Movie Review: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" a Rousing Return to Form

- (Note: This review contains minor spoilers)

So, as you may have heard, ‘Star Wars” is back. Following a multibillion-dollar deal that put the franchise in Disney’s hands and creator George Lucas in retirement, the mythology of the galaxy far, far away has been revived.

In the hands of director J.J. Abrams, it’s an almost entirely successful revival.

“The Force Awakens” brings back the “big three” of the original trilogy- Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia and, with the meatiest and most significant role, Harrison Ford as Han Solo. Along with such nonhuman stalwarts as Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO, we’re also introduced to several new characters that seem likely to drive the action in future films: Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, Oscar Isaac as pilot Poe Dameron and Adam Driver as Darth Vader-loving baddie Kylo Ren, and the new movie’s real breakout character, rolling robot BB-8.

So what works here? It really comes close to the spirit of the original Star Wars trilogy. It gets what was great about them and mostly succeeds in recapturing the feeling. The look is great. The filmmaking is clear and makes sense. There are three or four moments of astonishing beauty and three or four more that will make you want to cheer.  And the story holds up on its own, as something other than pure fan service (not that there isn’t fan service galore- there sure is.)

And yes, in case you were wondering, “Force Awakens” leaves out almost everything everyone hated about the prequels.  There’s no Jar Jar Binks or anyone like him. There’s no politics- in fact, the current power positions and standing of the Empire and Republic are relegated to a line or two of dialogue. The casting of the new characters is perfect- not a Hayden Christiansen among them. The dialogue is non-cringeworthy. It’s even funny.

But the biggest difference of all is, the look is significantly scaled down. For as long as the characters are on a planet and not in space, there isn’t $200 million worth of computer graphics on screen in every shot. “Force Awakens” continues the trend in action filmmaking, as best exemplified in another decades-later reboot, Mad Max: Fury Road,” towards wringing all kinds of awesomeness out of practical effects.

Daisy Ridley, the almost completely unknown 23-year-old British actress, is the true revelation of the film as  the character who’s in just about every way the centerpiece of the film, and probably the next two films. Boyega, from the English film Attack the Block, isn’t far behind. And let’s just say the first time I saw Adam Driver, shirtless opposite Lena Dunham on Girls, I certainly wasn’t expecting to believe him, four years later, as a plausible heir to Darth Vader.

The one negative thing I can say about “Force Awakens”- aside from the truly head-scratching presence of the villain mentor who’s a knockoff of Voldemort- it’s this: The film lives up to the legacy of the original trilogy, but it doesn’t quite transcend it in a way that, say, Creed did. Creed took the inspiration of the Rocky series and turned it into a completely different kind of great movie, in a way that “Force Awakens” doesn’t.

That said, yes, of course  The Force Awakens is better than any of the prequels. It’s a considerable improvement over both of Abrams’ Star Trek movies. And yes, it’s a worthy entry in the Star Wars canon itself. Let’s hope that we can say the same about the next ten movies in the next ten years.

 

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