What might be the most highly anticipated film of the year, if not of all time, is finally upon us. Needless to say, after a ten year break from the big screen Star Wars makes a triumphant and worthy return to form with the The Force Awakens.
It’s been an incredibly wonderful and exciting road to follow this film’s journey since series creator George Lucas sold his beloved empire to Disney over three years ago. With J.J. Abrams in the director’s chair and co-writing the screenplay with Lawrence Kasdan (who also penned The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), plus Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill set to reprise their iconic roles, was there anything that didn’t raise expectations sky high? Fans have slept well knowing at worst, the new adventures in that galaxy far far away could not be any worse than the disappointing prequel trilogy.
While I didn’t expect the film to soar as high as Empire or have the cultural effect Star Wars did, I was quite content keeping my hopes that The Force Awakens would be on par or even better than Return of the Jedi. I still fondly remember waiting in line with my father for hours outside the RKO Keiths in Queens (when the term blockbuster literally meant that) as an eight year old in 1983. I doubt my young brain would have been able to comprehend that it would be 32 years before the further adventures of Han, Luke, Leia and Chewbacca would make it to movie theaters. That said, I feel Episode VII pretty much met my expectations in how it played out in the overall Star Wars scheme of things. Though truth be told, I’ll need to see it a few more times (and I will) to see exactly how it ultimately weighs in pound for pound.
Abrams’ “Mystery Box” shroud of secrecy surrounding the film has been both astonishing and commendable, especially in this day and age of rampant spoilers and the internet’s never ending quest to reveal any tidbit of info that becomes available. At the NYC press screening I attended last night, it was requested we not reveal important plot points in our reactions and reviews to keep the story an unspoiled exciting experience for the massive amounts of fans expected to crush every box office record in the next few weeks. That said, I will not go beyond any elements of the film that have not been put out there via the trailers and promotional spots.
Set three decades after Return of the Jedi‘s climatic Battle of Endor, it turns out the destruction of the second Death Star along with the defeat of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader did not give the galaxy the big happily ever after ending everyone expected. The exploits of the last known Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and all of what we know from the previous films are now considered the stuff of myth and legend. Skywalker has vanished, the evil First Order has risen from the ashes of the Galactic Empire, and the Resistance forces led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) are there to put up the good fight.
Finn (John Boyega), a disenchanted Stormtrooper, jumps the First Order regime and finds himself unwittingly immersed in a true hero’s journey after he crashes his TIE Fighter on Jakku and encounters the resourceful desert scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the astromech droid BB-8. Tasked with the safe passage of vital information into the hands of the Resistance leads them on an incredible quest that has them crossing paths with numerous old and new faces in the Star Wars universe.
The Force Awakens is full of narrative and visual call backs to 1977’s Star Wars, some more overt, if not surprising than others. Abrams and Kasdan went beyond conscious effort to successfully deliver a film that feels like Star Wars in every way possible while forging ahead at light speed with their own agenda.
Every moment with the old gang is worth the price of admission alone. Han Solo may be older and grumpier, but the years and miles have not made him any less charming and witty on the big screen. With Chewbacca at his side piloting the Millennium Falcon, it’s easy to feel like its something magical you’d never get to see again. Harrison Ford plays no small role in the film and really does an amazing job bridging the two generations of cast members. His scenes with Carrie Fisher as Leia bring the most weight in regards to the Original Trilogy, especially since there’s now over three decades of unexplored history between them.
While the film does use the prior adventures as a firm stepping off point, it doesn’t often dwell on them through gratuitous dialogue and exposition. While any movie-goer is better off knowing what transpired at least in Return of the Jedi, the script focuses on how the history affects the future. There is lot to see and comprehend, but its still manages to stand on its own, even if you’re not a Jedi Master of every single beat of the previous installments.
Abrams shows off his expected visual wizardry with confidence and flare here, and delivers above all an extraordinary entertaining adventure that will enthrall old and new fans alike. His reverence for the lore as a fan is apparent, but his skill as a director brings it home. He nonetheless prioritizes the need to move forward from planet to planet, set piece to set piece, rather than dwell for too long on the past. Naturally us older fans will always want more nostalgic cameos and callbacks to the legacy elements, but discussing that would spoiling some of the fun.
Along with a fair amount of humor, there is no shortages of dramatic twists and turns in the dense story, which moves along at a brisk pace so you have to keep up. It comfortably serves as the first chapter in a new saga rather than a pandering sequel to Return of the Jedi, and thankfully lacks any squirm in your seat moments and dialogue that plagued the prequels.
Keeping away from plot reveals here prohibit the inclusion of a lot of details, but the less one knows the better. Even by following the production from day one and crossing paths with more potential online spoilers than I ever wanted to, there was still much left to be surprised at and mesmerized by with The Force Awakens.
The film does give us perhaps too many modern versions of the Star Wars archetypes. We have a new rogue hotshot pilot in Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) provides us a masked red lightsaber wielding Darth Vader figure (who also happens to be literally obsessed with Darth Vader). Rey and Finn are the young heroes stepping up to fight for the greater good as we saw with Luke Skywalker. Chalk it up to homage or just the way the Star Wars universe ticks.
There are droids of course, and the rolling sphere BB-8 is a star in his own right. Let’s not leave out the aliens, thrilling dog fights between X-wing and TIE fighters, lightsabers, massive Star Destroyers and an exotic new creature cantina. It should also be noted the First Order Stormtroopers did not inherit the dismal aim of their predecessors. I can’t say the third iteration of a Death Star-esque super weapon (called Starkiller Base), which inevitably leads to a wealth of related plot point echoes that are too redundant to the series at this point, but Abrams morphs it all into this new era and ups the ante in regards to establish the First Order threat. There are also several very under used supporting characters, but there is only so much screen time you can divvy up with such a large cast.
Ridley, Boyega and Driver make a for a thrilling new lead trio. Finn as an ex-Stormtrooper seeking redemption offers us new eyes to look at the Star Wars saga. Boyega brings heroic charm and a surprising quick wit to the character. But it’s Ridley who is the shining star in the film. Bringing life to the mysterious character with humble beginnings who is suddenly uprooted and called to arms, Ridley exudes leading lady star power and takes charge as a kick ass pilot, cunning warrior and leader-in-the-making with still so much more left to explore down the line. There is an amazing dynamic between the two and there is little doubt these are heroes worth following and cheering for.
Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is a chilling complicated villain who wants to continue the dark Imperial duties of Darth Vader. There are enough differences between Ren and the iconic Dark Lord of the Sith once you get under the hood. Thankfully you can’t simply dismiss the latest masked villain as a Vader knock-off or the latest Sith apprentice.
The Force Awakens visually soars and that should surprise absolutely no one. Abrams’ penchant for lens flare is kept to a bare minimum and he easily captures the spirit of Star Wars with numerous homage shots. The welcome return to the heavy use of real sets and practical effects instantly make the film feel instantly and exponentially more tangible than the three prequels, which relied on excessive green screen backgrounds and computer generated characters.
Legendary composer John Williams returns to provide the score, and it wouldn’t be a Star Wars without him to provide the music to help set every scene in the film.
I’m extremely happy to say The Force Awakens is hands down the worthy new hope of the Star Wars universe we have been waiting for. Right now I place it comfortably along side Jedi, but does not top Empire or Star Wars. It’s a great kick ass kickstart to the series.
However, does it play it safe by re-tracing one too many familiar steps? Perhaps. But after ten years since Revenge of the Sith hit theaters, it definitely feels like we are finally getting the highly entertaining Star Wars adventures we’ve been missing. The Force Awakens is as much the long awaited worthy follow-up as it is a soft reboot of the series. With the return of legendary characters from the Original Trilogy and the introduction of an exciting new generation of heroes and villains, it’s time to begin this incredible magical new journey.
Han Solo really did say it all in the final shot of the first trailer: “Chewie, we’re home.” And yes, it’s really great to be back.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens everywhere in 2D, 3D and IMAX on December 18th.
REVIEW RATING: ★★★★★
Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac
Screenwriters: J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt
Studio: Lucasfilm / Disney
Running Time: 136 minutes