Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Now if there’s a movie that can draw me out of movie-review-retirement, it’s this movie—a new Star Wars film.  A movie done, maybe not perfectly spot-on to be in line with the original canon (the films between 1977 and 1983), but at least has the feel and believability to be a continuation of said films. 


Back in 1999, when the first prequel, The Phantom Menace, was released, I’d foolishly thought we were going to receive the same George Lucas magic we’d gotten two decades prior, so sure he was going to capture lightning in a bottle for a second trilogy go-round…but it wasn’t meant to be.  Sadly, those films were just boring political tales told between exciting accounts that were given to us in exposition by some of the characters (Where were those movies?!), leading up to the origin of Darth Vader.  Don’t get me wrong, some of the scenes and subplots of those films were exciting, but it just couldn’t make up for Jar Jar Binks in the first one, Anakin and Padme’s bad romance-novel love story in the second, or Darth Vader’s easy turn to the dark side in the last one.  We all had such high hopes for those prequel films, but they all fell flat, unfortunately.

George Lucas had always mentioned that he’d like to continue the story with a trilogy to follow Return of the Jedi, but I think most of the fans—myself included—kind of cringed at that idea, especially after the waste of film—well, digital film—that the prequels had been.  Yet, having Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher reprise their roles still sounded intriguing.  Some of the books I’d read and heard about had had Han and Leia marrying and having a child that grew to be trained as a Jedi, even some books revealing that Leia, herself, had learned to use the Force, excelling in lightsaber skills.  But as the actors aged quite a bit since the last 1983 film, I didn’t think it was possible to bring them all back, especially Harrison Ford who’d actually wanted the Han Solo character killed off back in the original trilogy.  At the time, the whole thing just seemed like a pipe dream…better just to live with my fond memories of A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

So back in 2012, there was a strange little news tidbit when it was reported that Disney bought Lucasfilm for a whopping $4 billion and soon after, announced that a new film was being planned.  A year after that, it was confirmed that the new film was to be helmed by J.J. Abrams (of “Alias,” “Lost,” and Cloverfield fame).  Being very impressed by his original films and how he was able to revive the Star Trek film series, I felt the Star Wars franchise was in great hands.  In the two years that followed, and being that we’re in the 21st century where it’s nearly impossible to keep anything a secret in Hollywood, set photos and videos were leaked, giving us a feel for what we were all going to get.  It looked great, seeing that Abrams was going the practical route and not choosing to have a CGI porn fest with the new film.

So, anyway, without much more backstory on how the film came to be, let me jump right into the synopsis of the film, Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens.

It seems as evil never truly dies as The First Order has risen after The Empire was defeated decades prior.  Led by the mysterious Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), their priority is to find the last of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and destroy him.  To counter this new threat, a new Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), fights to keep information of Skywalker’s whereabouts that they have in their possession as they get help from two unlikely heroes—Finn (John Boyega), a defected storm trooper from The First Order, and Rey (Daisy Ridley), a lowly scavenger from the planet Jakku.  But as the Resistance base is discovered, there isn’t much time as The First Order is preparing to destroy them with their newest and deadliest weapon on the Starkiller Base—a weapon hundreds of times the destructive power of the Death Star.  Will the Resistance be destroyed for good?

First off, I’ve just got to say…it was so weird to have a Star Wars film start without the familiar 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare.  It always seemed to go hand-in-hand whenever I watched one of the films.  So much so, that whenever I hear that intro music in any other movie, I instantly think that I’m about to watch a Star Wars flick.

Now…about The Force Awakens

The new characters introduced for these new generation Star Wars films, I felt they had held their own right from their introductions.  Unlike the prequels, where some of the characters grew on you—while many others did not—these new characters were written right and the actors were given good direction to make us like them instantly.

With Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), we see him as a Han Solo type, a bit of arrogance and showing no
humility or anxiety when coming up against an enemy.  I wish we’d had seen a bit more of him in this film, but being that this film had quite an ensemble, I can understand why and hope to see more of him in the sequels.  Right away, he’s likeable and we understand he’s a heroic figure as part of the Resistance.

Of course, who cannot like BB-8?  Obviously the R2-D2 for the millennials of the audience, it’s a cute little roly-poly robot that’s like a stray dog you can’t help but let tag along with you.  The character, as a droid, is surprisingly able to express some emotion and you can almost understand what it’s saying through its beeps and squawks.  I was even more amazed by its performance since I’d heard that the representation was done, not by CGI, but by a practical effect.  And I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it perform during video footage of a Star Wars panel at the San Diego Comic Convention. 

John Boyega’s character of Finn raised some eyebrows and even upset some diehard Star Wars fans when we first saw him in the teaser for this film.  I guess there was some backlash as to seeing a black man as a storm trooper.  Seeing the original trilogy, and trying to forget what I’d seen in the prequels, I’d never had an opinion on what race or gender was supposed to be under that white armor.  Why would this be a problem?  I’ll say this: this subplot of having a storm trooper with feelings, having misgivings about killing people in cold blood, was something I would’ve never foreseen.  I hope we get more of Finn’s backstory, maybe in flashbacks, about his journey to becoming a storm trooper.  Maybe it was just a throwaway scene, but I was curious as to whom that other storm trooper was that died in his arms and left the bloody streak on Finn’s helmet.  Maybe he still has friends that are storm troopers and we’ll see Finn be torn on what side to stay on.  But Boyega pulled off a good performance here.

Daisy Ridley turns out to be quite a strong character that seems to have a lot of backstory we won’t see for a while.  It’s interesting how the story plays her up to be Han and Leia’s daughter, how she achieves the proficiency of piloting a spacecraft and knows her mechanics, but ends up being a mystery.  But she’s never perceived as a damsel in distress, even when she’s in trouble.  To that effect, she’s never saved; instead she saves herself when captured.  And I like that mixture of her character, how she’s not overly feminist but is still tough when it’s called for.

Now, the big baddie, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is definitely shown as a force to be reckoned with, presented as a villain who seems to be more powerful than Darth Vader.  His masked persona and disguised voice gives him the shadowy appearance of someone you don’t want to mess with. 
However, later in the film, it appears he’s conflicted with his emotions involving his parentage which creates a problem for his allegiance to the dark side of the Force.  The arc of this character may seem a little quick and forced, but as with all the aspects of this film I have to look at it as a third of a story.  Hopefully we get to see more on how Kylo Ren came to be…as well as The First Order as a whole.

Now, some of the familiar faces are here—some blended in, some a little forced into the story.  Carrie Fisher’s Leia is back, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) have big parts as well, R2-D2 appears in sleep mode throughout most of the film, and good ol’ C3PO (Anthony Daniels) makes a cameo as well (the aforementioned forced-in character).

With all the performances, their dialogue sounds like it’s from the heart or off the top of their heads, not read from a cue card like the prequels seemed to be in comparison.  Abrams is not trying to produce a Shakespeare-in-space melodrama, he’s trying to continue the feel of the movies most of us grew up with.  So far in his career, he’s struck me as a man who can fill Spielberg’s shoes with ease.  I really never had any reservations about Abrams taking over for George Lucas and always thought it was best to let Lucas retire for good.  Some of the other directors mentioned as taking the reins for this film were a little scary (I won’t mention any names here), so I’ve always felt at ease with the announcement of Abrams.

Okay, now for a few of my critiques.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that I dislike this movie or have a huge problem with these characters or scenes I’m about to explain, they’re just certain aspects of the film that kind of irked me or took me out of it altogether…and don’t worry, there are only three of them that I’ll list right here.

First is the lightsaber duel between Finn and Kylo Ren.  From the moment we’re introduced to Kylo Ren, we see he has tremendous powers, even appearing stronger and more expanded than Darth Vader’s powers from the earlier films.  We see Ren stop a laser blast in midair and even extracting
information from other characters’ minds, so how would Finn be any match for him?  Through exposition we find out that Finn was born and raised to be a storm trooper, not even given a name but a label—FN-2187, so how is it he can use a lightsaber and go toe-to-toe with a being as powerful with the Force as Kylo Ren?

The second nitpick is another lightsaber duel, again with Kylo Ren, but this time with Rey.  It’s alluded to that she may have the Force strengthened within her, but in Star Wars lore, we all know that she still must have training in order to wield a Jedi’s weapon.  To top it off, she nearly defeats the villain—again, one trained with the dark side of the Force—in this scene, leaving me scratching my head.

My final criticism is with the representation of the Supreme Leader Snoke character (voiced and motion captured by Andy Serkis).  I’ve heard grumbles about the character’s gigantism, but totally understand that the character was projected as a hologram and know that it was done before in The Empire Strikes Back when the Emperor was projected in much the same way, so I can’t knock that.  My criticism falls on the rendering of the character.  The CGI seems dated and looks as if it was created during the beginning stages of computer imagery at the turn of the century.  With the rendering work on the latest Planet of the Apes movies (both featuring Serkis’s MoCap performances) and on the Hulk in both Avengers movies, I thought we’d get something in a Star Wars movie that’d blow us away.  Nevertheless, I would like to see more of this enigmatic villain.

Little touches that I noticed and loved was little details to show that this film is tied to the original trilogy.  For example, Abrams didn’t try to show any fancy technology within the ships, but instead showed us that the Falcon and X-wing fighters…and even the tie fighters still have those Atari-esque monitor read-outs.  The storm troopers, although a little updated in their armor design, is essentially what we’d seen in the original trilogy…and they’re not CGI clones (at least, I don’t think they are…and if they are, they don’t appear to be).  Although I had my reservations about Snoke’s depiction, most of the special effects look great and had me amazed during a lot of the scenes…the Millennium Falcon never looked so awesome!

Not really criticisms, but I wish we get more familiar scenes and planets (systems) in the upcoming films.  I would’ve loved to see at least one of them in this film, like Tatooine (which I thought we were seeing in the trailer).  But maybe we’ll return to it in the next one, or even Hoth or the forest moon of Endor…or Cloud City… 

Speaking of Cloud City, Billy Dee Williams has been on the record, not confirming that he’s going to reprise his role as Lando, but saying that he can’t talk about it, which leads me to believe we will see him again.  Apparently, he’s signed a nondisclosure agreement, so his return is probably in the works.  I mean, can you imagine Lando meeting Rey for the first time, saying, “Hello, what have we here?” in that smooth Colt 45 voice?

I can probably go on and on about this film, quibbling and discussing to my heart’s content.  I’m sure I’ll think of one thing or another that I’d forgotten to mention on this review after posting, but I think you get all the points I’ve presented here and see where I fall on my opinion of the film.  So, without further ado, here’s my final “bit” on Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens:

Overall, a great film—probably the best I’ve seen in 2015—and it’s definitely on par with the original trilogy.  Its only setback is that there’s such a long time between Return of the Jedi and this one that you really can’t say that the sequel comes in seamlessly.  It’s certainly nice to see some of the original cast again and wish they’d have played a bigger part or made sure to stick around for the sequel.  By the way the film ends, maybe I’ll get my wish in the next film, but this is by far better than any of the prequels.  I loved a lot of the sprawling scenes featured in this movie that we’ve never seen in previous Star Wars films.  Some examples: The First Order’s rows upon rows of storm troopers as General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) addresses them, the Starkiller Base’s weapon sucking in the sun and discharging its gargantuan blast to destroy the targeted planets, the Millennium Falcon flying above the sands and through the downed destroyer ship carcass, the primitive—yet crude—lightsaber Kylo Ren wields…all such great sci-fi eye candy.  I plan on taking in another viewing or two and will definitely add this to my Blu-Ray collection once it’s released.  If you’re a Star Wars fan, I know you’ve seen this already, so I don’t need to tell you to get out there and watch it.  But if you’ve never seen one of these films, you need to start with the ’77 film, watch the two sequels to that, ignore the prequels, and jump right into The Force Awakens.

Well, thanks for reading and May the Force Be With You!