Saturday, December 19, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie review.

It’s finally here! Ever since the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm in 2012, it was only a matter of time before a potential Episode VII  of Star Wars was in the works. To everyone’s delight, that’s exactly what came to be. But the question was never “Would it be a financial success?” It was, “Can it live up to the standards the prequels failed to deliver on?”

Ever since the fallout starting with The Phantom Menace and ending with “The good one”, Revenge of the Sith, many of the most die-hard fans of Star Wars felt badly burnt by the underwhelming, overly digitized quality of George Lucas’ expansion to the Star Wars universe. Fans waited impatiently for a proper expansion and follow-up to the films they fell in love with, but maybe that same lightning in a bottle was impossible to capture.

Whatever fears there were, they were pacified by the decision to enlist JJ Abrams as the film’s director, as the former Lost creator had already delivered on spectacular sci-fi adventure with his reboot to the Star Trek film series. Coupled with key members of the original trilogy being brought onboard, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan making his first return to the saga since 1983, and we were even more excited than before. Once again, we asked, “Can it live up to the hype?” Long answer is all below, but the short answer… ABSOLUTELY!

Also, as a fair word of warning, while I will steer clear of major spoilers, my review will likely contain smaller ones, so if you’ve not yet seen the film, do so at your own discretion. With that addressed, let’s begin.

Picking up thirty years after the destruction of the Death Star over Endor, the oppressive First Order have risen out of the ashes of the Empire, and Luke Skywalker has been in hiding for a long time. After an assault on a small village on Jakku, a traumatized stromtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) decides to turn his back on the First Order, even helping a pilot in the Resistance, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) escape from capture. Finn eventually lands back on Jakku, crossing paths with a young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), and the two band together to find the Resistance, all the while the First Order’s ruthless and enigmatic commander Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) hunts them down, aiming to eliminate the Resistance once and for all.

Not since the release of The Phantom Menace has a movie’s release been so eagerly anticipated, and that was mainly thanks to The Force Awakens having the best marketing campaign in a number of years. With each new trailer, the marketing heightened anticipation without giving away major plot twists that viewers would like to discover on their own (take note, Terminator Genisys). It appears that all the waiting paid off, as the film has garnered near universal praise from critics, and is expected to break countless box office records. As for my own opinion, I would consider this as easily the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back, and arguably superior to A New Hope.

From the minute the film begins, it’s hard not to feel a rush of euphoria as the signature text crawl appears, seeming to take the series back to its Flash Gordon meets Joseph Campbell roots, and not a single mention of trade route taxations in sight. From the opening action sequence onward, Abrams’ love and understanding of what makes a Star Wars film tick are evident all throughout. Working with original trilogy icon Lawrence Kasdan to rework Michael Arndt’s original story, Abrams is quick to set up the various new characters, establish necessary but brief exposition to get the viewer up to speed, and from then on, the movie kicks into high gear, yet at no point does the screenplay ever skimp out on character development or necessary breaks in between the epic set pieces.

Just like the original trilogy, that’s where the heart and soul of The Force Awakens lies: in its characters. Each of them feels unmistakably like something that belongs in the Star Wars universe, with the film making effective use out of both new and old faces. In a clever move, the movie tends to place much more emphasis on the newcomers to set this trilogy up as its own thing, and each of these new faces are as memorable as their older ancestors.

Out of the whole list of returning cast members, Harrison Ford’s scruffy and sarcastic Han Solo receives the most prominence of them. Keeping true to the lovably cocky and bitter attitude of the character three decades prior, Ford is a remarkable presence anytime he’s on screen, showing a clear love and nostalgia to be back in the saddle of the universe, and also adding powerful world-weariness and touches of remorse that give his character further depth, and it’s hard not to get caught up in laughs with Chewie back by his side, with the two bantering back and forth like it was just yesterday. It’s also wonderful to see him back opposite Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa, with the history between the two visibly filled with regret.

The first new character we meet in The Force Awakens is Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, who instantly becomes one of the film’s most likable characters with his selfless determination to his cause, his endearing and energized ability behind the controls of a starfighter, and his unwavering loyalty to his allies. This is to say nothing of his adorable BB-unit droid, BB-8. BB-8 is a rare breed of kid-appealing sidekick that, rather than alienate the adults in the crowd, is just as endearing and hilarious to older viewers as to children, with some of the biggest laughs coming from his simple body language, contributing effectively to the plot, and never outstaying his welcome.

One of the more interesting inclusions is that of reformed stormtrooper Finn, whose traumatic experiences have opened his eyes to the horrors at the hands of the First Order, understandably rendering him frightened of fighting against them, but growing into a much stronger person as he learns to control those fears to protect his friends and allies. It’s a great, subversive tactic to be able to put us into the mindset of a stormtrooper turning his back on what was essentially his whole life, but still retains the signature fun of the Star Wars movies by giving Finn a lot of genuinely hilarious material, all of which John Boyega nails.

Kylo Ren is easily the best main Star Wars villain since Vader in the original trilogy, and like Finn’s role as a stormtrooper, Ren’s role effectively translates to us the traumatic mindset of a young and confused man torn apart by the Dark Side. Modeling himself after Darth Vader, the character is so intriguing with how much silent back story is given to him, shrouded in enigma and obvious emotional scarring, and torn between both the Light and Dark Sides of the Force, with the character’s torturous abilities building up his ruthless presence, and Adam Driver’s vocals and body language selling the powerful intimidation.

Best of all, however, is newcomer Daisy Ridley as the mysterious scavenger Rey, and this character fascinates me. She’s such an infectiously curious and enthusiastic young character, tinged with layered longing and almost desperate desire to uncover the secrets of her own past. In fact, much of the time, she feels like a character right out of a Miyazaki film. She even manages to best Leia as the strongest, most individually capable female character in the Star Wars saga. Of course, so much of that impact really does come from Daisy Ridley’s performance. She slips into this character so smoothly and without a single false note, and the amount of charm and emotional response she brings to Rey is immeasurable.

As far as the actual story of the film goes, many have been quick to point out several notable elements of the film that share in a direct strand of DNA of 1977’s A New Hope, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t notice them while watching it as well. That said, such a thing never really bothered me, as Abrams manages to pay homage and honor those classic Star Wars tropes, while also balancing such things out by his own personal stamps and differentiation, managing to put clever spins on those old elements, and give it greater depth by its deeper psychological examination, looking at each of the relationships between characters with great detail, providing them with welcome humor that doesn’t upset the intense stakes at play, setting up for future installments, providing well placed fan service and callbacks that don't detract from the main story, and diving deeper into the allegorical themes of the older trilogy, right down to the First Order’s cold and merciless General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) placing pressure on the Resistance with the destructive force of Starkiller base, even giving speeches drawing comparison to those of Adolf Hitler.

The writing is all terrific, but it’s Abrams’ direction of the film that winds up being its most important aspect. While giving his characters necessary breathing room for growth, he also adapts his quality and quantity way with action sequences into a perfect fit for Star Wars. It’s in these scenes where the man is at his most enthusiastic, oftentimes staging each sequence with a welcome sense of anything goes, and building them up with high emotional investment. It’s also quite impressive that, despite clocking in at 2 hours and fifteen minutes long, the movie feels like it’s over in only half the time, packing a lot of story and characterization without it feeling stuffed, and keeps it momentum high for the entirety of its runtime. Abrams also gets the most out of the impressive batch of technicians, with the production design going back to the classic grunginess and lived in atmosphere of the original trilogy, the costumes matching perfectly to the various characters, Ben Burtt’s sound design proving just as varied and efficient as ever, the photography moving swiftly and allowing us to absorb every rich detail onscreen, and John Williams returning to contribute fantastic new additions to his legendary collection of music.

But most impressive of all the technical elements are the visual effects. One of the most common complaints of the prequel films were how much they relied upon CGI in favor of on-set practicality, and here, Abrams remedies all of that by returning to heavy reliance on practical effects. Yes, there is a number of instances where CGI is being used, but it’s always done very tastefully, with a lot of weight and detail being put into the movement of it, and making great use out of two new motion-capture characters, such as Andy Serkis’ mysterious and horrifying Sith lord Supreme Leader Snoke, and Lupita Nyong’o in a small, but crucial appearance as space pirate Maz Kanata. But generally, it’s real effects that we’re looking at. They include models and miniatures, men in suits, puppetry, trick photography, elaborate creature designs, on-set effects and explosions, stuntwork, makeup effects, animatronics, there’s even some stop-motion! Honest to god stop-motion! It’s the perfect balance between the effects artistry of both previous trilogies, using the effects to enhance the story rather than to *be* the story.

When all is said and done, The Force Awakens lived up to all the hype it had behind it, being by far one of the best movies I’ve seen all year. As both a deep and engaging character journey and a refreshing piece of popcorn entertainment, it’s a great time to be had both for nostalgic, die-hard fans of Star Wars, and a welcome introduction to the younger generation that will discover the franchise thanks to it. It’s a spectacular bridging between the old and the new of the universe, continuing the saga and expanding on the lore with total confidence, and stands comfortably alongside the other great Star Wars films.

And to think that this is only the beginning, with an even bigger universe and new characters yet to be discovered, it’s safe to say that Star Wars won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. If the quality is anywhere near this good, then I’m with it to the end. Bring on Rogue One and Episode VIII…

***** / *****

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