Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

4 May


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Yes, I know I’m late in reviewing this one. But hey, better late than never, right? And I’m actually glad I’m reviewing this movie now that I’ve seen it a third time, because even though I enjoyed the film the first time I saw it, I found myself enjoying it more and more the second and third viewings.

“The Force Awakens,” the seventh episode in the “Star Wars” universe, is a return to greatness in the franchise, nearly 40 years after the release of the original “Star Wars” (now known to us all as “Episode IV: A New Hope”). Since then, there has been an excellent sequel (“The Empire Strikes Back”), a passable conclusion to the trilogy (“Return of the Jedi”), two major disappointments disguised as prequels (“The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones”), one watchable prequel (“Revenge of the Sith”), and an animated TV series (“The Clone Wars”), all with an enormous fan base surrounding it all, making the franchise a monster of fandom, merchandising, all that good stuff. Now comes “The Force Awakens,” a joyous, thrilling, riveting, awesome space-opera thrill-ride that I have no shame in calling my third-favorite “Star Wars” adventure, behind “The Empire Strikes Back” and “A New Hope.”

Actually, considering the downward spiral the franchise has turned into, I think “A New Hope” would have been a more appropriate subtitle for this episode!

“The Force Awakens” could be titled “Star Wars: The Next Generation.” The characters we’re familiar with, such as Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels), and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), are more like supporting players to the new key characters in this new story—Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)…well, I won’t give anything about him away here. The new characters include heroes such as a defective, rebelling Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega), a young scavenger-turned-heroine named Rey (Daisy Ridley), and a wisecracking Resistance pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), as well as new villains, such as the imposing Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his second-in-command General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson).

The story: 30 years after the events of “Return of the Jedi,” a new evil galactic military organization known as the First Order is terrorizing the galaxy. Resistance fighter/pilot Poe Dameron and his cute little droid, named BB-8, hold the key to the future of the rebellion: a map to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, who may be the last great hope. BB-8 escapes with the knowledge, but Poe is captured by the First Order. Fortunately, one of the Stormtroopers, Finn, has developed a conscience and decides to escape and help Poe. He ends up on the junkyard wasteland planet of Jakku, where BB-8 also happens to be, and they’re both found by Rey. Being of a new generation, Rey isn’t sure what to believe in and thinks Luke Skywalker and the Force are part of some mythology. But when she learns what knowledge BB-8 contains and that soldiers of the Dark Side will do anything to obtain it, she and Finn find themselves in a crazy adventure to find the Resistance. Along the way, they come across the old, wise Han Solo, the villainous Kylo Ren, and all kinds of strange beings and situations before playing a part in a plan to destroy the First Order’s new concepts for domination.

That’s as best as I can describe it without digging into spoiler territory (even though some of the plot details are practically memes now but I’ll still be nice for those who haven’t seen the film). And yeah, okay, obviously there are questions that can be asked, such as how this First Order came to be. But visually, “The Force Awakens” is so good at telling the story that I let them slide and just see if they might be answered in some way or another in later installments (which there are sure to be).

The new heroes are likable and well-developed (for the most part). Finn, played brilliantly by John Boyega (who I also loved in “Attack the Block”), reacts to many of these crazy “Star Wars”-ish situations the same way I think most people would, and as a result, he has the funniest lines. Rey is a strong, plucky, resourceful heroine. Poe hasn’t had much time to shine yet, but…eh, maybe in Episode VIII. And BB-8 is a cute little toy—er, I mean, droid. The villains are either complex, intimidating, or both. The more you know about Kylo Ren, who sports an attire much like Darth Vader originally did, the less you’re intimidated by him, but fortunately, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He’s a three-dimensional villain, in ways I won’t give away here, and I’m interested to see where his story goes in later installments. The one who is consistently intimidating throughout the film is General Hux, who reminds me of Adolf Hitler in a sense, particularly when he addresses a crowd. And it’s nice to see the old heroes again. The closest one of the old characters to play a crucial part is Han. It’s good to see Han fly the Millennium Falcon again, interact with Leia and Chewy, and crack some more one-liners, but you can also tell the character has aged mentally as well as physically. In addition to good writing, the subtleties in Ford’s performance make this character more complex than before. And even when his resolution is pretty predictable (which everyone in the audience I saw it with seemed to agree on), it’s still heartbreaking because of who he was, who he is, and who he has become, which is a real hero. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

The director is J.J. Abrams, who I think outdoes himself here, as much as I enjoy “Mission: Impossible III,” “Star Trek,” and “Super 8.” For one thing, there aren’t many noticeable lens flares (rim-shot). For another, the pacing is excellent. For another, the action is very impressive. And he also co-wrote the script with Lawrence Kasdan, who originally penned the great “The Empire Strikes Back,” and the best part about the writing is the humor—I’m so relieved that this big, bombastic sci-fi adventure had developed a sense of humor. This is one of those rare instances in which the comic relief serves the story as well as make audiences laugh. I feel like with this film and “The Martian,” we are approaching an era in which filmmakers don’t have to take their epic stories so seriously that they’re not fun.

“The Force Awakens” is the start of a new trilogy of “Star Wars” films (Episode VIII will be directed by Rian Johnston, and Episode IX by “Jurassic World’s” Colin Trevorow). I’m excited to see where the franchise continues to go in this direction. Here’s hoping this is the start of something new and something improved.

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