Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

It's finally here! Actually, it's been here for a couple of weeks now... but I wanted to try to review all of the other films in the Star Wars franchise before I got to the latest installment. Then, once I realized that wasn't going to happen, I just decided to review The Force Awakens before it was no longer relevant. Of course, that doesn't seem like it'll happen any time soon either, but I had to get my thoughts down while they were still somewhat fresh in my mind. As I'll get to in my other Star Wars reviews (eventually), I am a lifelong fan of this galaxy far, far away, to the point that I can't remember a time in my life where I haven't seen these films. Having shaped my childhood memories more than any other movie property, it should come at no surprise that my most anticipated film of this year was Episode VII. Really, I've been looking forward to this movie ever since the continuation of this saga became a reality when the purchase of Lucasfilm was announced three years ago. Like many others, I immediately began speculating wildly about where we would find these characters 30 years after Return of the Jedi, and it seemed a little surreal to be finally walking into the theater on opening night to actually see the finished product. As it's been a couple of weeks now, I'm not going to actively avoid anything that could be considered a SPOILER, so proceed at your own risk.

Luke Skywalker has vanished. Dispatched by General Leia Organa of the Resistance on a special mission to retrieve a map leading to the missing Jedi Knight, starfighter Poe Dameron takes his ball droid BB-8 (one of my favorite characters in the movie) to the desert world of Jakku to meet a mysterious man named Lor San Tekka, who has the map in his possession. Shortly after passing it to Poe, however, Lor San Tekka is killed by the sinister Kylo Ren, who lands on the planet moments later with a battalion of Stormtroopers in search of the map to Skywalker. Ren takes Poe into custody, not knowing that BB-8 is carrying the map. This ground assault is too much for one young trooper, however, as he flinches at the brutal killings of seemingly innocent bystanders all around him. Knowing that his refusal to carry out orders would lead to a severe punishment, he helps Poe escape captivity and the pair flee the starship, crash-landing on Jakku once more. Little do they know that a young woman with a secret past named Rey has found the ball droid, and has the skills needed to help them escape the pursuing Stormtroopers.

Wow, there is so much to talk about with this movie that I'm not even sure where to start! I guess I'll go through it chronologically... starting before the movie even began. Attendance at my theater was absolutely insane, like requiring police escorts insane. We had to go several blocks away just to find a parking spot, and the lobby was like a carnival. Star Wars banners hung from the ceilings, booths selling Star Wars items were stationed all over, and people in costume were everywhere. I was so paranoid about hearing spoilers from moviegoers who had just walked out of the theater that I stood as far away as possible and literally hummed the theme song to myself while my wife used the restroom. Thankfully, I was able to make it into the IMAX screening without hearing anything about the film I was about to see outside of the intentionally ambiguous trailers.

Everyone in my theater was primed for this movie, so much so that the moment the "Lucasfilm" title came on screen, we all cheered! I could hardly contain my excitement when the opening crawl scrolled up the massive screen - Luke Skywalker has vanished! - and I had a massive smile on my face from that moment on. The overwhelming feeling of everyone in attendance was that we were finally watching a Star Wars movie again... like, a real Star Wars movie. After thinking this was never going to happen, it was incredibly fun to experience the magic of this universe again in a movie theater. It's an experience I'll probably never forget, and I sincerely hope people aren't taking that for granted. We're probably never going to see a movie with that much anticipation again in our lifetimes. Soak it in, people!

Now, back to the movie... it was great! JJ Abrams absolutely nailed the look and feel of the galaxy far, far away, complete with practical effects and groundbreaking CGI married to perfection. John Williams came back as well to score the film, and it sounded like Star Wars again! His new themes for Rey and Kylo Ren are amazing, and I hope everyone gets to hear them blasting from huge speakers in a movie theater before it's too late. The Force Awakens is a brisk, expertly paced movie with moments of heart and humor perfectly counterbalancing the adrenaline and suspense. While this clearly has JJ's fingerprints all over this, it's also important to note how crucial the cast was in achieving this balance (under his direction, of course).

Oscar Isaac brings levity and charisma to the proceedings in the first five minutes, and Adam Driver is instantly menacing from the moment Kylo Ren walks on screen. His character has a lot more depth and complexity than we're used to with Star Wars villains, and it makes it that much more interesting as a result. John Boyega's rogue Stormtrooper Finn has a great mixture of insecurity and eagerness as well, but the standout is undeniably the newcomer Daisy Ridley as Rey. She has screen presence and acting chops to spare, and like her character, she shows incredible potential as she gains more experience. She's a strong female in a series that's mostly been dominated by boys, and she seems poised to effortlessly take over the entire franchise. But we also are welcoming back familiar faces like Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, both of whom bring their A-game as General Leia and Han Solo respectively. Ford, in particular delivers a spectacular performance reminiscent of the Han Solo of old. Who knew he still had that kind of fire in him?

Now, I haven't gone into the plot all that much, and that's intentional. It's not particularly groundbreaking, but the way in which they pull it off is surprisingly fresh. Many have complained that it's too close to A New Hope, but I would argue that it pulls elements from each film in the original trilogy while putting a new spin on it. We aren't searching for the Death Star plans (though we have a new Death Star), but the mcguffin in this film is actually character-driven. Everyone is searching for Luke Skywalker to tip the balance in this conflict between the First Order and the Resistance, and it represents an emotional journey for Rey as she accepts her destiny and seeks out the Jedi at long last. The plot isn't overbearing or convoluted, which is exactly what this movie needed. Reintroducing us to this story with so many new characters is complicated enough without a dense plot to keep track of as well. Ultimately, the right move was made to focus on characters over plot, and it's a decision that makes me even more excited for the explanations and explorations that are sure to come in later episodes.

There is way too much to talk about in one relatively spoiler-free review, so let me wrap up by saying that The Force Awakens is a thrilling, emotional, nostalgic, exhilarating, dazzling movie that will reward repeat viewings more than any other film this year. The twists and turns were handled with great care and respect, and I left the theater wishing I could immediately go into Episode VIII to see what happens next. JJ Abrams not only brought back the old characters, but introduced new characters that are possibly even more compelling! I cannot wait to see this movie again, and again, and again... Definitely go see this movie in theaters if you haven't already, and if you have GO SEE IT AGAIN! I loved this movie, and I'm giving it a solid four stars. Star Wars is back!

STAR WARS: EPISODE VII - THE FORCE AWAKENS is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence