynamic heroes, despicably fascinating villains, absolutely perfect music from John Williams and gorgeous setpieces, The Force Awakens honors the old by bringing in the new, and by doing so, sets the Star Wars franchise on a path to continued success in the future. The Force has awakened. And every Star Wars fan and moviegoer who witnesses this wonderful film will feel it.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A+                                            (10/10)




Image Credits: Variety, Joblo

No comments:

Post a Comment