Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens might be the most anticipated movie of all time, and expectations are through the roof as fans hope and pray the new film returns to the glory of the original trilogy. So, did J.J. Abrams pull it off? Read on to find out.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Co-Writer/Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill

(Beware: I definitely won't spoil any major plot points or twists, but I will talk about the movie in vague terms, so if you're afraid that any little hint of a detail will spoil you, then you should probably bookmark this page and come back after you've seen it, just to be safe. But I promise I won't ruin anything for you.)

Let me start with this: The Force Awakens is absolutely the Star Wars movie you've been waiting for since Return of the Jedi, not only because it continues the story of the original trilogy, but because it brilliantly recaptures the essence of those movies while adding its own new touches, memorable characters, and iconic moments to the saga. As I'm sitting here writing this, mere minutes after seeing the film at a screening, I think The Force Awakens is the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back, and by an incredibly large margin.

This is the movie Abrams was born to direct, and he rose to the challenge in a huge way. I'm actually shocked at just how good the movie turned out, considering how the pressure and expectations alone were probably enough to have emotionally destroyed a different filmmaker. But Abrams masterfully controls the movie's tone, sliding between earnest exuberance, heartbreaking sorrow, fist-pumping action, and lighthearted humor without missing a beat. 

It all starts with the screenplay, which he co-wrote with Star Wars alum Lawrence Kasdan, and the two of them did tremendous work mixing in stories of new characters while filling in the gaps of the past thirty years and making us care about all of it equally. They clearly used the original trilogy as a template, and fans will find a ton of similarities between this and the older movies, including a handful of plot points being essentially repeated beat for beat. But updating those moments here helped give the movie a classic feel, like a comfortable old leather jacket you slip back into after a few years of not wearing it. The mixture of practical effects and CGI is nothing short of stunning; for every massive battle scene where the sky is filled with X-Wings and TIE Fighters, it feels like there's an alien or character like BB-8 that's created completely practically in camera, and Abrams' balance between the two techniques is spot-on.

John Boyega and Daisy Ridley deliver star-making performances, and thankfully the script gives them a ton to work with. They make Finn and Rey feel like real people, not just stock archetypes, and they're immensely likable and watchable; my eyes were glued to the screen every moment they were together, and their chemistry was fantastic. Rey is especially capable, proving to be a talented pilot and a skilled fighter, and she's going to be a great character not only for young girls to look up to, but for everyone else to want to emulate as well. Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron isn't in the movie quite as much as I would have liked, but he does a magnificent job playing a charismatic riff on Han Solo. And, oh yeah, Han freaking Solo is in this movie, and Harrison Ford runs, blasts, and quips his way through the action. Much of the film's humor and joy comes from seeing him doing his thing. He seems to relish the opportunity to play Solo again, and Abrams and Kasdan give him more to do than just the brash smuggler routine this time around. There's a major plot point he's involved with that includes...well, I can't even hint at it without spoiling it, but you'll know it when you see it. But in no way does he phone it in — this is the best he's been in years. Carrie Fisher has a small role, and since the marketing has gone out of its way to avoid telling you what's happened to Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker, I'll honor Disney and Lucasfilm's wish and tell you absolutely nothing about that plot line so you can discover it for yourselves.

Adam Driver is solid as the villainous Kylo Ren, giving the character a furious temper that's sometimes played for laughs but also serves to highlight his dangerous nature and terrifying power. He uses The Force differently than anyone we've seen in the saga so far (at least that I can remember, anyway), and the movie's lightsaber battles are thrilling, vicious, and do not disappoint. The rest of The First Order — including Andy Serkis' Supreme Leader Snoke, Domhnall Gleeson's General Hux, and Gwendoline Christie's Captain Phasma — don't have as much to do, and one of my biggest disappointments is how little impact Phasma made on the story. While I'm on the subject of disappointments, there's a sequence on the Millennium Falcon involving Han's past, some unhappy clients, and a series of tentacled aliens that instantly comes to mind as the movie's worst scene, and the film probably would have been better leaving that bit on the cutting room floor. As longtime readers know, I'm usually very critical of, well, everything, so if THAT is one of my biggest complaints, it should say a lot about how much I enjoyed the rest of the movie.

There's plenty more to say about The Force Awakens, and Joey will have a spoiler-filled review and discussion piece posted in the next few days after you all have a chance to see the film for yourselves, so be sure to check that out. But in the meantime, rest easy knowing that Abrams totally crushed it and the movie miraculously manages to live up to overwhelming expectations. The ending leaves you wanting more in the best possible way, and I can't wait to see how the saga continues over the next few years.

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