Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Run Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Gwendoline Christie, Peter Mayhew, John Boyega, Domhnall Gleeson, Simon Pegg, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis
Written by J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt (based on characters created by, of course, George Lucas)
Directed by J.J. Abrams (Star Trek Into Darkness, Super 8, Star Trek, Mission: Impossible III)
When asked what he thought about the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens film (opening today), creator George Lucas said, "I think the fans are going to love it. It's very much the kind of movie they've been looking for." Unless you have spent the past two years living under a rock, you know that this new film - Episode VII - is the first in the series to be created without Lucas's influence. His indirect answer to the simple "what did you think?" question definitely veils what might be taken as contempt for this juggernaut film franchise that now promises one new film per year, every year into the foreseeable future (Episode VIII is due in 2017, with "spin-off" canon films due in alternating years beginning with 2016's Rogue One). Had he given it, Lucas's stamp of approval may have been received negatively anyways, considering that people now widely consider his three prequel films to be unworthy garbage when compared to the original trilogy. So his somewhat ambiguous response was not only the best thing he could have said, it's dead-on accurate.
Star Wars fans though, can breathe a sigh of relief: You will love The Force Awakens. You've been programmed to: The media frenzy surrounding the film has now pretty much permeated every facet of society, with Star Wars images having become unavoidable no matter where you go. It's still probably inevitable though, that the newest film would not be able to live up to the incredible expectations that have been created around it. Yes, while The Force Awakens will satiate those who have been jonesing for a new Star Wars movie since Episode VI: Return of the Jedi in 1983, or those who have waited to get the taste out of their mouths following the prequel trilogy, I would be lying if I told you that Episode VII doesn't also come with its fair share of disappointment.
I know. This will make you avoid the film, right?
And don't worry, this review will be as spoiler-free as possible, saving many of the film's several closely guarded plot secrets for you to discover in the theater. That being said, minor story points will be discussed, so steer clear if you are wanting a total Star Wars blackout prior to seeing the film yourself.
All of that being said, there was good and there was bad in The Force Awakens, and I'm not just talking about the two different sides of the Force. Standing out, J.J. Abrams and company have done a great job capturing the look and the feel of the original Star Wars films...you won't feel like you are watching a tale being woven in a completely different universe, and never does the CG seem to get in the way like the three prequels. And the new characters that are introduced definitely seem capable of carrying on the torch of the franchise, as do the young actors who play them. You have Rey (Daisy Ridley), the film's heroine, a poor young girl living on the desert planet of Jakku. Then there is Finn (John Boyega), an ex-stormtrooper with a heart of gold. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is an ace pilot for the "Resistance" (more on that in a minute), and then there is his side-kick BB-8, the roly-poly astro droid, and the newest stand-out character sure to be on every kid's wish list.
(Minor spoilers coming...last warning!) As the story goes, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished completely (the film does reveal why, and there are several problems with his reasoning for doing so that we can discuss in future articles). With Luke out of the picture, the pieces of the scrambled former Empire have assembled and are calling themselves the First Order, led by the masked, ventilator-talking bad guy, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). He is clearly capable of using the Force, but just like previous bad guys in the Star Wars universe, "they always come in two." Ren answers to an even more mysterious dude, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Ren also seems to be the least-polished Sith we've seen to date, symbolized by his frayed-edged (but still bad-ass) red lightsaber. He has angry outbursts, seems unsure of himself and is just rough-around-the-edges in general. He is also a figure who finds himself running from the shadow of his father, a theme all too familiar to the franchise.
A few other key villains are introduced, with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and the tragically under-used Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), leading the massive new army that Snoke and Ren have been able to assemble. The First Order looks to find the missing Skywalker so that they can kill him and finally rid the galaxy of Jedi for good. The Resistance (not the Rebellion) looks to locate him as well, as a last hope in helping them defeat the First Order, who now have also constructed a ginormous new weapon, several times more powerful than the Death Star. And by ginormous, I mean that a few thousand Death Stars could fit into this thing.
Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) end up crossing paths with Rey and Finn, becoming major players in the story. Leia, now "General Organa" instead of "Princess Leia," is a respected leader of the Resistance. And this being a Star Wars movie, you can probably count on seeing both C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) at some point.
In further weeks, I'll post separate articles discussing the many specific things that happen along the way in Episode VII. I'd hate to be the one to ruin all of these secrets after Disney and J.J. Abrams fought for so long to keep them from the masses. For now though, I will just type in vague generalities as to my impressions. Or at least try to.
Please don't mistake this for scathing criticism because overall, I liked the film and would probably place it between Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith on my "Best Star Wars movie" list (behind Episode V, IV and VI even). There are some nice echoes to the Star Wars films that have come before, and The Force Awakens definitely hearkens back with reverence, mainly for Episodes IV, V and VI (references to the prequels however, are scarce if not non-existent...not one "mitichlorian" is mentioned). Re-watching the original trilogy recently, I remembered just how much fun it was, with some laugh-out-loud bits of dialogue and exchanges between the characters. The prequel trilogy all but lost that sense of fun, but here it has returned. The pace of this new film too, is relentless.
Now brace yourself for the bad. While this film features nearly non-stop action, only a few scenes stand out as memorable. Even The Phantom Menace had its cool pod-racing scene. Remembering the previous films is one thing, but the plot of The Force Awakens is almost too similar to that of A New Hope, and the result is that much of the action comes across as redundant. It begins with a droid needing to get secret information to the Resistance, and it ends with an extensive multi-pronged attack aimed to bring down an enemy space station capable of tremendous destruction. We are told that the new First Order weapon is several times larger than the Death Star, but we never feel the enormity. That last bit kind of works as a good metaphor for The Force Awakens as a whole: We are told that it is better, bigger and more powerful than the originals...but is it really?
Specific instances of my disappointment cannot be disclosed here, for fear of ruining the secrets...and there are several big ones. But I can say that there are some egregious plot holes that are not only inexcusable, they are damn near fatal. One that I'll mention: When will the bad guys construct a weapon that doesn't place its Achilles' Heel on the exterior of the thing?
Part of the problem with this entire adventure? The Force Awakens is a sign of the times we live in. The modern "model" of franchise-building has been applied here, wherein the goal is to create chapters to an ongoing, never-ending story. Individual, self-contained stories are no longer the goal. Call it the "comic book effect" of the modern tent-pole blockbuster. Go back and watch the original Episode IV, or Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and while they were "Episodes" in a larger story, each film felt like its own movie in addition to leading into the following chapter. Nowadays, it's an era of splitting books in half just to milk money from its audiences (see Mockingjay Part 1 and 2, or Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1 and 2, as examples). Further, characters, backstories and plot points are commonly and purposely left dangling, presumably so these stories can be told in future chapters (we are given no reason, for example, as to why C-3PO now has a red arm, but I'm sure we will one day find out. In a more blatant example, new character Maz Kanata has come upon Luke's old blue lightsaber, and when asked how she got it, she basically says,"Ah, that's a great story, but I'll tell it at a later time.")
And while references to scenes and moments in the original films are nice, some of them seem less like call-backs and more like nostalgia-manipulation. It's as if the characters just got done watching the trilogy themselves. How else could they recall bits of dialogue they spoke several decades ago? Pretty much every "famous" line from the originals is referenced at some point in The Force Awakens. Sorry if this sound nit-picky, but when there is a 32 year gap betweenEpisode VI and Episode VII, I am expecting them to get certain things right and to make us believe that these are real people, not just live-action figures.
Perhaps nowadays, these movies should not be looked at one-at-a-time at all, but only judged once the entirety of the series has been completed and presented. I could, for example, point out the loose threads and the inconsistencies in the story, which are completely valid now, but which may one day be fully explained and fleshed out in future film installments. But shouldn't each chapter - each film - hold up on its own? I was an avid comic-book reader growing up, and do you know what I would do with books that continually teased but offered little pay-off? I'd stop reading them, that's what.
Now nobody is going to stop watching these films, myself included. And this is not to imply that Star Wars: The Force Awakens offers no pay-off...there were true tingles up and down my spine, especially hearing the beginning music and intensely reading the famous opening scroll. And there were several other great moments and touches throughout, trust me...there is enough fun stuff here to have made all the hype at least partially worth it. It sure is great to hang out with old friends. But Episode VII, to me, was like being invited to a party of an old friend whom I really miss and am really looking forward to seeing, only to spend most of the time at the party chatting with new folks, because my old friend decided only to make an appearance. Sure, getting some time in with them is better than not seeing them at all, but I wanted much more time than I was given. Quality time. I guess I was anticipating the passing of the torch in this movie, but I wasn't expecting to see the hand-off occur so quickly, with the previous torch-bearers left almost completely behind.
None of this, of course, will stop you from going to the theaters, nor is any of this intended to do so. Star Wars: The Force Awakens will become the biggest movie pretty much ever, and it definitely did not fumble the ball or kill the buzz entirely. For that alone, J.J. Abrams should be applauded. Truly, his handling of the marketing of this movie should win some kind of an award: With The Force Awakens, he has created an excitement that no longer exists in an era of spoilers and social media. Truly, soak up the excitement you are feeling and have fun with this experience, because it may never happen again.
When Rey flies off of her desert planet and visits a lush forest planet, she says, "Wow, I never imagined there was this much green in the whole galaxy." Something tells me that will be the exact response from Disney and Star Wars producers once The Force Awakens is consumed by the masses.
With George Lucas out of the loop and J.J. Abrams out of the saddle, the good news is that the Star Wars saga will continue on. The bad news is that, never again, will the fan-base be able to experience such long-term anticipation and expectation for a movie...not with one Star Wars movie due out each year for the rest of time. Passion for the franchise has once again been awakened, but it'll be interesting to see how long it'll be able to keep it's eyes open.
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