It’s been 32 years since the release of the last “good” “Star Wars” film. “Return of the Jedi” had some goofy elements to it (Ewoks, Chewbacca’s Tarzan yell) but it also had a satisfying conclusion to the Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker storyline. It was a happy ending that most fans found satisfying. Then came “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” with an enormous amount of good will from fans excited to see how the story began. What we got was something akin to a civics lesson wrapped in economics class. While all three prequel films were economically successful, they had lost the joy and magic that made the original trilogy an anchor in American pop culture. With the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney and the announcement of a new trilogy plus extended universe films about a young Han Solo and others, fans were cautiously optimistic about the future of Star Wars. J.J. Abrams being announced as the director of Episode VII caused a bit of concern amongst those who weren’t fans of his work in the “Star Trek” big screen reboot; however, I can say those fears are ungrounded as Abrams has given fans of the original films a love letter that shows just how much he cares about the events of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Normally here is where I give a plot synopsis but not this time. I don’t want to spoil the experience for anyone wanting to see the film. Disney and Lucasfilm have done a spectacular job of keeping story leaks down to nearly nothing. With many films I’ll scour the internet looking for bits of plot information and while I read some articles that speculated on the story I didn’t dig real deep as I didn’t want my first viewing tainted by too much knowledge. This was a good choice on my part as I experienced “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” with a similar excitement as when I sat in a darkened theatre in 1977 waiting to see “Star Wars” for the first time. It wasn’t subtitled “A New Hope” since George Lucas had no idea he’d get to make more films in the series. I was 15 and my older brother took me to see the movie. This was a bit odd since he was 12 years older than me and wasn’t exactly my best pal.
This is an example of the power of “Star Wars.” While my brother and I were practically from different generations (I was in high school and he was a college graduate who had been married for a couple of years) we had a common interest in seeing this new space movie that was generating a great deal of buzz in a time way before the internet. We had both seen the news stories about lines forming around the block at theatres showing “Star Wars.” We often had to wait for movies to open in Knoxville, TN at least a couple of weeks after they were shown in bigger cities since the age of the 10-plus screen multiplex was a decade or so away. Leaving the film with my brother, I couldn’t wait to go see it again. I have a similar feeling about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
The best thing about this new film is the return of comradery between the various teams of characters: The characters of Rey, Finn, Han Solo and Chewbacca are written like they care for one another. That is something that couldn’t be said for any of the prequels. This might be considered a very, very minor spoiler; however, Han Solo is probably the lead character for the movie. He’s involved in a great deal of the action from about a third of the way in. It feels like no time has passed since the last time Han and Chewie were in a scrape they had to shoot and quip their way out of. The jokes are crisp and don’t distract from the story. The playful jabbing between Han and the younger characters also works in a way that doesn’t feel forced (pardon the expression).
Rey and Finn are obviously the new heroes for the next two films. Her backstory is still something of a mystery that will probably fuel internet rumor and speculation until Episode VIII is released in 2017. Rey are Finn are perfect “Star Wars” heroes in that they are far from perfect. Each has their fears and their weaknesses that will test them and trip them up from time to time. Kylo Ren is their Darth Vader. He has a history that was briefly touched on but I’m sure there are more layers yet to be uncovered and we know almost nothing about Supreme Leader Snoke. Watching these heroes and villains grow and battle is something I’m really looking forward to.
Another high point in the film is the visuals. A great deal was made about how the movie would use practical effects whenever possible. Those real effects show in the best way possible. The special effects look a little messy and dirty. This isn’t a criticism as the perfection of CGI, while impressive in the proper context, came off as cold and clinical (along with the script) in the prequels. Here, the ships, creatures, weapons, and sets all feel like solid, three dimensional creations. It’s the kind of throw-back filmmaking that I believe more producers and directors will rediscover. The flying scenes with ships dodging blaster bolts and other obstacles are amazing. There are even a couple of shots that reminded me of the original trilogy in their movement and composition. The various creatures seen throughout the film are also spectacular. Many are animatronic or are people in full costume. There is a section that reminded me of the Cantina scene in the original. The film is a sure bet for a special effects Academy Award nomination and will probably win.
There has been some criticism of the underuse of some characters and the lack of development of others. J.J. Abrams had a huge responsibility to give fans of the “Star Wars” universe a film that was both new and familiar. He had several new characters to introduce (as well as the original characters to work in) and an entire new story and, to some degree, new mythology to establish. That is a great deal of exposition and character progress to work into a two and a quarter hour movie. While I would have liked some more time with some of the old characters and a bit more information on what brought the story to this point, it cannot be overstated what a great job writers Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Ardnt did in bringing this franchise back to life after Episodes I-III nearly killed it. And for those that really want to know more, maybe we’ll get some movies exploring the years between “Return of the Jedi” and “The Force Awakens.” Granted, it’s unlikely but you never know.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence. Numerous stormtroopers are laser blasted. A couple of people are felled by light saber. A giant creature consumes a couple of people. There is also a scene of torture done using the Force. Foul language is limited to one or two very mild words.
Some things never change in a galaxy far, far away: Stormtroopers still can’t shoot, the Millennium Falcon will still break down at the worst possible time and the Kessel Run was still done in 12 parsecs. What also is unchanged is the feeling of pure joy watching this film caused in that it reminded me of how I felt after seeing the original “Star Wars.” It is a celebration and homecoming for those who love Episodes IV-VI as well as an introduction to the children and grandchildren of those first fans. The next two films in this trilogy will be written and directed by different people. I hope they have the same respect for the originals as J.J. Abrams obviously has.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” gets five very bright stars.
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This week, the Christmas sees the gift of four new releases. I see and review at least one of them.