Movie Review: Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens

star-wars-force-awakens-official-poster.jpgThe latest entry in the Star Wars universe is subtitled The Force Awakens.  But it could also easily have the subtitle Where’s Luke?

The driving force of the film is the search for Luke Skywalker.  Between the end of Return of the Jedi and the start of Force Awakens, Luke has gone missing, retreating from the galaxy.  Now with the new First Order trying to fill the void left by the Empire, the galaxy needs Luke and the light side of the force more than ever before.

J.J. Abram’s The Force Awakens walks a fine line between nostalgia and giving us new elements in a “galaxy far, far away.”  If you’ve seen the trailers or heard any of the casting news, you know that certain members of the original trilogy are back and that others cast a giant shadow over events unfolding.

Each of the original cast members slips easily back into their familiar and iconic roles and the script does each of them justice — even though it’s Han Solo and Chewie who get the most screen time of our original crew.  It’s an interesting contrast to the 1999’s The Phantom Menace where it felt like we were having familiar characters introduced simply to include them in the narrative rather than the characters serving an actual purpose in the story.

But it’s the new cast that works well also.  It’s a rag-tag group of orphans brought together to form a type of family.  From the best pilot the new rebellion has in Poe Dameron to stormtrooper gone rogue Finn to salvage collector Rey.   In many ways, it feels like the script for Awakens is trying to build its own, new version of Han/Luke/Leia.  And, for the most part, it succeeds.  Daisy Ridley as Rey is the highlight of the new good guys.  Scenes when she and new bad guy Kylo Ren square off are among the highlights of the film.

The script finds a nice balance point between homages to the past and tips of the hat to the original trilogy while still standing on its own to set things in motion for the next trilogy of films we’ll get over the next couple of years.

From this point forward, it’s difficult to talk much about the movie without giving away SPOILERS.  I’m going to put in a MORE jump here so if you don’t want to know, you won’t accidentally get spoiled.   

Homages to the past include a new ultimate weapon by the bad guys as well as a droid that the galaxy is searching for.  In this case, BB8 (another break-out star) has a map that will help us find where Luke has gone into exile.  Seems that in training a new generation of Jedi, Han and Leia’s son went over to the dark side, following in the footsteps of his grandfather. Luke decides to retreat from the universe and goes into exile, keeping his location hidden (though apparently leaving a map of where to find him behind).

There’s X-Wing battles with Tie-Fighters — this time within the atmosphere of a planet and in broad daylight. The Millennium Falcon is back (it’s how we get Han and Chewie into the film) and we also see some familiar droids as well.  One thing is consistent — C3P0 still knows how to awkwardly interrupt a moment between Han and Leia.

The storyline to take out the new ultimate weapon feels a bit like the taking out the Death Star did in Return of the Jedi — we’ve got a group on the ground trying to take down a shield before our fighters can attack and blow it up.  There’s a ticking clock to keep the tension going this time as the weapon powers up to eliminate the Resistance.

It’s interesting to note that Han and Leia’s son has gone over to the dark side, becoming the main adversary in the film Kylo Ren.  Adam Driver is well cast for the role and his relentless devotion to finishing what his grandfather (Darth Vader) started is fascinating.  Also of interest is a new corrupting force in the galaxy and a new big bad for our heroes to battle.

Having Harrison Ford back as Han Solo also highlights where the prequel trilogy stumbled a bit — it all got too earnest at times. Having Han and Chewy there to lighten the mood a bit helps things immensely and generates a pleasant chuckle when the film needs it most.   Well, that is until Han goes out to try and make his son see the error of his ways and pays the price for it.

Han’s death scene is easily the most moving moment of the film and came as a nice genuine surprise.   Fans may recall that Ford lobbied to have Han die in Jedi, but it didn’t come to pass.

There’s a lot to take in in The Force Awakens and a lot to like.  I was concerned before the film opened that J.J. Abrams is a director who gives us style over substance and after seeing Star Trek Into Darkness, I was concerned if he would be the right fit for the next segment of the Star Wars universe.  And while we got lots of Abrams quirks in the film (Greg Grunberg is on hand, of course), there is little if any lens flare to be seen and Abrams does well by his actors and the story.

After a single viewing, I would say that The Force Awaken easily slots into the top three or four of the Star Wars pantheon.  It doesn’t top A New Hope or Empire Strikes Back, but it does stand a bit above the prequels.  It may take a bit of time to let it all sink in and see where things go from here before I can give my final ranking.

But I will give the movie credit — just like at the end of Empire Strikes Back many, many years ago, I was left eager for more of the story, universe and characters.   And maybe that’s exactly what Abrams and company want….

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