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STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
A FAIR AND HONEST REVIEW… WITH SPOILERS

“This will begin to make things right…”

These are the first words spoken in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the film that dares to continue where 1983’s “Return of the Jedi” left off, and they turn out to be very prophetic.

In other words, your greatest fears are unfounded: it doesn’t suck and there are no patented J.J. Abrams lens flares.

The opening exchange between the Republic’s ace pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac), and an old gypsy (Max von Sydow) is a significant plot point, but it should also be construed as a wink-wink, nudge-nudge not-so-tongue-in-cheek apology for George Lucas’ prequels.

I’m happy to report, “The Force Awakens” puts the Star Wars Universe back on track. Is it perfect? No. Will it win Best Picture? No. Is it one of the most entertaining films of the year? Yes.

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Now go see it before you read anything else. From here on out: SPOILER ALERTS.

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YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED…

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SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD…

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SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD…

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OKAY, HERE WE GO…

 

 

 

 

LUKE SKYWALKER HAS VANISHED.

That’s the initial sentence in the classic Star Wars scroll from “The Force Awakens,” which is something everyone has noticed leading up to the film’s release, especially since Mark Hamill hasn’t appeared in any trailers and is absent from the poster. Guess why? Because he’s hardly in the film. This is Han Solo’s film. The next one, possibly two, will be Luke’s.

Now, I’m not saying Abrams’ entry is better than the original trilogy–it’s not–but it’s also not fair to compare “The Force Awakens” to those, as they were from a completely different era of filmmaking. This is a pure popcorn serial.

It’s nice to see Abrams bring the same gung-ho energy and action that made his “Star Trek” reboot work, as there’s hardly a moment where he lets off the throttle– It’s all pod-race, no Jar Jar…with plenty of nostalgic nods thrown in.

That turns out to be a good thing for the first three-quarters of this film, which play out just about as well as you can expect or imagine. That said, there are problems with the third act. Major ones, that derail the build up in some respects.

Part of the problem is that “shoot-em-up” seems to be the answer to every slow moment in this film, leaving the bad guys–Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to some degree, and especially the underdeveloped role of Captain Phasma (Game of Throne’s Gwendoline Christie) –with very little to do, except fight with everyone.  Hey, they do make for cool action figures, though.

Considering how satisfying the descent into the world of Star Wars is once again, it’s unfortunate that during the climactic battle scenes, things get sloppy from a story perspective and the whole set-up seems to fold in on itself with contrived and been-there-done-that solutions that are fine for episodic TV, but not for the epicness of the big screen.

In fact, the final scene is almost a complete scene-by-scene reshoot of how the original Death Star was destroyed, except modified for today’s less-patient audiences. In fact, it plays out like a reenactment of that iconic battle scene nearly beat for beat..albeit with a lot less skill and a lot less imagination.

It just happens so fast, and is all-too-familiar, to pack a real punch at the end. Audiences will no doubt enjoy the ride, but afterwards, when you think about what you saw, it really is an odd amalgamation of everything good about the first trilogy.

In fact, if you line up all the characters–Finn is Lando Calrissian, BB-8 is R2-D2, Han Solo is Ben Kenobi, Rey is Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia combined, Poe is Han Solo, Kylo Ren is Darth Vader, Maz Kanata is Yoda, Supreme Leader Snoke is the Emperor, and Chewbacca …well, he’s still Chewbacca thankfully–It’s merely a reshuffling of a new deck.

It’s pretty clear that Lucasfilm was working from a blueprint, and that’s how Disney needs this to unfold to keep the space time continuum of consumerism intact.

If I were twelve again, would I have loved this without cynicism? Probably. But sadly, what happens near the end, the final tilt of good vs. evil as it were, is so needlessly rushed and not quite thought out, that you absolutely can’t forgive Disney for going all “Game of Thrones.” It just seems unnecessary.

And that’s the limitations Abrams has, or anyone really, as this is a saga that is controlled by a puppeteer and when the strings are pulled there isn’t much you can do about it except control the action on screen. The story is already set in stone, and honestly, you just won’t be able to appease everyone.

That action is tremendous, let’s make no mistake about that; however, like any film of Abrams’, it could have used a couple scenes where the characters have a chance to exhale and reflect a bit. And that’s the difference–the Michael Bay, the “Transformers”-effect, if you will–that permeates almost all action films these days.

It’s the moments in between the action that truly hook us, and there just aren’t enough of them. It’s also the minute details that are the difference between a good and great film. The original trilogy did that so well it’s almost unfair.

Plot points that should be difficult to achieve in “The Force Awakens” are often blown past–stealing the Millennium Falcon, rescuing BB-8 from a scavenger, destroying a temple that has existed for eons, etc.–as a means to an end, instead of precise story machinations that could have been set up with a bit more logic, thus satisfying payoff.

What “The Force Awakens” does well though, is recreate the complexity of the locations and sets; it truly feels like you’re back in the Star Wars Universe that you know and love. But, again, it loses a lot of credibility at key moments.

For instance, if your final battle is against a “Super Death Star,” ten times the size of the original, it would probably take an armada larger than a couple dozen X-Wings, right?

Remember that epic space battle in “Return of the Jedi” that was going on simultaneously as Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker were battling? It wasn’t just a fleet of ships, it was an armada. Everyone was all in. This honestly felt like a dozen ships somehow managed to take down the entire First Order.

What binds this film together though, is the fact that “The Force Awakens” does a surprisingly good job of mixing in humor as well, peppering it throughout, keeping true to the feel of the original trilogy. The prequels definitely lacked that playfulness.

And with the sets and characters being practical for the most part, Star Wars feels alive again, thus masking all the digital trickerations, which is always the hallmark of good visual effects anyway.

Abrams’ team did an excellent job of handling the old guard, too–Han Solo, Leia, C3P-O, Chewbacca, and to a degree, Luke Skywalker, all who have a lot of back story to uncover since we last saw them. You definitely feel a knee-deep sense of nostalgia when each appears on screen for the first time and they serve the story well. Let’s face it, like old dear friends, we just missed these people.

The newcomers are all solid, too, especially Daisy Ridley, front-and-center as Rey. She will be a huge star after the saga is over. She has “it,” like Han Solo has sarcasm (which he still has in spades). And roller-droid, BB-8, is equally endearing as R2-D2.

There is one scene at the end that fans of the force will undoubtedly discuss until the end of time. I won’t reveal what it is here, but I can say I think it was mismanaged, just enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth. There could have been a pretty simple fix, and I’m surprised someone at Lucasfilm didn’t step up and attempt to rework the scene.

But, it is what it is, a space opera…and like all operas, there must be great loss, immense heartbreak, to truly make it sing. I just wish it wasn’t so orchestrated and obvious.

The original “Star Wars: A New Hope” stands on its own as a film. No other film in the Star Wars universe can claim that, certainly not “The Force Awakens,” which literally ends on a cliff. Cliff…hanger. So poetic.

I know you can’t tell this entire story in one film, but to me that’s just lazy filmmaking. In the days before sequels were so abundant, filmmakers were never thinking about a trilogy–or a whole universe–while constructing their films. They had to build their film to stand on its own–a fulfilling beginning, middle, and end, which these type of blockbusters rarely do anymore.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a great piece of modern filmmaking, but certainly shackled by the constraints of its own legacy and that of a conglomerate empire attempting to re-launch one of the most lucrative franchises in Hollywood.

Abrams did exactly what was asked of him…he bridged the gap and made it exciting. And he did it without lens flares. Hey, it’s the first film I’ll see twice in theaters since “Titanic.” I certainly didn’t go see the prequels in the theaters after viewing them, so that has to account for something.

Disney spent $4 billion to acquire the Star Wars franchise. Money well spent. Considering that for the most part, “The Force Awakens” lives up to expectations and is light years better than anything in theaters right now.

Box office will be the gift that keeps on giving for the Mouse House as “The Force Awakens” has the potential to be only the third film after “Titanic” and “Avatar” to gross over $2 billion worldwide.

But that’s chump change, really. It’s the merch that Disney is after. They have always been the Jedi Masters of selling you crap you probably don’t need, but absolutely must have. Old Walt would be smiling right now. Star Wars isn’t just a film franchise anymore, it’s an experience, and that’s what Disney is banking on.

The marketing machine is now fully operational. This is just the beginning, folks. The Star Wars Universe is set to expand at light speed from here on out, so you better just strap in and enjoy the ride.

“The Force Awakens” lives up to its title–it has scenes and moments where you truly feel the tingle of the force again, a feeling that borders on mystical. It’s nice to have shivers of that again…even if they’re fleeting.

But this is the launching of something bigger, and hopefully, more complex and more intricate going forward. The action hooks ’em, but it’s the emotion that will carry people through to the end.

Just, please, I beg of you Lucasfilm–no more “Lord of the Rings” cinematography…like at the end of this film. Those kind of contemporary copycat shots should have no place in Star Wars’ universe. The image of handing off the lightsaber should have sufficed.

This is, after all, metaphorically what’s happening here. Right now, right before your very eyes. It’s time for the next generation to take this saga to a new place, one that is still very far, far away, yet very near and dear to audience’s hearts.

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Poster Image Courtesy of Lucasfilm

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Jeff Bock, NewsWhistle’s movie editor, is the senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations in Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at Jeff@NewsWhistle.com.