Sunday, January 1, 2017

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) (Movie Review)

        Wow, the joy of seeing a new live action Star Wars movie up on the big screen, and set after the events of “Return of the Jedi”, is a dream that I thought would never come true, but it did, and it surpassed my wildest dreams. Before I review the movie, I first want to mention the extended Star Wars Universe, most notably the 9 part book series titled “Legacy of the Force”. For the longest time, I always considered this book series to be the definitive continuation of the Star Wars series after “Return of the Jedi”, and it featured some of my favorite Star Wars characters who I really wanted to see in a live action movie. Alas, this new film was not a direct adaption of those books, it would follow a different story, and completely original characters. Because of this, I had a little bit of a prejudice towed this film, knowing I wouldn’t be seeing a live action recreation of one of my favorite Star Wars stories. However, I went in with an open mind, excepted what I saw, and was very pleased with the final result. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was excellent, walking a fine line between the old and the new. It gives us what we expect from a Star Wars film and what we wouldn't expect from its characters in almost perfect measure. It is simultaneously a continuation and a passing of the torch. Just about everything was done right here, and the result was a film that made me leave the theater happy, and also leave the theater wanting more. It may not be “Legacy of the Force”, but it was a respectable entry in the film series, and personally it’s my second favorite Star Wars movie behind “Return of the Jedi”.  

     Set 30 years after the death of Darth Vader and the battle of Endor, Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker has disappeared, and in his absence, the galaxy has fallen to the mercy of the First Order, who have risen from the ashes of the Empire under the guidance of Darth Vader’s grandson Kylo Ren. As they massacre the last of the surviving Jedi, Princess Leia form’s a new galactic resistance to combat them. Things seem bleak for the galaxy, but soon a small droid called BB-8 comes into the possession of a map that will lead our hero’s to the missing Luke Skywalker. The droid soon comes into contact with a scavenger named Ray, who’s been stranded on a desert planet, and is waiting to be reunited with her family. Meanwhile, among the storm troopers of the new first order is a soldier named Fin, who steadily grows a conscience, and abandons the order. During his escape, he runs into Ray and the little BB-8 droid, then after a series of events, the three become close friends and vow to use the map, find Luke Skywalker and bring peace back to the galaxy. We soon find out how the title of the movie comes into play as the force dose in fact awaken within someone, that being Ray herself, who discovers that she’s a descendant from the Jedi of old. Along the journey, they come across none other than Han Solo, who’s on a personal mission to free his son from the dark side, and reunite his broken family. His son by the way turns out to be none other than the sinister Kylo Ren himself.  

    Right off the bat, I loved the characters in this film, both the old and especially the new. Daisy Ridley is our star, and is outstanding in the role of Rey. She brings so much passion, and energy to the role, in fact, it’s one of those cases where I don’t even see an actress in a role, I just see that character alive. Aside from a strong performance, the character herself is one of my new favorites. I love how subtly we’re introduced to Rey, she doesn’t even say much at first, we just see her living one of many miserable and lonely days of her life, but her actions, and compassion give us an idea of what she’s like, and it draws us into her story. I also like how she’s just an ordinary person who gets roped into an adventure, and not some pre-determined “chosen one”. Her character unfolds like a map as she discovers what kind of life exists outside her small planet but she also struggles with her attachment to the hope that her family will come back again. As the force awakens in her, she refuses the call to adventure and even turns it away at one point. I liked Rey well enough at first, but as these curve balls kept hitting her left and right, I really got involved in her conflict. One last thing I wanted to note was Rey’s attire, which I really liked. It felt like an outfit from this universe, and she looked great, without coming off as slutty. Then there’s our new little droid buddy called BB-8, and personally, I think he puts R2-D2 to shame. He sets himself apart from the other droid characters, having a unique design, and a more courageous yet child like personality. It’s hard to make a mute little droid stand out as a prominent character, but BB-8 was easily the life of the party, and had some very funny moments. There’s one brief moment in which he gives a thumbs up using a lighter that just makes me smile every time I see it. 

    Then there’s the defective stormtrooper Fin, who also stands tall as one of my new favorite characters. Before he even takes off his helmet, we can tell what kind of man this is, someone insecure, unsure of his orders, scared, and above all ... a good man. He’s played by John Boyega, who I liked in another Sci-Fi film called “Attack the Block”, and in this movie, he proves to be a talented and versatile actor. There’s a great scene when he frees a resistance pilot named Poe from prison, then we see him making friends for the first time, laughing for the first time, being a person for the first time and it was a joy to behold, really. The audience is privileged to witness a person taking the first steps in discovering who they are. Later we see conflict arising as Finn struggles between succumbing to his fears and doing what's right, but without the experience to adequately come to terms with those two things. The pilot Poe played by Oscar Isaacs is also very likable, and a great supporting character. Actually, a lot of the minor characters have their own charm and likability. There’s a small alien woman named Moz, who’s connected with the Force, but she’s not a Jedi, highlighting that the force once again is something spiritual that exists in all living things.

     After the last three prequel movies gave us such wooden and lifeless characters, I was so pleased that this cast was so lively, human and interesting. I love the back and forth banter in this film, and the comedy is great. In fact, I think this is the funniest of the Star Wars movies by far, and has too many great moments to recap. Esthetically, this film looks and feels more like a classic Star Wars movie then any of the previous films, it had real sets, locations and mechanical puppets that looked amazing. There are so many little touches that made this universe feel real, and not just an effect. On that note, the special effects are used in just the right places, and the action scenes are some of the best yet. Whenever, the action reeves up, the focus is always on the characters, while the spectacles are in the background without being distracting, and that's when action is done right. I love this scenes where our hero’s are on board the Millennium Falcon, battling attacking fighters while flying through the interiors of a downed ship. Right from the start, the film has a lot of energy, and the pace never drags but it doesn’t come off as rushed either, it’s just the perfect balance. I also liked the variety in which we see all the planets, ranging from desert, to forest, to snowy landscape, to an island out in the middle of an ocean world. More than anything, I found that the “filmmaking” on display was remarkable. The camera work, lighting, and editing was all very stylish, and spectacular to behold.

      Now let’s talk about Kylo Ren, who’s arguably one of the best new villains to come from Star Wars in a while. I was so glad that this element of the “Legacy of the Force” book series carried over into this film, as the conflicts between Han Solo’s son turned evil was the most interesting part of the extended universe for me. It’s not the same story re-told, but the changes are good ones. I really like that his name is Kylo Ren, as opposed to Darth Caedus, I was so sick of every villain in these movies taking the title “Darth” like it was a brand name. Honestly, I think Kylo Ren’s story was set up better in this film then even Darth Vader’s was in the original movie. Right from the beginning we see Kylo Ren strutting confidently with his force powers, stopping a lazar blast in mid air, wearing a creepy mask with a menacing voice, and we think to ourselves "Ok, this is the New Darth Vader: confident, Evil, and in charge". But as the movie goes on, we discover just how vulnerable and emotional this character really is. Every action he takes is meant to impress the first order and prove to himself that he is the new Darth Vader, but this guy can take his mask off at will, revealing a perfectly healthy face underneath. That's when it hits us, Kylo Ren is not the new Darth Vader at all, he's just an impressionable youth who wants to believe he is. There’s a great moment when he laments to the burned helmet of Darth Vader, a symbol of his grandfather, that he is tempted by the light, he is in conflict, and he is struggling just as any young person does. It makes Kylo Ren feel like a very human villain, and not just another cool looking bad guy.  

     I even liked all the touches with the first order, they felt more like a real operating team of soldiers then the Empire did, which is best conveyed when a random riot trooper recognized Fin and called him a trader. Plus, it’s just great to see Stormtroopers and Tie-fighters again, but with welcome new designs that set them apart from the ones seen in the original films. There’s a general named Hux, who actually stands up to Kylo Ren and walks on even ground with him, as opposed to Darth Vader who just stood over everyone. I was annoyed with this one trooper called Captain Phasma, who looks awesome, and is played by a talented actress, but does very little in the film. Then there’s the new supreme leader of the first order named Snoke, who I have really mixed feelings about. I appreciate that his design and attitude is very different from the evil emperor of the original trilogy, but he just doesn’t leave much of an impression, and it’s a missed opportunity to bring in one of my favorite characters from the expanded universe. In the “Legacy of the Force” book series, Han Solo’s son was corrupted by a dark lady named Lumia, who was very malevolent, had a great back story, an original design, and a menacing presence that captured the feel of the Emperor without coming off like a rip-off. Hopefully, the future films will do more with this Snoke character, and make him a somewhat worthy follow up to the original Emperor.  

     While on the subject of things that I have mixed feelings about, lets discus another issue that some have raised revolving around the films familiar content. It’s true that the plot retreads a lot of the same ground from the original film, including a little droid caring valuable information that the bad guys are after, an elder character who’s killed off by someone he once loved, and a planet killing device that our hero’s need to destroy, but it doesn’t come off like a shameless re-tread, at least not to me. To be honest, every film in a franchise, whether it be Star Wars, or Indiana Jones, or James Bond will always borrow some elements or plot points from their previous films. As for “The Force Awakens”, I felt that these recognizable plot points were handled very well, for the most part. I will say that the new planet killing station was unneeded, but even with that said, I liked the design of this base, how it was built into the side of a planet and I really like that when it destroyed other words, we see the civilians in fear as death approaches. We even see the reactions from other worlds who are looking in fear at the devastation above them, and this got to more effectively than even the original Death Star did. My only complaint is that the new Star Killer base was destroyed, when really it should have just been sabotaged. That way, a lingering threat would still be hovering over their heads.

     Speaking of things that are familiar from the original films, let’s look at the returning cast members. Han Solo is the bridge between the characters of the old and the new films, while the rest of the original characters are in smaller supporting roles. It works because this movie isn’t about them, it’s about the new characters, and we just didn’t need too much of the original characters stealing the show. Their still functional, and it’s a real treat to see so many familiar faces again. It was great to have Chewbacca and C-3PO back, and even better, I loved seeing the Millennium Falcon again, it’s just not complete without her. Harrison Ford delivers his best performance yet in the role of Han Solo, as it really felt like the character had aged 30 years, and I liked how he served as the elder father figure without becoming the clichéd wise mentor. It’s interesting to note that while “The Force Awakens” is bright, upbeat and adventurous, the subtext of the character's back history is actually very depressing. Han and Leia were torn apart by their son being usurped, Luke goes away out of shame and remorse, and even R2-D2 is so miserable that he doesn't want to be turned on anymore. It's a tragic tale when you think about it, and it blends seamlessly with the adventurous spirit that Star Wars has always had.  

      I was especially pleased that this film took risks, it was ambitious, and it gambled. The death of Han Solo was a daring move, but it pays off very well. The scene itself was beautifully shot, very well acted, and a perfect albeit tragic departure for my favorite character from the series. Kylo Ren was visibly in conflict about the decision the whole way through, on the verge of bursting into tears over the fact that he sincerely did not want to kill his father, but felt that as though he must. Han Solo dying at the hands of his own son adds a lot of drama, and conflict to the series. The main conflicts surrounding Kylo Ren is whether or not he can be redeemed, and we just witnessed him kill not only his father, but a beloved Star Wars character in general. Now, if Ren even tries to be redeemed, it's going to be hard for the characters in the film to forgive him, and even harder for we the audience to forgive him. The following final lightsaber dual between Rey and Kylo Ren is sensational. The emotional conflicts were there, the tension was high, the location of the snowy woods was an awesome place to set this battle, and the effects of the lightsabers were very detailed. I loved the steam and the sparks that came off them, and Kylo Ren’s tri-blade was an awesome design. Plus, there are big stand out moments, most especially when Ray uses the force for the first time by summoning a lightsaber.  

     The Force Awakens” also creates something that we haven't had in a Star Wars film since the originals, and that’s Mystery! It’s a movie that hints at things, it makes you wonder, it doesn’t fill us in on every detail of what happened between the events of “Return of the Jedi” and this film, and there’s even a lot of mystery surrounding the characters. Rey for example has a past that’s shrouded in mystique, and there’s a great moment in which she has a vision revolving around various villains, her childhood, the force and it gets me very excited to learn more about her. The universe also felt like a mystical one again. The last thing I'd like to mention has to do with the very end, where Rey actually finds Luke Skywalker. This is the moment in the film that, upon its conclusion, made me raise a finger and say "Umm ... I'd like some more, please". I kind of knew we were at least going to see Luke at the end, and when he turned around and removed his hood, I honestly expected him to give Ray a knowing smile and a wink, like he somehow orchestrated her finding him. But no! Just the opposite! Luke gives her a downright haunting look of sorrowful anger! As if to say "What the heck are you doing here? I did not want to be found!" I didn't see that coming from half a mile away. What is it that Luke is hiding? What is it he is truly afraid to face? I cannot wait for those questions to be answered.

     In the end, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is an excellent film that lived up to my expectations and gave me more. I may not have gotten my “Legacy of the Force” adapted movie I always wanted, nor did I get to see any of my favorite characters from those books like Lumia, or Luke’s wife Mara Jade, but the film more than compensates with an equally great cast of fresh and original characters, as well as the return of so many of our favorite characters from the original. The story was familiar in parts, but the experience felt exciting and new. It was fast paced, action packed, beautifully shot, I loved the practical effects, it recalls the franchises former glory, and I’m very excited to see what’s going to happen next in this series.  

                           I give “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” a strong 4 ½ stars out of 5. 

To Be Continued...

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