MOVIE REVIEW: Star Wars: The Force Awakens



The children that saw the original "Star Wars" trilogy over 30 years ago grew up wearing out VHS tapes and action figures bought by the loving adults that went with them.  Growing to high school or college age, they saw the Special Edition re-releases followed by the maligned prequels.  This very writer is one of those kids.  As of 2015, those first fans of children and adults have now become parents (well, maybe not these guys) and grandparents that have shared their love and joy to a second or even third generation.  For younger audiences today, they come at "Star Wars" secondhand.  Their world includes the prequels, the seasons of animated series follow-ups, and the many video games and other tie-ins.

No matter where today's "Star Wars" fans come from, all of them want the same thing out of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."  Everyone wants an inspired, entertaining, and compelling fantasy adventure.  They want a return of the emotions, wonder, and heartstrings that stirred and inspired their souls when they first encountered these science fiction fantasies.  With great pleasure and a nearly pitch perfect blend of innovation and reminiscence, J.J. Abrams promised, and now has delivered, all that anyone could hope for with "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

With the mountainous hype surrounding this film, telling you details about it would ruin the full breadth of the experience, and it is exactly that.  "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is an undeniable experience, an instant classic that will captivate even newcomers with soaring enjoyment.  There is a plot and it's assuredly not about trade politics and midi-chlorians.  The following tip-toed spread of bread crumbs is spoiler-free and it may be the shortest review this site ever writes to stay that way.  You deserve a pure experience.

The opening title crawl will tell you that since the defeat of the Empire at the Battle of Endor thirty years ago, a group called the First Order has filled the power void of oppression in the galaxy.  Moreover, rebellion hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last living Jedi, has vanished from the public eye for several years, pushing the heroic legends of yesterday into fading myth that few still believe.  Armed to the teeth with even larger ships, stronger weapons, and a more skilled army than before, the First Order is controlled from afar by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).  His top commanders are the militaristic General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), Stormtrooper officer Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), and the ruthless Dark Side Jedi Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  

Opposing the First Order is the fledgling Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), who has dispatched her top X-wing pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), to the desert junkyard planet of Jakku to follow a lead on Luke's possible location.  When Kylo Ren captures Poe, the pilot is able to stash the information in his droid, BB-8 (combined "voice" performances from Ben Schwartz and Bill Hader).  The rolling little beeper gets away and is found by Rey (Daisy Ridley, a star-making discovery), a self-sufficient young scrap scavenger.  Poe is able to escape the First Order's clutches through the help of a deserting Stormtrooper named Finn (newcomer John Boyega).  Soon enough, the good guys and the bad guys are both chasing our new faces, who run into old faces (take a guess), all with the same goal of finding the elusive Luke Skywalker.

New franchise steward J.J. Abrams was the right man for this job, plain and simple.  His creative choices are excellent, lead by two enormously wise decisions.  First, the casting of unknowns like Daisy Ridley and John Boyega was essential.  Equal to the effect of the original trilogy, you can invest in these breakout performances without predisposed opinions from other works.   Second, Abrams was wise to collaborate on this film's script with original trilogy co-writer Lawrence Kasdan and a polish from Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt ("Little Miss Sunshine," "Toy Story 3").  Together, the trio combines proper narrative anchors to existing endeared history with bold new directions and genuine surprises.  This isn't the J.J. Abrams that made "Lost" trying to mess with everyone.  This film has the right balance of denouement and unanswered questions.  There are intentional secrets, yes, but they are smart ones that plant seeds to future chapters to come.

Let's step back from the plot and marvel at the artistry on screen.  Using many physical locations spanning terrains and seasons, the production value, set design, costumes, and makeup are all off the charts and Oscar-worthy, just as they should be for this kind of blockbuster and franchise.  Abrams's "Star Trek" series cinematographer, Dan Mindel, puts everything into motion with daring camera movement and tones down the director's signature lens flares.  Mindel shot on 35mm film to better match the original trilogy and takes us through this film's palette and approach to use as many practical effects as possible to minimize the CGI.  The action sequences are thrillingly staged when Industrial Light and Magic does take over with special effects.  The improvements since the prequel trilogy a decade-and-change ago minimize the fakeness, making this film gorgeous to look at.  Fittingly, the presence of the master, John Williams, at age 83, composing a new musical score ties all of this creative beauty together with spirited new cues and themes.  

In the end, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" succeeds for every strand of its audience.  The doubters and haters will be put at ease with Abrams's superior delivery and can silence their rants about race, gender, and thematic offenses.  The super fans will find the gravitas and canonical world-building while they analyze and begin prognosticating the future.  The kids will see their toys come to life and gain worthy new idols.  Lastly, the casual fans will have a new entry point for a chance to fall in cinematic love with this universe with the rest of us.  Live and see this experience immediately!

LESSON #1: SONS BEARING THE SINS OF THEIR FATHERS-- This lesson has been a cardinal part of the entire "Star Wars" saga, in both the original trilogy and the prequels.  The guilt and sins shared between fathers and sons are sewn into this world's fabric.  That course gets new threads here in "The Force Awakens."

LESSON #2: THE POSITIVE INTERNAL URGE OF DOING THE RIGHT THING-- Our new main characters, Finn and Rey, are two young people possessing tremendous hearts weighted down by the dangers of their adverse conditions.  Finn has been bred since youth to be a killer that follows orders, but refuses to pull the trigger for evil.  Rey scavenges to eek out a living in a place where it's everyone for themselves.  Both have opportunities to better their life in selfish directions and both choose the path of greater good.  Both are compelled by their conscience.

LESSON #3: NOT RUNNING AWAY FROM YOUR DESTINY-- That greater good from Lesson #2 goes a step further with these characters.  They are facing destinies laid before them that they have never dreamed of.  As a shamed deserter, Finn is anxious to run away from being targeted by the First Order.  As an orphan hoping for her parents to return, Rey leans to staying in her squalid home rather that a greater cause.  Both have to decide how to approach destiny when it arrives.