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Monday, December 28, 2015

Review: Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015): Written by Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt, and directed by J. J. Abrams.  Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fischer, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, and Domhnall Gleeson.  Running Time: 135 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            Okay, here’s the short version- it’s very good.  More than good, it’s damn near great, easily the best movie yet with Abrams’ name attached to it (thanks in no small part to an absence of his usually ubiquitous lens flare).  It takes the best in technical improvements that we got from the prequels but sticks to the main formula that made the originals so great, specifically focusing on well-written, well-acted core characters to carry us through the larger, heavier plot swirling around them.  It’s not perfect- the action is mostly forgettable, and the larger story contains a number of huge holes and question marks that can’t be fully assessed or critiqued until the movies are all out and we know what, exactly, they are building up to with what they show us here- but as far as starting us off on a new round of exciting Star Wars adventures is concerned, it does its job.  I had immense fun watching it, I think most people that see it will too, and I am now even more psyched for the next two films than I was before, which is basically all the movie needed to accomplish in order to be deemed a success. 

            And from here on in, spoilers.  Spoilers spoilers spoilers spoilers.  I won’t reveal everything, but I am going to delve in pretty deep here and discuss at least one major event in the film, so if you haven’t seen it already, I will not warn you again.  For my money, it’s worth seeing cold. 

            So.  Some 40-odd years after the events of Return of the Jedi, our old gang has split up within a galaxy once again experiencing war.  The fanatical First Order is spreading its influence, determined to rebuild the Empire-That-Was, and they are opposed by both the New Republic and an internal resistance, led by Leia.  Luke Skywalker has disappeared entirely, with both sides desperately seeking him out.  Leia needs him back so that he can rebuild the Jedi in order to maintain balance (an earlier effort apparently ended in failure), and the First Order wishes to, what else, destroy him so as to remove any lingering threat of the Jedi rising again, all the while constructing yet-another massive superweapon, this one capable of destroying multiple planets at once. 

            These are the broad strokes of the plot, but much like with A New Hope (which this movie’s story structure apes almost wholesale), the larger details we get are light, and are clearly just pieces of build-up for the later films.  For this first installment, nearly all of the running time is devoted to letting us get to know (and love) our new trio of core characters; Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a hotshot pilot, Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper with the First Order who defects after an ordered village massacre in the beginning of the film opens his eyes, and Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger living on a desert world that is most certainly NOT Tatooine.  In a series of homages to the original trilogy (some pleasantly well-done, some overblown), the three come into contact through a series of apparently-random circumstances that can only be excused in the realm of mythical fantasy, and are later joined by none other than Han Solo himself, as they try to return a certain droid bearing certain key information to Leia and the Resistance before the new superweapon of the First Order is able to destroy their home base. 

            I know I am not alone in feeling this, but if there is one drawback to this new series, it is that it will be very difficult to separate them in my mind from the longer-running, more detailed, and better-established Expanded Universe that was only recently deemed by the Disney Gods to be non-canon.  I know, it’s a lost cause and there’s no going back, so just let this be my one written farewell to my long-suffering and ultimately futile hopes of ever seeing Grand Admiral Thrawn, Gilad Pellaeon, Mara Jade, Jaina Solo, or Corran Horn on the big screen. 

            Not that this trilogy starting its own timeline is a bad thing, but I did find the wholesale abandonment of the richness of the EU particularly frustrating with this movie because, if there is one main issue I have with it, it’s that what little information we do get about the larger events in the galaxy since Return of the Jedi leaves some gaping questions open about why, exactly, despite all that was sacrificed and achieved in the original films, we are (at least, so it seems) right back where we started in A New Hope; a desperately under-equipped and outnumbered Resistance is the only hope against an impossibly Nazi-esque group of bad guys, led by a red-saber-wielding Dark Jedi (Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren). 

            Was anything of good achieved in the interim period between movies?  How did Luke end up apparently making the exact same mistakes Yoda and Obi-Wan did?  Why is that Leia never developed her force powers, at least a bit?  When the First Order fires up their weapon and claim to have destroyed “the capital and the fleet” of the New Republic, does that mean that we actually just saw Coruscant go up in flames?  Are the handful of fighter pilots we see at the end REALLY all that the good guys have on their side now?  TOO MANY QUESTIONS, TOO FEW ANSWERS. 

            Now, obviously, this is by clear, Disney-committee design, to whet our appetite for the next few films, but it’s perhaps a bit too slavish in sticking to the New Hope formula; given the huge emotions people have wrapped up in the original trilogy, just a little bit more information on what happened over the past few decades would not have been amiss.  Then again, since this is Abrams we’re talking about, and I am still nursing scars from Into Darkness, I can’t (yet) dismiss the possibility that some of this was thought up by him for show without thinking through the larger implications.  

            However, as aggravating as I personally find these questions, it must be said that they only marginally detract from what is still an excellent film, thanks mostly to an incredible cast.  Boyega, Ridley, and Isaac acquit themselves wonderfully as our new trio of main characters.  Finn and Rey blend wonderfully with Han Solo and Chewbacca, which is particularly crucial as their scenes together take up much of the running time.  Even if the rest of the film had been absolute shit, I would still be looking forward to the rest of the series just to see if those two get through okay.  Oscar Isaac will, hopefully, FINALLY end up as the household name he deserves to be, as his Po is one of the most fun things on screen, a daring ace pilot who combines the best of what Han Solo was and what Anakin Skywalker should have been.  Driver’s Kylo Ren (and no, I won’t go into his background here just yet) intrigues me, but we haven’t seen enough of him yet for me to be really sold.  I think I see the idea behind his character, and am very interested to see what they do with it, but he needs to get fleshed out a bit more first before we can be certain there’s more to him than just his emo Twitter feed

            In the end, not much else can be said about this one without waiting to see how they build on this new foundation they’ve created.  As you’ve read, I have my issues and qualms with the story as it currently If this is only the jumping off point, and the real story weight and plot details are awaiting us in the next two movies, and the possibilities of Po, Rey, and Finn are fully realized, then this movie will stand the test of time and be remembered as the start of something special.  If not, it will be remembered as the start of just another franchise let-down that failed to live up to its potential. 

            Neither, of course, can be predicted with any certainly at this point though, so for now, let’s all just come together again and enjoy a new, raucously fun Star Wars adventure.  It’ll be a bit before the next one comes out, and until then it is on us to hold back either too-early celebratory hype or premature dismissal of this new series as another vapid and empty cash-grab.  After all, my friends, extremism of any flavor is the path to the Dark Side. 

            May the Force once again be with this franchise, at long last. 

-Noah Franc 

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