STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
Review by Norman Kelsey
Stars: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley,
John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony
Director: J.J. Abrams
Audio: DTS 7.1 HD Master Audio
Video: Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Lucasfilm/Walt Disney
Features: See Review
Length: 136 minutes
Release Date: April 5, 2016
“People are counting on us! The galaxy is counting on us!”
“Solo, we’ll figure it out. We’ll use the Force.”
“That’s not how the Force works.”
May contain spoilers... from a certain point of view.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... an entire generation succumbed to a new mania based on lore that was spun from the mind of George Lucas, but as old as the oldest stories told by firelight: legends, quests, tales of daring, romance, comedies, and tragedies.
The good people at Walt Disney and Lucasfilm understood that since the dawn of the action figure, the story of the Star Wars universe has belonged to the Kenner generation and now their children. We all became griots acting out our own versions of what happened to the mythic characters of that galaxy far, far away. Naturally, it required a member of that tribe to successfully navigate audiences back into that familiar narrative. Director J.J. Abrams was a pre-teen when the original trilogy debuted in the 1970s. His installment, a.k.a. Episode 7 wonderfully embraces the screwball humor, the classical tragedy and the lived-in fantasy aesthetic of the movies this reviewer still refers to simply as Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.
You might say it all feels too familiar. If history repeats on our own planet (say, Western Europe in the early 20th century); why shouldn’t intergalactic history repeat? And facts are facts: the well-meaning Jedi Knights can never seem to sense the presence of true evil until it is too late apparently. Jedi Knights are not really good teachers. Apparently. Jedi Knights have a habit of getting contemplative and disappearing into the mists when things get tough. Oh, and the Star Wars universe is still littered with bad parenting. History does repeat; but cycles are also meant to be broken.
The MacGuffin is in the opening line of the movie’s signature crawl. “Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished.” Where can the story go? Anywhere. It’s a thrilling opening salvo for Abrams and company.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens picks up the saga thirty years after the events told in The Return of the Jedi. Were we to expect that all would end perfectly for our heroes in the Rebel Alliance following the destruction of the second Death Star? Is there ever any real peace after intergalactic war? The evil Empire regrouped and rebranded itself as the much hipper First Order; less inclined to strong arm than to simply gouge holes in entire solar systems.
The Alliance became the Resistance; another important change in name. They gained political ground, but not enough consolidated power to affect true change to bring their version of justice to the galaxy, even after winning. As usual, however, the real story of a great Star Wars film isn’t about war, politics or religion, but about the individuals on the fringe who may or may not have a larger impact on the events of history. Outsiders who have brushes with greatness or the formerly great who desire to fade out memory.
This episode chiefly follows the story of new heroes Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who has spent most of her life on an outer rim planet awaiting the return of a family who abandoned her; Finn (John Boyega), an AWOL Stormtrooper who was taken from a family he never knew; and a vintage Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the ultimate 1970’s anti-hero who was a surrogate father to that Kenner generation. These three, along with Han’s lovable Wookie second-mate Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and a new precocious droid named BB-8, have rip-roaring adventures, running from thugs, bugs and the First Order, right out of the original 1977 movie. This entire film is a figurative and literally passing of the lightsaber from one generation of Star Wars heroes to the next.
Then, there are the villains. Hiss and boo. We get two particularly greasy ones. General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Unlike previous Star Wars films, the heroes and villains all appear to be roughly the same age. Hux and Kylo are yin and yang, undermining each other on their way to the top of the evil ash heap. Hux with his jackboots and glowing eyes and Kylo Ren with his Darth Vader-hand-me-downs and vocoder. These two behave like they’ve been at each other since the sandbox. They suit the film and reflect the angst of our current time perfectly. Hux is all jingoistic hate-speech. Kylo is all Millennial id. In previous Star Wars movies, Kylo would simply have dispatched Hux with a flick of the wrist; that he doesn’t or can’t sets up what will hopefully be a nifty showdown between baddies in a future episode.
The gems of The Force Awakens are Driver and Ridley. This series has never had such a strong character as Rey (female or male). She is instantly likable, relatable and worthy of every whoop and cheer she gets from the audience. Kylo Ren, on the other hand, is as unlikable as a Star Wars character has ever been - for the right reasons. All credit to Driver for giving him dimension behind a dinged mask, a tattered cape and a, perhaps, shoddy lightsaber. They kinetically propel their scenes forward until they are finally face-to-face; and when they are on screen together, sparks fly. The ultimate ace up Abrams' sleeve, however, is Harrison Ford performing a “greatest hits” of Han Solo-isms that is worth the price of admission alone.
This is a Star Wars movie, so there are breathtaking acrobatic dogfights and amazing choreographed lightsaber duels, oddball aliens and portents, quotable lines and wonderful reunions with R2-D2, C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and Princess Leia (played with gravitas and grace by Carrie Fisher). And a John Williams signature score. There will be cliffhanging. There are also... issues. Family issues. You like the stories of Odysseus the hero in “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey?” Stop reading there; you won’t like how it ends for Odysseus the parent. But it’s part of the hero’s journey; while there is disturbing tragedy in The Force Awakens, nothing happens here in vain.
The closing scene of the movie is the opening of another chapter and will leave you wanting more time with these characters immediately. There are still two episodes to go to bring this part of the Star Wars saga to a conclusion. History repeats, but perhaps the galaxy will live happily ever after, after all.
Ever wanted to live in a galaxy far, far away. Drink this movie in. It looks ridiculously amazing. The rich deeps of space, the bright deserts of Jakku, the dueling lightsabers in flurries of snow. Utterly satisfying to watch.
Fantastic. Appropriately loud when it needs to be (the familiarly menacing roars of the twin ion engines approaching on a strafing run), astonishingly ambient and hushed when necessary (the whispers of long-ago Jedi Masters in a vision). Listen carefully. Is that Alec Guinness?
Only three and 1/2 because there was clearly enough passion for this project to do a feature-length commentary. That’s a miss. That said, the existing bonuses are wonderful. There are a half-dozen mini-docs (a highlight is “Building BB-8”), a half-dozen deleted scenes (one real stand-out featuring Kylo Ren) and a magnificent hour-long doc called “Secrets of The Force Awakens.” The featured documentary is a gift with insight from all the major players, including Abrams, Ford and several key masked performers whose faces finally get some screen time. They all recount from table read to finish the joy of delivering another Star Wars film to the giddy public.
As Ben Kenobi once said, “Let go...” Don’t deny yourself one of the great cinematic joyrides of the 21st century. There is no buzz like flying in the Millennium Falcon one more time.