Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review

(3.5 STARS)

“It’s good.”

“I need more than that, buddy.”

“It’s enjoyable.”

“OK, that’s a start.”

That was a conversation I had with my 12-year-old brother-in-law immediately following our viewing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He wanted to help me craft my review.

They’re simple adjectives but also perfectly appropriate for the film at hand. Episode VII is good and enjoyable in a way no Star Wars film has been in more than 30 years. That’s the story here. That’s the bar that absolutely needed to be cleared. Check.

It’s gravy that The Force Awakens clears that bar with some air to spare — totally unnecessary but wonderfully satisfying for the gluttonous fans who’ve waited to immerse themselves in this world again. What could have been a generic reset for a series that mostly rested on decades-old laurels instead works hard to shed itself of its roots — introducing us to new men and women, creatures and droids who’ll be our (and our children’s) new heroes, villains, and friends. Like Creed, it might not seem like a monumental film achievement on the surface, but underestimate what director J.J. Abrams and his team have done at your own risk, for The Force Awakens is both very good and very enjoyable.

The film begins exactly as you’d expect with an opening crawl that bridges some big-picture gaps between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. (Continue reading at your own peril. I’ll avoid major plot spoilers, but those looking for a completely fresh experience should leave now and come back. I won’t be too mad.)

The Empire has fallen, but in its place is something called The First Order — basically the Empire but without formal control over the Republic and its systems. Yet. Its reach is long and its power seemingly unlimited as the forces of good — the Resistance, under the command of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) — struggle to mount a sufficient opposition without the help of the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).

Working in secret to find Skywalker, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is dispatched to the desert planet Jakku to obtain a map to his whereabouts. While there, he’s captured by The First Order’s Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), powerful apprentice to the Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), but he entrusts the essential information to his crafty droid, BB-8. Eventually, Poe escapes the Order’s clutches thanks to a stormtrooper with a conscience, Finn (John Boyega), and BB-8 finds safety in the company of a resourceful scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) — two individuals who have nothing to do with the Resistance but who demonstrate some amazing abilities to fly, shoot, fight, and get out of trouble at precisely the right moments, almost as if some invisible power was guiding them, waiting to be tapped into…

The Force Awakens hitches its wagon to both Rey and Finn in a big way, and it’s such an encouraging and surprising step forward for a major film franchise in an era dominated by nostalgia. I mean, here is a studio — and a decidedly risk-averse director — making a sequel to a 32-year-old film, and maybe four of its five most heart-stopping or heart-warming moments exclusively involve these new faces (which is saying nothing, yet, of Ren, the delightful BB-8, or Queen Lupita Nyong’o’s wonderful Maz Kanata). Ridley and Boyega, both relative newcomers, exhibit extraordinary chemistry as well as the wide-eyed wonder of being thrust into this massive intergalactic battle — something that allows us to relate to them from their first moments on the screen.

As far as villains go, Ren isn’t Darth Vader. He’s meant to be, and his outfit doesn’t help, but give Adam Driver credit for infusing him with a different kind of evil. By the film’s conclusion, you’ll be as afraid of him as you were Vader as a child, even if he isn’t capable of the same things as film’s most famous baddie. Meanwhile, Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux is the public face for this evil organization, and Snoke towers over all of them — physically and psychologically. He doesn’t have a ton to do, but what we do see suggests future effectiveness.

It’s also truly wonderful to reconnect with old friends, and on that front, The Force Awakens doesn’t disappoint at all. Han (Harrison Ford, wonderful) and Chewbacca are more present than Leia, Luke, R2, and C3PO, but all get their respective moments, no matter how brief or consequential.

Abrams isn’t a guy known for truly memorable set pieces — the Chesapeake Bay sequence in MI:3 excepted — and by and large, that proves true here. The Force Awakens certainly looks slicker than any Star Wars film to date, which works for it considering its quick dialogue, but outside the first new go-around in the Millennium Falcon, the nondescript nature of the action scenes is one of The Force Awakens’ few drawbacks.

The film also does a poor job of truly bringing us up to speed between films. And maybe that was by disguise, as it pretty much resets the political situation of the original Star Wars — dominant bad guys, plucky underdog heroes fighting for the galaxy’s freedom, really powerful weapon capable of destroying planets — but it could have and probably should have been disguised better. We end up going from Star Wars’ “Death Star” to Return of the Jedi’s “even bigger Death Star” to The Force Awakens’ “even bigger Star Killer,” and it all feels sloppy and uninteresting going into this film’s final act. Still, it manages to pull off a moment that will take your breath away for three solid, uninterrupted minutes, so as the color started to come back to my face, I was already forgiving the disappointingly facile plot machinations that got us there and carried us home.

I can’t really imagine this film not satisfying its many, MANY viewers on some base level, unless Star Wars really isn’t their thing. I fell for The Force Awakens hook, line, and sinker. It’s easily the best thing Abrams has ever done, and with Rian Johnson in tow for Episode VIII, I see no reason why these films won’t continue to be very good and very enjoyable.

Hello, bar. I see you’ve been raised considerably higher…

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  1. Pingback: Reviews: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) – Online Film Critics Society

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