Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
The anticipation among some quarters for J.J. Abrams's first entry into the continuation of the wildly popular "Star Wars" saga likely reached such a fever pitch prior to the film's opening this weekend that a letdown was likely in store for some. However, I'm glad to say that not only was I not disappointed in the first of the new trilogy - which picks up 30-some years after "Return of the Jedi" - but I wholeheartedly enjoyed it. It's the first blockbuster that I've genuinely cared about in some time and it's due to the film's intent to recapture some of the magic of George Lucas's groundbreaking original trilogy.

While we see some old familiar faces - Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) as well as R2-D2, C-3P0, Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nunb - much of the focus in "The Force Awakens" is on the newbies.

As the film opens, a hotshot pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is following a clue on a distant planet as to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has been missing for years after an attempt to train a new generation of Jedi went bust. Dameron is soon captured by the sinister Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who has a connection to some of the film's older characters that I wont spoil, but the pilot first manages to send off his small, roly-poly droid BB8 with the clue to Skywalker's locale.

BB8 is discovered by a spunky young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley, a genuine find) and she is soon joined by Finn (John Boyega), a former stormtrooper who deserted on the grounds that he wasn't down for massacring entire villages of people. After stealing the Millennium Falcon, the pair run into... well, take a guess.

In the years since "Jedi" ended, the rebels have become the Resistance and the Empire has become a fascistic outfit known as the First Order that is led by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), whose nefarious plans are carried out by Kylo Ren and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), a sniveling villain whose Nazi-esque speech to a massive crowd of stormtroopers is one of the film's few silly sequences.

Meanwhile, Leia wants to find her brother, whom she believes can bring peace to the galaxy and enlists Rey, who discovers she has some powers of her own, in the task. There are some tender moments when Ford's Han Solo reunites with Fisher and, later in the picture, at least one or two others that will likely leave a knot in your throat.

The visual effects are terrific and, for the most part, they feel more similar to Lucas's original trilogy, rather than the prequel trilogy, which relied heavily on CGI. There's a sequence in a bar involving Han Solo, a pirate voiced by Lupita Nyong'o and our young cast members that acts as a throwback to the iconic bar scene in the original "Star Wars" and I admired that so many characters appeared to be in costume, rather than created through digital wizardry.

It's been said that "The Force Awakens," in a sense, remakes the original "Star Wars" and, to an extent, that's true. Rey is partially Luke and Han Solo, while BB8 is R2-D2 and Finn and Poe are also sort of Han Solo. Kylo Ren is obviously Darth Vader and Snoke draws parallels to the Emperor. The bar scene, as I'd mentioned, harkens back to the original film and there's a standoff on a high beam that reminded me of Obi-Wan's fight against Darth Vader.

But while the sight of some familiar faces and plotlines that recall the original trilogy are present, the young cast members breathe new life into the series. Ridley is another great female heroine in a year full of them (Charlize Theron in "Mad Max" and Amy Poehler in "Inside Out," not to mention the great leads in "Brooklyn" and "Carol"), while Boyega displays deft comedic delivery and Driver is fairly menacing as the picture's villain.

And as for the familiar faces, it's great to see Ford step back into the shoes of Han Solo, one of the series' absolute best characters. Here, he plays a wiser, older Solo who can still toss out a one-liner with his characteristic smirk, but also reminds us why we loved the character so much all those years ago. By taking on the role once more, Ford gives one of his finer performances of recent years.

"The Force Awakens" is a very good start to this new series and the film's literal cliffhanger ending should provide a wealth of material when the second installment comes out in a few years. As I've gotten older, admittedly, blockbusters have held less appeal to me. Although there have been some good ones now and then, they typically fail to capture the magic of films such as the original "Star Wars" or "Indiana Jones" movies. But this one does and I'd highly recommend it.

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