Friday, December 25, 2015

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence

Score: 4 out of 5

It's a Star Wars movie. That's kind of all the review you could possibly need before going in to see The Force Awakens. I could tell you that it's a really good Star Wars movie (though not quite a great one), that it manages to honor the original trilogy far better than the entire prequel trilogy put together, but at this stage, you've already made up your mind about whether or not to see this -- and if its record-curbstomping box-office take is any indication, you probably have, in fact, seen this multiple times. And furthermore, to go into specifics and give away even the hint of spoilers would kind of make me an asshole (looking at you, James, you fucking schmuck). So I'm gonna keep this short and sweet: Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a really good movie. Perhaps it owes a bit too much to the original trilogy in how its story beats play out, but if this movie makes anything clear, it's that Disney taking over the Star Wars franchise, getting George Lucas out of the driver's seat, and letting J. J. Abrams have a crack at reinventing the classic space opera for a new generation was a gamble that hit the jackpot.

We start thirty years after the end of Return of the Jedi and the fall of the Galactic Empire, which has since plunged into a civil war between two factions: the First Order, a group of Imperial diehards, and the New Republic, which seeks to restore the democracy that existed before the rise of the Empire. An aged Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) has swapped her royal title of Princess for the military title of General, leading the ongoing resistance in the star systems controlled by the First Order while searching for Luke Skywalker, who disappeared years ago. On the desert planet Jakku, a resistance pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), an AWOL stormtrooper named FN-2187, or "Finn" (John Boyega), and the old outlaws Han Solo and Chewbacca (Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew) come together to prevent data that can be used to locate Luke from falling into the hands of the First Order, who sends Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a mysterious, black-clad commander who has his own agenda for wanting to go after Han in particular, to hunt them down and retrieve the data.

No matter what one thinks about this film, one thing it can't be faulted for is the fact that director and co-writer J. J. Abrams absolutely loves Star Wars. I've heard this film described by others as a $200 million fan film, the sort of sequel to Return of the Jedi that hardcore fans would put together if given a Hollywood blockbuster budget, and it shows in how closely the plot resembles that of A New Hope. The visuals ditch the CGI overload of the prequels and once more make heavy use of practical effects augmented by computers rather than dominated by them, and it looks as gorgeous as Star Wars has ever been. Abrams is great at capturing the visual style of the series, shooting a bunch of great action scenes that feel epic, thrilling, and above all, like Star Wars. The robot buddy BB-8 is cute and a practical effects marvel (I'd wonder how they did it if they hadn't actually built it and sold it as a toy), but never intrusive. Above all, this film looks good. Abrams may not be much of a visionary in his own right, but he is great at "covering" the styles of other directors and bringing them in line with modern sensibilities, and in that regard, he was a much better fit for this than he was for the Star Trek reboot.

The film's tribute to the originals extends to the writing and characters as well. Rey, Finn, and Poe are clear stand-ins for Luke, Leia, and Han, but to the film's credit, it doesn't wear their inspirations that obviously, allowing them to develop as their own characters. All three are blessed with excellent actors (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac respectively) who are great at putting the viewer in their shoes, more than enough to make up for the occasionally hokey dialogue (it wouldn't be Star Wars without it). Of course, we also get the return of Han, Leia, and Chewbacca as a great big nod to the original trilogy. Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Peter Mayhew feel like they've never been gone in this grand homecoming, bringing their characters forward and presenting a clear "passing the torch" to the new ones, supporting the story and its new characters rather than completely taking it over. Finally, there's Kylo Ren. Without spoiling anything (ahem, James), he's the character that Anakin Skywalker in the prequels should have been. He's conflicted about his past and obsessed with living up to Darth Vader for that reason, and his attempts to copy Vader's icy-cool badassery crack whenever he flies off the handle in a fit of rage. Again, like the protagonists, the inspirations for his character are obvious, but he's his own man, courtesy of a great performance from Adam Driver and sharp writing. Even when he should have been ineffectual and pathetic, he was still a dangerous foe almost because of it, deftly avoiding the pitfalls that dragged down Anakin.

All that said, there are some disturbances in the Force here (hey, I had to get in at least one awful pun) that keep this film from greatness. Very little of the dialogue really stood out here, and what did was mostly borrowed from the original films' most famous lines. Yeah, I know the Star Wars films have never been known for their great writing, but I was hoping that, in 2015, they'd at least be able to step it up a bit in that regard. Above all, however, apart from Kylo Ren, I never felt much of a sense of menace from the First Order. Yes, they're evil, yes, their great big Starkiller Base (a nice shout-out to a piece of Star Wars production lore) is a suitably outrageous new take on the Death Star, and yes, they do have some memorable personalities like Domhnall Gleeson's General Hux and Gwendoline Christie's Captain Phasma. However, the horror of their atrocities never really struck home for me. After one scene in particular where they unleash Starkiller Base's full power, the stakes should've been raised substantially, but I felt that their raid on Takodana, a much smaller-scale affair, did a better job of doing that than a moment that was objectively far more evil. At worst, it felt like the scene of London getting blown up in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, nothing more than empty spectacle. We also get little explanation for who the First Order are beyond heirs to the Galactic Empire, something I expect to be fleshed out in the sequels but here made them pretty empty as overarching villains.

The Bottom Line:

Fans can rest easy, because the first Star Wars movie after the Disney buyout is actually really good. It's the best since Return of the Jedi, and while it's not without its problems, it's still a great return to form after all the prequels. You don't need my recommendation to check this out if the box-office is any indication, but even if you have seen it, it's worth a repeat viewing.

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