Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) - A 100% Spoiler-Free Review

There's good news and bad news Star Wars fans.

Good news?  This is the Star Wars film you've been looking for.

Bad news?  We've got to wait until 2017 to see what happens next!

In 1999, at the height of the hype and excitement for Episode I:  The Phantom Menace, I'll never forget leaving the midnight screening that we had (at the last minute) at the theater I worked at.  Leaving work that night, I tried so hard to convince myself that it was a good movie and that I enjoyed it.  With the next two films in the prequel trilogy, I felt the same way then, though the last 40 or so minutes of Episode III:  Revenge of the Sith (or at least when Anakin turns to the Dark Side and becomes Darth Vader) are pretty spot-on perfect and set up the classic, original trilogy.  

Time has been kind to the prequel trilogy though, as I revisited them all -- like most of you -- leading up to today's release of The Force Awakens.

As a kid, I vividly remember my dad relating information from an interview he'd seen or read about how, one day, there would be eventual Star Wars sequels with older versions of Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewie telling the story to a younger generation.  Images of my favorite characters with greyed hair and beards danced in my head as I daydreamed about what could be . . . 

That day has finally come.  And it is incredible!

JJ Abrams has done it...

It seems that I'm now at the target demographic age where film and television properties that I've held near and dear for most of my life are suddenly being mined for sequels, remade, and/or rebooted, often times with varying degrees of success; Indiana Jones and Rocky Balboa are two immediate characters who spring to mind.  The latter of which definitely succeeded with Rocky Balboa both taking a nostalgic trip down Memory Lane, but also capping what has been an incredible series of films and, of course, Creed starting the next chapter so magnificently!  

Where parts of the Star Wars prequel trilogy felt like they were created to sell toys or fill in story gaps, I'm happy to report that The Force Awakens feels natural and is certainly a welcome trip back to familiar territory!  Catching up with characters like Han Solo and Chewbacca pretty much made the movie for me.  Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew effortlessly slip back into their characters as if 33 years hasn't passed at all.  Their dialogue banter made me feel like a kid again, daydreaming of riding with them in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon!  

The same can be said for Carrie Fisher as well, returning as Leia.  Her relationship with Han Solo has been one that, ultimately felt realistic and The Force Awakens deals with it in a way that I've seen all too often in couples.  There's genuine onscreen chemistry between Ford and Fisher which is just as evident as it was in The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi

While revisiting the other six films lately, I've come to the realization that, next to Han Solo, my favorite Star Wars character is probably Chewbacca.  He's the family dog; loyal, lovable, and fierce when he needs to be to protect those he loves.  Seeing him and Han onscreen again (Chewie's extended cameo in Episode III:  Revenge of the Sith was all too brief for my tastes) connected with me in a way I can't really describe.  If it doesn't do the same for you, I'm sorry to hear that.  

Right in the goddamn Feels.
Obviously, there's the nostalgia factor that I'm sure detractors will look for some fault in, but it worked for me.  It didn't feel like a sly elbow to the ribs and a wink to say "See?  It's like the original!" as if to remind the audience of what used to be (and, as is often times the case with nostalgia for nostalgia's sake, recalls a most likely better film).  Again, it felt completely natural and made me yearn to see some of what happened in the 32 years since Return of the Jedi's finale!

Speaking of returning faces, seeing screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan's name back on the credits feels so right!  Kasdan famously penned The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, so the man can do no wrong in the hearts of many.  Kasdan, along with Abrams and Michael Arndt have crafted a story that continues one many of us have loved, while introducing new organic natural plot elements (and twists) that are perfectly at home in the Star Wars universe!  Well done sirs!

When The Force Awakens machine started rolling via the theatrical trailers and onslaught of new action figures and toys, I'll admit, I was skeptical of the new characters joining the story.  Call it post-prequel trilogy syndrome, where it felt like new characters -- with names too complicated to remember -- were only introduced to sell an action figure, I wasn't exactly thrilled about new friends joining my old friends.  Sure, Darth Maul looked cool and fought like a Sith champ, but his appearance in The Phantom Menace was too brief and I think he got swallowed up in the hype of that film's release. 

Kylo Ren is not Darth Maul.

Kylo Ren is a perfect successor to the villain role left vacant by Darth Vader!  During one sequence, he's even got some swagger about his walk that Vader himself often showed.  Even as a kid, I can't say that I was ever truly terrified by Darth Vader or hated him to the point of hissing and booing when he'd be onscreen, but I can definitely say Kylo Ren dances into those categories . . . he's one bad dude who has a lot of depth to his evilness.  And he looks cool, to boot!  Adam Driver takes on the role with gusto and is definitely a welcome addition to the Star Wars family as far as I'm concerned.

Adam Driver as the evil Kylo Ren.
Captain Phasma is a new addition to the villain roster that has seen its share of controversy, though I'm not sure why some people are up in arms.  Maybe it's the characters connection to the Phantasm series that won me over, but I think she's pretty cool and hope to see more of her.

Gwendoline Christie as new villain Captain Phasma.

On the Light Side of the Force, we're introduced to a trio of new heroes; the curious Rey, hotshot pilot Poe Dameron, and enigmatic Finn.  All three characters are played by actors who I'm relatively unfamiliar with (I've only seen John Boyega in Attack The Block), which was a nice surprise and made for a more believable world where the prequels had familiar faces pop up in support roles which was, at times, distracting. 

As Rey, Daisy Ridley rises to the challenge of maybe not necessarily carrying the entire film on her shoulders, but she'll definitely be a central part to the continuing story in the next two films.  There's an air of mystery to Rey that certainly had me craving for more and wanting to learn more about her.

Daisy Ridley as Rey.
Another new character that has already seen some unfair controversy of his own is Finn.  Attack The Block's John Boyega embodies Finn with a sense of realism and familiarity that I'm sure was evident in characters like Han Solo for audiences in 1977.  Again, there's some mystery to Finn and his back story which I hope is unfolded a bit in the coming films. 

John Boyega as Finn.

Perhaps my favorite new character, so far, is Poe Dameron. As played by Oscar Isaac, Poe is the sort of hotshot pilot and confident pilot that fits easily into the Star Wars universe.  He's as if Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Wedge Antilles were melded into one, perfect, heroic character.  I wouldn't mind having him in my corner if I was going up against the Dark Side of The Force!  Poe's scenes were easily some of my favorite; so much so that I wanted to reach into the screen and high-five him!  As with Rey and Finn, I look forward to seeing more of him in the coming films.

Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron.
It's easy to see kids today daydream of going on adventures with these three new heroes the same way we all did with Han, Chewie, and Luke.  

Also, on the droid side, there's BB-8.  Some may say his appearance is simply a toy commercial, but I have to disagree and say that he is just as lovable as R2-D2.  There's no denying that R2 and his banter with C-3PO have always felt a little Martin & Lewis or Abbott & Costello, so I was relieved that BB-8 doesn't try and impede on that relationship.  In a sense, BB-8 seems like a cute, little pet that everyone is going to want under their Christmas tree....but maybe that's just our culture right now and the abundance of hilarious animal videos and memes on the internet these days?  Either way, BB-8 is here to stay and I'm glad!

BB-8 as himself, a totally functioning, non-CGI droid!

The bottom line?  If you're a Star Wars fan, you will love this film.  It's great and has solid story-telling that ultimately caught me up and left me wanting more, in a good way!  You're able to catch up with pals you haven't seen in 30-odd years while at the same time meeting a bunch of new ones who will, no doubt, be lifelong friends!  

It's FUN and one hell of a ride.  Go see it!

May The Force be with you.  Always.

*Photos borrowed from