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The Force is Wide Awake Now, After a Long Coma....

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******* STAR DESTROYER-SIZED SPOILERS ALL OVER THE PLACE!!! ********

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Ok, I've seen this movie 5 times now (!!) and it's safe to say I'm past 'opening night adrenaline' enough to give this Star Wars movie my honest opinion. I've been a Star Wars fan since the summer of 1977 when the first movie (not Episode I, the REAL first movie) blew my 10 year old mind; since that day, I've seen movies in two categories, pre and post-Star Wars. I see its influences (to this day) in almost every single blockbuster movie made in the last 38 years. Despite that initial blast of brilliance in 1977, Star Wars love has been a troubled thing for me. I love it, but I readily acknowledge that (as a franchise on the whole) it's far from perfect. My opinion of the movies is as follows; two damn-near perfect movies (the 1977 original movie and "The Empire Strikes Back"), two mediocre movies ("Return of the Jedi" "Revenge of the Sith") and two piss-poor ones ("The Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones"). Now along comes Episode VII. After three less-than-stellar prequels, this is the Star Wars movie I've waited 32 years for (or 35, since I consider "Empire" the last truly great SW movie).

Let me start by breaking this into two categories; stuff I loved, and stuff I didn't.

First, the stuff I loved about Episode VII:

* The new cast!
Daisy Ridley's "Rey", John Boyega's "Finn" and even Oscar Isaac's less-seen "Poe Dameron" are all terrific additions to the SW universe. These aren't the soulless, stiff, clothes-horse mannequins that populated the prequel universe; these are scrappy, humorous, warm, charismatic, flesh-and-blood human beings who hold their own with the original cast members seemingly without effort. This was, for me, the biggest surprise. I truly expected that when Harrison Ford swaggered onto the screen, he'd immediately blow the kids off of it with his scruffy roguish charm. But to my surprise, the kids more than held their own. In fact, I was so engaged in their stories that I almost forgot I'd be seeing Han, Chewie, Leia and even the droids later on in the movie. The original cast members round out the ensemble nicely (and it's a sentimental shot in the arm when each appears), but the new characters have more than enough charm and personality to carry the film. This is really Finn and Rey's film; we're seeing it through THEIR eyes, and with their energetic performances, it's like reliving it all over again for the first time. Like taking a kid trick or treating for the first time on Halloween; you almost can't help but vicariously relive the experience for yourself as well.

* Kylo Ren.
Upon first viewing, I enjoyed Adam Driver's 'unfinished' version of Darth Vader, but with each viewing I find him more and more complex and interesting. From his quieter, yet more emotional line delivery to his truly upsetting tantrums, he is less 'smooth' than his predecessor Darth Vader, which is ideal for this movie; this movie is about awakenings. Rey finds the force within her, and Ren further plunges his own soul into darkness. But neither is complete; both are yearning. Rey is awakening to a universe of possibilities outside her lonely, scavenger existence and Ren is about where Luke was in "Empire Strikes Back" if he'd turned to darkness instead of the light. And unlike the poorly acted/written Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd/Hayden Christensen) of the prequels, we are really allowed to feel Ren's conflict throughout that struggle. His face (unmasked) is a tumultuous field of seething emotion, struggling to contain itself when his mask is shed. He doesn't use his mask for life support as Vader did; he uses it to contain his own emotions. But when the mask is off, we see his own uncertainty when he feels 'pulled by the light'; especially when he confronts his father (Han Solo; yes, I warned you of spoilers, so deal.... hehe).

* BB-8.
This little droid is just about the coolest droid design I've seen in a long time; charming, cute and very functional. He looks like R2-D2 reimagined for the age of the smartphone and not the 8-track tape. And even more impressive that for much of his screen time, he is a REAL thing and not a CGI creation.

* Return of the old cast.
Yes, the prequels had R2D2 and recast versions of Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi, but it just wasn't the same as seeing the original actors back in the Millennium Falcon again. Even Chewbacca and the droids are back; the original droids are little more than cameos, but Chewie has more to do than ever. The original actors add so much to the proceedings; even if some of their screen time is deliberately limited (Mark Hamill's Luke, for example). Their presence goes a long way towards helping the movie FEEL like real Star Wars (it's all about the characters, stupid!). Harrison Ford's Han Solo is now the grizzled Rooster Cogburn from "True Grit" instead of the Gary Cooper-cowboy of the original trilogy. He takes Rey under his wing in a relationship that is almost identical to Cogburn and the headstrong teenage Mattie character from "True Grit." It's another classic movie homage (like Lucas' cribbing from the Kurosawa movies in the OT) that just feels so right when placed in a Star Wars context.

* Heavy use of practical sets, 70mm film and creature makeup/costumes.
It's immediately apparent in the Jakku (Rey's desert home) and Takodana (Maz's watering hole) sequences. You see creatures populate the screen that really FEEL like they're in that space, and not just a pair of ping pong balls on a stick in front of a green screen. The creatures and droids have weight and heft now; and aren't just eyelines drawn on a green screen for the actors to look upon. The movie is also, for the first time since "The Phantom Menace", shot on actual 70mm film instead of digital video (like the last two prequels). This helps to capture a bit more warmth and texture; adding to the gritty, 'lived-in universe' feel of the OT, far better than the synthetic digital video prequels did. TFA feels like an honest-to-goodness, smells-of-popcorn movie, and not a slick visual effects demo reel.

* The lightsaber duels.
A nice, welcome return to the more visceral, personal and bloody fighting style of the OT (mostly reminiscent of "Empire Strikes Back"). The prequel lightsaber duels were pretty, dazzlingly staged but ultimately hollow. They were ballet, not battle. Choreography instead of combat. Style over substance. The Jedi and Sith of the prequels could leap tall buildings and do amazing flips, twists and acrobatics, yes, but what was missing was the heart and the danger. In TFA, we see a half-trained dark knight and an untrained-but-powerful novice actually getting up close and personal with their sabers. The new saber battles are messy; they cut deep and they remind us just how dangerous these sabers could be if they were real. Ren's saber, much like his not-fully-formed dark side, is rough around the edges and unstable; like Ren himself. Rey's is a hand-me-down from "Empire" (Luke and Anakin's old blade). Together they are metaphors for a hero and villain who aren't fully formed yet, but on their way. Hero and villain, as the title implies, are both awakening; and their weapons and duels reflect that...

* The humor and dialogue.
For perhaps the first time in a SW film, the humor/dialogue feels very organic and natural. At times, it comes really close to 21st century-speak and I'm totally OK with that. It deflates some of the self-importance a bit. TFA's dialogue even (at times) pokes fun at the SW universe itself. And the energetic cast (new and veteran members) really dive into it. JJ Abrams is clearly an actor's director (and writer), even when he's making big action epics like TFA or Star Trek (2009). It helps that Michael Arndt, veteran SW writer Larry Kasdan (OT, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and JJ Abrams himself have far better ears for natural-sounding dialogue than did the too-insulated, tin-eared George Lucas.

* Han Solo's death.
For me, this gave the movie an emotional sharpness and a firmer spine that it would've otherwise had. Just as Obi Wan sacrificed himself to allow Luke and his friends to escape in 1977, Han is killed while reaching out to his lost son in a final act of parental love from a former cold-blooded mercenary/smuggler. It's a perfect ending for the character's arc (and a turning point for his son's), and I just f--king LOVED it. It is ballsy, horrific and full of gravitas.
It is the "I Am Your Father" moment of this movie.

* Far more diverse and truly colorblind casting.
For the first time ever, the faces in the SW universe much more accurately reflect the audience. In addition to John Boyega's colorblind casting as Finn, we also have Guatemalan-born Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron and MANY faces throughout the resistance who are many hues of the human race, and it just feels so much more....right. And I needn't mention that the lightsaber-wielding, scrappy, resourceful, force-sensitive hero ISN'T a male (!). The faces in the First Order, like the Empire that preceded it, are still largely 'evil white Brits' (hey, if it ain't broke.... hehe! I kid; I love me British mates), but the non-Anglo casting virtually everywhere else in the movie is refreshing in its lack of tokenism. It feels a bit more authentic. It's also notable in that it calls virtually no attention to itself. I (still) wish Star Trek could do this with gay characters someday....

* The pace.
The movie is two hours and change, but breezes by; especially on multiple viewings.


And now onto some of the things I was less-than-in-love with, and some of it I was still OK with (or at least understanding of):

* The biggest criticism I've heard so far (most recently from my own sister a week ago) was that TFA borrows a LOT of familiar beats from the 1977 original movie (and other bits from the original trilogy). Truth is, yes it does. It opens with a stormtrooper raid, a young force-sensitive person is taken from their desert home planet into galactic adventure, a droid is entrusted with a great secret, a new planet-killer threatens the galaxy, the villain kills the hero's mentor figure, and it all ends with a rousing space battle over in a race against time to destroy the planet killer. Yes, very similar beats indeed. Then again, so was 1999's "The Phantom Menace" (force-kid sprung from desert planet, dead mentor killed in climactic lightsaber duel, giant space battle finale, big final ceremony/celebration, etc).

What didn't bother me was the confidence and charm with which it was done THIS time, as opposed to when those same tropes were used in TPM and ROTJ.
And it is seen from the fresh eyes of the charming new characters. That alone makes all the difference to me. An all-new story is (to me) a tad less important than a familiar one dusted off and re-used to launch new characters into a new chapter of the franchise. TFA is less "New Hope"-ripoff and more like "Star Wars: The Next Generation." Familiar story, but told freshly and with heaping tablespoons of charm, character and fun. A complete 180 from the misguided, stilted, awkward prequels; which, at times, felt calculated to appeal to no one (too immature for adults, and too uninteresting for little children). After the failings of the prequel trilogy, this was a time for something familiar and soothing (and workable), so even the lack of a truly original story didn't bother me as much as it would've (or should've?) under differing circumstances. Disney invested $4 billion in acquiring Lucasfilm, so it's understandable that a new film in a new SW trilogy might want to hedge a few bets. But what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in character, warmth and charm.

* Plot holes.
Yes, there are a few of those; and many of them didn't bother me because they seem to be fodder for the sequels, so I'm OK with it. I've also started reading the novelization (by the original 1976 novelization ghost writer, Alan Dean Foster) and it fills a few of them, but the ones still left open seem obvious for revisitation.

* A lack of explanation for how The First Order sprang from the ashes of the Empire, or how the government of the New Republic came to help a resistance, etc.
OK, none of this really bothered me to be perfectly honest; after the prequels' seemingly endless blathering about trade route taxations, aggressive negotiations, banker's clans, separatists and votes of no-confidence? I couldn't give two winged flying farts if the franchise never talks deep politics ever again. Bad guys are in black and white; good guys are in color. 'Nuff said. "New Hope" had one scene aboard the Death Star conference room that basically told us everything we needed to know about the civil war in five minutes. That's really all you need. It's Star Wars, not C-SPAN.

* Luke Skywalker's appearance is only at the very end.
Despite an initial teaser trailer that promised a bit more Luke (he narrated the opening of it), he is only seen in the final frames of the film. This may be disappointing for Luke-ophiles, or for those who were hoping for a Han/Luke/Leia reunion (hey, two out of three, guys) but ultimately I'm OK with this as well; since the movie is a QUEST for Luke Skywalker. If he were found in mid-movie, it would negate the quest. The same reason that Leonard Nimoy doesn't appear until nearly the end of "The Search For Spock." The character is also the object of the quest. Plain and simple.

To summarize, "The Force Awakens" is warm, full of heart, has wonderful new characters who BEG for further exploration and it perfectly captures the feel of the classic original trilogy. JJ Abrams spectacularly succeeds where George Lucas' own prequels spectacularly failed. It's largest deficit is (arguably) an all-too familiar story; a story that was largely the same as both "Return of the Jedi" and "The Phantom Menace." However, for me the familiar elements felt more like a homecoming than a ripoff (other reactions may vary), but as a friend of mine recently noted; the next movie would be wise to jettison any mention or depiction of giant zapping planet-killer weapons.

"The Force Awakens" earns a solid 9; it is the best Star Wars movie since "The Empire Strikes Back" and its single greatest achievement is in making me believe that Star Wars truly CAN be awakened successfully into the 21st century. The force is wide awake and out of a 10 year coma...

4 Comments On This Entry

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p0is0n0us Icon

04 January 2016 - 11:41 AM
I pretty much agree with everything you said OT. I'm regarding the plot of TFA as a reminder why the fans love the franchise. I hope that in the next movie they don't borrow the plot so heavily and work on breaking new ground. Kind of like the new Star Trek movies where we're waiting for them to actually go on the 5 year mission.
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obsolete toaster Icon

07 January 2016 - 10:47 PM
I think now that they've gotten the soft reboot of ANH out of their system and established some great new characters, the next movie will be the true litmus test to see if new Star Wars has the right stuff to make a great new trilogy. I'm pretty sure the next one will be markedly different from this admitted 're-origin' story.
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Nanouk Icon

08 January 2016 - 07:50 AM
I agree with everything you wrote. But can also add to it that I am not a big fan of the originals. Sure I enjoy em but not as much as a good nerd is 'supposed to'. But I am absolutely in love with this movie. Which will undoubtedly spawn a new generation of starwars fans :D
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obsolete toaster Icon

17 January 2016 - 02:21 PM
I think that, for a lot of newer fans I've talked to, Rey and Finn were their 'hooks' into this new movie. Old farts like me had Han, Chewie and Leia. :P

And while I loved the new characters very much (surprisingly so), having both generations together in the same movie was a smart move (marketing wise). It was important to have younger, newer characters to reel in a younger generation of potential Star Wars fans (and even to win over older fans, like me).

Rey and Finn were simply terrific characters. It'd be hard NOT to love them. :thumbup:
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