Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

3.5/4

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill

Rated PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence

To me, "Star Wars" has been just movies.  Great movies, to be sure, but just movies.  I was never a die-hard fan.  I like George Lucas's tinkering with the original trilogy.  I love Episodes I, II, and III (in some ways, more than IV, V, and VI).  I don't hate the Ewoks.  I think that Jar Jar Binks is funny.  That's all they are though.  Just movies.

There.  Got that out of the way...

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens," easily the most anticipated movie of the year, does exactly what a sequel/reboot should do: take the core ideas, themes and characters of the original and move them forward while still honoring its roots.  Director J.J. Abrams has a lot of love for the franchise, and it shows.  However, it's sufficiently different enough that it doesn't feel like adulation.  Arguably the film's most impressive achievement is that it he finds the right balance between individuality and reverence.  It's not perfect in this respect, but the original six movies aren't so closely imitated that it feels like a wannabe.

30 years after the fall of the Empire, a new threat has risen.  The First order, led by Kylo Ren (Driver), seeks to do what the Empire could not (for very long), and they do so with enough gusto to make the Empire look like the aforementioned Ewoks.

Of course, there is a resistance, led by the now General Leia (Fisher).  A pilot for the resistance, named Poe Dameron (Isaac), is bringing them a droid with the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Hamill), who has been missing for years.  But he is captured and after escaping with a defecting stormtrooper he dubs "Finn" (Boyega), they are shot down and Poe is feared dead.  Now Finn, with the help of a local named Rey (Ridley) and Han Solo (Ford), they set off to find the resistance, and Luke Skywalker, with the First Order right on their tail.

Unlike the previous films, which did not boast acting as one of their most positive qualities, "The Force Awakens" boasts strong performances.  Newcomer Daisy Ridley is delightful, playing her character with heart, passion and a touch of vulnerability.  I can't wait to see what's in store for her.  John Boyega is good, but nowhere near as interesting as Rey or Poe.  While Rey is the central character, Poe is only on-screen for a handful of scenes.  Harrison Ford slides easily back into his role, but Carrie Fisher is slightly less successful.  And I'm not going to say anything about Mark Hamill that anyone with access to the internet doesn't already know: he does appear in the film.  Adam Driver gives depth and turmoil to the role of the main villain.  Kylo Ren is a vicious and formidable foe.  As is Domhnall Gleeson, who plays his right hand man, General Hux.

"The Force Awakens" provides plenty of fan service, nut not so much that it forgets to move the story forward.  Many remakes, reboots and sequels are too afraid of disappointing fans or hold too much reverence for the source material to carve out a new identity (most of the tween sci-fi/fantasy franchises fall into this category).  Not so here.  "The Force Awakens" is very much its own movie.  Mostly for the better.

J.J. Abrams is in many ways trying to emulate George Lucas, and he's moderately successful.  He uses a lot of Lucas's trademark editing techniques (screen wipes, iris cuts, etc.) and some of the screen shots and creatures seem to have been lifted right out of Lucas's mind (and for all I know, probably were).  But in other respects, he comes up short.  Abrams and his usual cinematographer Dan Mindel favor darkness and tight camera lengths.  It makes the film less of a spectacle, and in the case of the former, far less innocent and optimistic.  Finally, there's some contemporary-style humor that, while occasionally funny, doesn't really fit in a "Star Wars" movie.  In this respect (and in many others), the "Star Wars" movies have always been affectionately corny so fast-talking, energetic humor feels out-of-place.  Finally, Abrams simply lacks the visual creativity of George Lucas.  No one does visuals like him, and Abrams proves that.

That said, it's still a lot of fun.  The story is engaging and moves at a brisk pace, the action scenes, while not on par with Lucas's work, are well-executed.  There's also a stand-off that crackles with unbearable tension, and Abrams manages to blindside us with a couple of neat twists.  And for once, the 3-D is an asset.

"Star Wars" is back in a big way, and I couldn't be happier.

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