A Triumphant Return to a galaxy far far away
Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015): Three decades after the defeat of the Galactic Empire, a new threat arises. The First Order attempts to rule the galaxy and only a rag-tag group of heroes can stop them, along with the help of the Resistance.
This. This is Star Wars done right. Losing George Lucas really was the best thing that could've happened to this franchise. I......love this movie. Is it perfect? No. Absolutely not. But is it better than the prequels? Oh you better believe it. The Force Awakens successfully reminds us why we love this franchise and restarts it in a great way. Everything about this film was spot-on, from the great use of practical effects (though this did hurt the film a bit which I'll get to later) to the masterful acting from everyone involved. The story immediately gets you reinvested in the long-dormant post-Episode VI universe, and it immediately gets you invested and asking questions. Which is good! Everything about this film is treated with nothing but love and respect, and it really shines through on the finished project. And while it's not the best film of the year or anything, The Force Awakens will easily slide into the Star Wars lore as one of the best films of the franchise. Welcome to the party, J.J. Abrams.
So, let's talk about what this film does right. First off, the direction from J.J. Abrams is fantastic. This man is becoming, in my opinion, one of the greatest directors of the last 20 years, successfully rebooting two great franchises and directing one of my favorite films of the first half of the 2010's in 2011's Super 8. Not to mention he was one of the creators of Lost and Cloverfield, and even had a pretty big role in Alias from back in the day. His resume is ridiculous already, and with big roles in Star Trek Beyond and the upcoming Portal/Half-Life films, it's only gonna get crazier. But there's little doubt in my mind that without J.J. Abrams directing this film, it would've been a very different experience. Let alone if George Lucas had directed it. I shudder to think what we would've seen had he been in charge. But it's not just the directing. The story here is also engaging and fun. While I obviously can't talk about it without spoiling, I'll just say this story is easily more engaging than the stories we got in the prequels. And BB-8? Adorable. He is what Jar Jar Binks could've been (and should've been, for that matter) from the prequels. He's resourceful, has personality, and cares about the events happening around him. He's not stupid and clumsy for no reason like Jar Jar was. R2-D2 has company, guys. BB-8 just might be stealing the title of the "Galaxy's Cutest Droid" from him. Now I'll throw all sorts of money at the Disney merchandise empire for anything BB-8 related. You win this one.
But it's not just about BB-8. There are people in this film too. And they too are fantastic. Everyone is fantastic, with the exception of Domhnall Gleeson, who struggled to find an identity for his role as First Order commander. He should've observed Grand Moff Tarkin from Episode IV a bit more. His big moment of the film was a bit cringe-worthy, but, to his credit, this undisclosed scene felt kinda forced to begin with. But I know Gleeson can do better, as you'll see in my upcoming review of Brooklyn. Also, Gwendoline Christie's character is also MASSIVELY underutilized here. But she kills it in her criminally brief moments as Captain Phasma. But I'm kinda splitting hairs, because everyone else is absolutely phenomenal. The returning three of Ford, Fisher, and Hamill are all great, and the exchanges between Han Solo and Chewbacca are as nostalgic as can be. Seeing those two get in the Millennium Falcon again gave me chills. They are also the film's biggest source of humor, which is awesome! There's a running gag between the two of them that made me laugh harder than I did at most comedies this year. Adam Driver acts out an extremely well-written villain in Kylo Ren, and thanks to his performance sets up a villain that could potentially rival Darth Vadar, one of the greatest villains in cinema history, for best hero of this franchise. That is the highest praise I can give for this character, and he's not even the best of the newcomers. John Boyega is awesome as Finn, creating a great personality and character arc throughout the 135 minute film. In most films, he would steal the show. But here, he is out-shined by two: Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, and Daisey Ridley as Rey. These two steal the show at their individual moments, with Oscar Isaac creating a character as charming and charismatic as Han Solo and Ridley just, well, acting the sh*t out of her character. I really cannot praise her enough: Daisey Ridley kills it as Rey. Casting her was based off nothing but intuition for Abrams and crew, as she has a single feature-length credit in a student film called Scrawl on her resume before Star Wars. Sure, she was a minor character on various episodes of British television, but those don't count for anything. I cannot praise the crew enough for taking a chance on this extraordinary young actress, as she really does steal every scene she's in. My only hope is that it was her talent that led to the performance and not the direction of J.J. Abrams, because she's gonna be playing Rey for a very long time.
However, this film is not without a few flaws. One of the biggest involves the practical effects. Which are great don't get me wrong, but in a film with such realism, why use CGI at all? This is what I was thinking as I watched Maz Kanata and Supreme Leader Snoke, aka pretty much the only two things in this entire film that were computer generated. And while Lupita N'yongo and Andy Serkis were excellent portraying these roles, they really stood out as odd and somewhat corny characters in an otherwise solid film. Snoke especially was very shallow, but then again so was The Emperor in the original trilogy when you think about it. And there are definitely some holes in this story. While I praise this film and the approach Abrams takes in not explaining/spoon feeding everything to us like Lucas did in the prequels, this film definitely went too far in the opposite direction. This story really could've benefited from just another 5 minutes of film to explain where some of the things in this film came from. That's all I'm going to say here, but I'll hopefully have a spoiler-filled discussion of this film some time next week where I go further into detail on why this film is not receiving a perfect score from me or anything. For now, that's all you get. Additionally, this film did stay a little too close to the original trilogy, with it feeling, at times, like a simple rehash of Episode IV. Which is obviously fine, (I'll take watching the same scene from Episode IV over again over the endless debates of the Senate) but with our perfect 20/20 hindsight there's no reason Abrams and crew could've strayed from the original trilogy a bit more than they did. I know people are saying this is hypocritical, but also keep in mind I never wanted these films to look like the original trilogy. I just wanted them to have that Star Wars magic. Which this film certainly has. Finally, there's the score. Oh boy there's the score. It's weird to me that a "just great" score is a bad thing in a film, but at this point, I expect perfection from John Williams when it comes to Star Wars. This franchise does, after all, have my single favorite score of any film in Episode V. But this film and the score we get fails to capture the magic of previous scores that I've become so accustomed to from John Williams. With the exception of Rey's Theme, the only time this score really stood out in the film was when it was recreating the themes we already new from the original trilogy. Is it still a great score? You better believe it. Will it receive an Oscar nomination? Absolutely. But it is undoubtedly the weakest score from this franchise so far. Hopefully Episode VIII will be a different story.
I should probably wrap this up soon, but I do want to compliment other departments involved in creating this film. The makeup crew did their job with flying colors, creating a film that will easily win Best Makeup at the Oscars in February. Costumes were also incredibly diverse, though I must praise these guys and Abrams for also recognizing when not to go crazy on elaborate costumes: Rey wears two different costumes the entire film! I bet Natalie Portman is sitting there saying, "Why couldn't I have had her role???" And Finn doesn't change his outfit once after he becomes, well, not a stormtrooper. The film also looks gorgeous, with Daniel Mindel, J.J. Abrams longtime cinematographer, capturing some truly spectacular moments with his camera. The chase scene with the Millennium Falcon we saw in the trailers was particularly spectacular. And, of course, the practical effects were also awesome. Kudos to the crew for spending the extra dollar to return to old-school Hollywood with real effects. Hopefully this trend continues in future films, both Star Wars and elsewhere.
In conclusion, The Force Awakens certainly met the expectations that were set for it. Easily the best Star Wars film in 30 years, (and maybe since Episode V) this film revitalizes the franchise exactly the way it needed to. On the backs of a fantastic script, great direction from J.J. Abrams, fantastic acting, and just an overall love for this franchise from the crew, The Force Awakens turns the nostalgia to 11 for the millions of fans and begins a money churning machine for the world's biggest entertainment provider, Disney. But as long as each of the sequels and the inevitable trilogy after this one or the prequel trilogy to Force Awakens or whatever Disney gives us after Episode IX are treated with as much respect as this film was in its creation, it will be a great time to be a Star Wars fan. You've done us proud so far, Disney. And you've set up a fantastic sequel in Episode VIII. Don't turn to the dark side now.
The Critique: The film its predecessors should have been, The Force Awakens rediscovers a magic in the Star Wars universe that we haven't seen in 30+ years. A great film.
The Recommendation: I think when the dust settles this will be the highest grossing film of all-time, so obviously my recommendation means nothing. But I will say 3D adds literally nothing to this film, so see it in 2D or IMAX instead. 3D is a complete waste of money.
The Verdict: 8/10 Great.
Oscar Talk: I do expect a win for makeup here, as well as nominations for the score, visual effects, set design, and costumes. It's too bad Best Actress is stacked this year, or else I'd say there may even be a chance for her to sneak in a nomination. But about the only other category Star Wars may get a shot at a nomination is Best Original Screenplay. I'll be interested to see how the Internet reacts when that's all this film gets.
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