Culver City Observer -

MOVIE REVIEW: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

 

March 17, 2016

[NOTE: While I have made every effort to keep this review spoiler-free, for a completely pure viewing experience of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, wait to read this review or any other until after you have seen the film. Trust me. You won't regret it!]

Fall in love anew with old friends. Embrace the new. Ride the roller coaster of adventure complete with thrills and chills that make your heart pound and your face smile from ear to ear with more than a few tears thrown in for good measure. Marvel and wonder with the wide-eyed joy of a kid on Christmas morning ripping the paper off the biggest box under the tree and finding it to be the present you had begged Santa to bring for years only to realize Santa is really JJ Abrams in disguise. Then see a girl kick ass; then kick some more. And then you want it to be Christmas every day of the year, celebrating over and over again with Han, Leia, Chewbacca, R2, 3PO, BB8, Finn, Poe, Rey, Maz and yes, Luke.

Heart, humor, danger, excitement, thrills, chills. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS awakens every range of emotion in the galaxy and you love the feeling of experiencing each and every one. Screenwriter Larry Kasdan, together with co-writer Michael Arndt and co-writer/director J.J. Abrams crafted a wonderful script that passes the legacy torch to a new generation while embracing the old and building upon the strong elements and themes of the past. Visuals are exquisite. Minutiae of details within the production design and VFX/SFX dazzle.

When it was announced that there would be a seventh chapter in the STAR WARS saga, "a new hope" sprang to legions of fans; especially when J.J. Abrams was appointed Supreme Commander of the resurgence. After all, look what he did for "Star Trek". Admittedly, I was one of those that had some doubts, fearing too much similarity between the franchises. But now, having experienced the awakening, to echo the sentiments of Han Solo and Chewbacca, "I'm home." Abrams and company have given us everything one could hope for and more.

Key to the immersive nature of the STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS viewing experience is Abrams decision to lens in 35mm as opposed to the flawless, personality-free digital once embraced by George Lucas himself. From the opening battle on Jakku, We feel the grit of the sand on Jakku as it flies in our faces, covers ones clothes, the shock of a hand soaked in blood dripping read death on the pristine gleam of a Stormtrooper's white helmet. And as that blood give the audience a palpable and visceral experience, so it does for this particular Stormtrooper who serves the First Order (30 years ago it was the Empire. Now we have the First Order.). Taken away from his family as a child, this Stormtrooper - who we shall come to know as Finn - was brainwashed to serve the First Order. But something inside of him rebels as Resistance members on this little known planet are slaughtered on orders of the black-cloaked and helmeted Kylo Ren. As comes as no surprise, Ren is seeking a droid; a droid with a map that involves Luke Skywalker. Under the protection of Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, it is Poe's mission to get this little BB8 droid to the Resistance leaders. Knowing his capture is imminent, Poe sends BB8 on his way, promising to come for him as soon as he can.

As BB8 trundles across the hot desert sands of Jakku, he meets a young scavenger named Rey. Like Finn, she too was taken away from her parents as a young child and has waited all these years believing her family would come for her. Now she survives by scavenging parts from old battle wreckage of 30 years ago and the glory days of the Jedi, the Rebellion and the Empire. Hearing BB8's plea for help with his mission (Rey speaks Droid), she agrees to help and protect him.

Meanwhile, back on an Imperial battleship, Poe is being tortured by the mysterious and villainous Kylo Ren, only to soon find himself rescued by Finn who sees this as his own opportunity to escape the clutches of the First Order. Eventually crash landing on Jakku, Finn believes Poe is dead but knows he must move onward. Trekking across the barren landscape battling oppressive sun and sandstorms, Finn soon stumbles into an attack by the First Order and spies Poe's little BB8 - and Rey.

Knowing they need to leave Jakku before being killed or captured, and knowing the importance of the little BB8 unit, Rey and Finn make their getaway in a rusty old bucket of bolts which the audience immediately recognizes as the Millenium Falcon. And where there is the Falcon, there has to be Han Solo and Chewbacca.

There will be no doubt in anyone's mind on seeing the expressions on the faces of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as Rey and Finn when they first lay eyes on Harrison Ford as Han Solo - on the Millenium Falcon - that their joy and glee is barely containable. Those smiles and bright eyes are as genuine as genuine can be. And so the real journey begins because, as Han says, "It's true - the Force, the Jedi, all of it. It's all true."

And true enough, so are all the emotions that swell inside you as Han and Chewbacca and their new friends reconnect with R2D2 and C3PO; as we stop at new watering holes and cantinas and meet wise new characters; as secrets are discovered and truths are told; a mystery involving Luke Skywalker unfolds; and, as Han and Leia, now General Organa, bring a hushed silence to the movie theatre, as we collectively rejoice in every word, every look, every barb, every bittersweet moment the two are on screen. Time may have mellowed them a bit, but Leia still loves Han, and yes, he knows. And so do we.

The reverence for the original trilogy is undeniable, complete with requisite one-liners we have all come to know and love. Favorites, like Admiral Akbar, bring a smile to your heart, while wide-eyed ,open-mouthed, gasps at the appearances of Kylo Ren, Captain Phasma and Supreme Leader Snoke will have you feeling like your throat has the death grip of Darth Vader upon it. The historical exposition of the script is extremely well balanced and never goes into overdrive. There is a fluidity to the first act that sets the stage, fills the gaps of the past 30 years and lays the groundwork for the secrets that are about to unfold. I would dare to say that other than George Lucas, no one knows this universe and its history better than Larry Kasdan (scribe of "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi") which accounts for the strong base structure and story development now.

As comes as no surprise, Harrison Ford slips into Han Solo as if he'd never left him. According to Ford, "It seemed easy to come back to the character. Clothes make the man. I had walked more than a mile in those boots. I was interested in the described path of the character. I thought there was an interesting bit of business for the character to do." Interesting is an understatement. Equally joyous is Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa. Gone may be the golden bikini and ear buns, but in their place is a wider confidence and maturity and bittersweet tenderness that brings tears to one's heart. Dear to her own heart, Fisher protectively states, "I'm the custodian of Princess Leia. I never got out of character."

Anthony Daniels returns as C3PO as does everyone's favorite Wookie, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca. Albeit brief, look for a touching performance by Max von Sydow in a key role as Lor San Tekka.

But then we have our 21st century versions of Han, Leia and Luke in the form of Finn, Rey and Poe - John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac, respectively. (Yes, you will see correlations between the original trilogy characters and the new in many cases.) All three are poised for universal stardom with their performances here - particularly Daisy Ridley. She is fearless. Their youth, vitality and awe at the unfolding battle between the First Order and Resistance is invigorating not just to the story and film as a whole, but to each of us as we watch them. The chemistry of this triumvirate is undeniable and I, for one, am chomping at the bit for the sequel just to see the three of them together again.

BB8 will steal your heart from beginning to end. Be on the lookout for Lupita Nyongo's work with the completely motion captured Maz Kanata. Her voice work has a gravitas and kindness that empowers.

And then there are those on the Dark Side. As to be expected, motion capture master Andy Serkis is delicious as the evil Supreme Leader Snoke while Domhnall Gleeson brings petulant, spoiled brat, tattle-tale tendencies to his performance as First Order General Hux. Making Gleeson's work a standout is the sibling rivalry he brings to play when vying with Adam Driver's Kylo Ren for attention with Snoke. And speaking of Adam Driver, as Kylo Ren he delivers perhaps the strongest and most resonant emotional performance of the film. From his facial expression (with mask off) to his vocal to his physical presence and stature, Driver is easily the heir apparent of evil. And then there's Gwendoline Christie, the first female villain, who has little to say or do as Captain Phasma. But her costume is a standout.

Abrams' direction is swift and engaging, celebrating the thrill of battle and action without going into overkill with CGI. Particularly impressive is cinematographer Dan Mindel's luxurious lensing which captures the expansive beauty of a Jakkuian desert as equally well as the intimacy of close quarter battle or the greenery of Yavin. Framing of key moments is done with a loving touch and thanks to the work of editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, are held long enough for the audience to give out collective sighs and whoops and hollers, but not so as to lose the effectiveness of the shot and emotional beat. In place are the patented side-swipe scene transitions, not to mention the all important signature open title crawl.

Standout is the motion capture and CGI work under the direction of VFX supervisor Roger Guyett. Seamless beauty which is synergistically integrated into the "real world" production design of Rick Carter and Darren Gilford. So technically polished, it is impossible to tell where physical design ends and where motion capture and CGI begin. Expect to see some Oscar nominations heading this way on the technical end of things.

And yes, never to be overlooked, John Williams returns with another flawless score that could nab him his 44th Oscar nomination and possibly 6th golden statuette.

The Force is strong with this one. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS kicks into hyper-drive and never stops.

Directed by J.J. Abrams

Written by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt

Cast: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Domnhall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Gwendoline Christie

 

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