Wednesday, December 23, 2015


(US - 2015)

Directed by J.J. Abrams. Written by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt. Cast: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Max von Sydow, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie, Joonas Suotamo, Simon Pegg, Pip Torrens, Kiran Shah, Greg Grunberg, Kenny Baker, Warwick Davis, Ken Leung, Iko Uwais, Harriet Walter, Thomas Brodie-Sangster. (PG-13, 135 mins)

Picking up the STAR WARS saga a decade after the mixed-bag prequel trilogy, fan expectations were high with franchise overlord George Lucas removing himself from the equation and Episode VII being handed to polarizing director and lens flare enthusiast J.J. Abrams. Abrams himself is coming off a career nadir with the abysmal STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, a film that everyone loved until they actually saw it. Taking place 30 or so years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS brings together two protagonists--lone warrior/scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), from the desert planet Jakku, and morally-conflicted Stormtrooper FN-2187, or "Finn" (ATTACK THE BLOCK's John Boyega)--and a rolling droid called BB-8, who has an important piece of a map in his possession, placed there by Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (EX MACHINA's Oscar Isaac). The Empire may have fallen after the destruction of the second Death Star, but The First Order has risen in its place, overseen by the nefarious, masked Kylo Ren (GIRLS' Adam Driver) and ambitious General Hux (Isaac's EX MACHINA co-star Domnhall Gleeson, channeling Peter Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin), who work at the behest of Supreme Leader Snoke (motion-captured Andy Serkis). The map contains the key to the whereabouts of the long-missing Luke Skywalker, and with Kylo Ren's Stormtroopers in pursuit, Rey, Finn, and BB-8 commandeer a junked Millennium Falcon and cross paths with none other than Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew in some closeups, but played mostly by stuntman Joonas Suotamo due to 71-year-old Mayhew's disabling knee issues), who are surprised to find their old ship. As the hunt for BB-8 intensifies, the heroes end up joining the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), who's desperately searching for the whereabouts of her lost brother, Luke.

It's simply impossible to replicate the groundbreaking, game-changing phenomenon that was the original STAR WARS trilogy, which still stand among the most influential films ever made. It's clear that Abrams and co-scripters Michael Arndt (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE) and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK/RETURN OF THE JEDI co-writer Lawrence Kasdan (THE BIG CHILL) have molded THE FORCE AWAKENS as the "give the fans what they want" nostalgia trip. There's nothing wrong with that, but one must keep their expectations in check. It's filled with exciting action, fun performances, and lots of trips down Memory Lane to get a good sentimental streak going, but that's really all it does. It works for the most part, and you'd almost have to be a total dick to not get a big, stupid grin on your face over Han's and Chewbacca's first appearance 40 minutes in when they discover the Millennium Falcon ("Chewie...we're home!"). The same goes for the eventual appearances of Fisher's Leia (she and Han still harboring feelings for one another, and both feeling a sense of responsibility for the rise of The First Order), Anthony Daniels' C-3PO, and an offline R2-D2 (81-year-old Kenny Baker now credited as "R2-D2 Consultant"), who comes back to life late in the film to provide an important piece of the puzzle involving Luke's location. Mark Hamill returns as Luke--obviously to help set up what must be a larger role in Episode VIII--but don't be fooled by his second billing: there are Hitchcock cameos that last longer than Hamill's appearance in THE FORCE AWAKENS.

There's also a trip to a bar run by 1000-year-old pirate Maz Kanata (motion-captured by 12 YEARS A SLAVE's Lupita Nyong'o) that looks very similar to the legendary Mos Eisley Cantina, and there's numerous callbacks and parallels to previous saga plotlines, from Rey living in the hollowed remnants of an AT-AT Walker to a father-son confrontation that looks very similar to the Cloud City showdown between Luke and Darth Vader in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. The set-up itself is very similar to STAR WARS, with BB-8 carrying a crucial piece of information and teaming up with Rey, much like the circumstances that brought R2-D2 and Luke together. Franchise newcomers Boyega and Ridley acquit themselves well, particularly Ridley, whose fierce energy makes her an inspiring heroine worthy of becoming a next-gen Luke Skywalker. Once he removes the helmet, Driver is seriously miscast as the sulking, pouting Kylo Ren, and regardless of that being the intent with the character, it turns Kylo Ren into little more than a millennial Darth Vader with daddy issues. For those who saw the original trilogy when it was new, the real fun of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is seeing the old-school icons back in action. Even though only Han and Chewbacca get any significant screen time, it's great fun seeing them still doing what they do and bickering like an old married couple. Ford gets by on his legend alone, often delivering his dialogue with a "Look, Abrams...how much longer do I have to be here?" tone that sort-of works considering he's playing an older and even more cynical Han that gels rather well with the actor's grouchy persona. He gets a huge laugh out of fans when Rey says "You're the Han Solo?!  You made the Kessel Run in 14 parsecs!" to which Han angrily snaps "12 parsecs!" then, shaking his head and harumphing in incredulous disgust under his breath, "14..." Abrams and the writers lean heavily on that sense of established goodwill and unlike the prequel trilogy, it moves quickly, gets pretty much all of the exposition out of the way in the traditional opening crawl, and doesn't dawdle around with political machinations and trade federation debates or get bogged down with George Lucas' complete post-JEDI inability to grasp human interaction. There have been some analogies made comparing this to a long-floundering classic rock band getting a few original members back together for a new album and going on a tour to play one song from it while the rest of the set is all the beloved hits from the past. That perfectly describes STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS: it's the real thing, it's got enough of the key components, it's fun while you're watching it and maybe you love it now because you really don't like the prequels and this gives you everything you want. But when the dust on Jakku settles, is it really going to hold up against the original trilogy?

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