Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Directed by J.J. Abrams
There aren't many franchises that can define pop culture as well as Star Wars. And with The Force Awakens comes the definitive wind of fresh air to the stagnant property.
Thirty years following the Rebellion's successful destruction of the Empire's new Death Star, The Force Awakens brings together Rey, an orphaned girl played by freshman Daisy Ridley, Finn, a scared ex-stormtrooper played by John Boyega, and BB-8, a rolling droid with a top secret map that leads to the long-lost Luke Skywalker. The trio escape from a cadre of First Order troopers and tie fighters by stealing a junked Millennium Falcon on Jakku. They soon run into Han Solo and Chewbacca who take back their ship and decide to help the trio connect with the resistance fighters. The First Order (the powerful remnants of the Empire) tracks them down right before the Resistance fighters manage to reach them, leading to a massive battle, at the end of which Rey is taken by Kylo Ren, the First Order's resident Sith played by Adam Driver. Afterward, Finn informs the Resistance about the First Order's new weapon, Starkiller Base, a massive power relay and moon-sized energy cannon embedded halfway into a planet, whereupon the Resistance plans and launches an attack to destroy it.
The new cast members are phenomenal. Ridley, Boyega, and Driver portray their characters with stunning aplomb and the returning cast bring new life to theirs. It's a difficult thing to accurately write for characters, who've been pop culture icons for well over 30 years, who are 30 years older than their previous appearance, but Laurence Kasdan, Michael Arndt, and Abrams succeeded. The original cast are properly aged, true to character, and subtle without overpowering the movie with their presence; the new cast are well written with humanizing backgrounds and are portrayed with great body language, chemistry, and palpable emotion.
The writing, while great insofar as the characters, is somewhat lacking besides that. The story follows the lead of the previous movies, using the same plot points and themes (birth, life, and death and the battle between light and dark) as put forward by the Godfather, George Lucas. In fact, in many respects The Force Awakens turns out to be a rehash of A New Hope. But that's not news to diehard Star Wars fans as it's well known that Lucas has a penchant for mirroring situations throughout the Star Wars saga to show the synonymous natures of people and events. So while it's understandable, even admirable to have such flawless synonymism, the story's plot gets tired and dark circles right around the time Han quips that the First Order's Starkiller Base is just a bigger Death Star.
Subpar story aside... the rest of the writing is pretty damn great. Except for some out-of-place dialogue, just slightly too many one liners for fan service, and the odd and wooden gesture... the characters are personable and developed, with good interplay and realistic emotion, and, perhaps one of the most important things, they're interesting. Even a juggernaut like Star Wars can't survive without interesting characters. (Episodes I, II, and III had fairly interesting characters, they were just poorly acted and the writing was... bad.)
John Williams' score highlights and underscores the writing in all the right ways and in all the right places. There's really not much else to say. It's just... exactly the soundtrack this movie needed: thematic, dramatic, and moving.
Similarly, Dan Mindel's photography, paired with the practical production and the top notch CG, puts The Force Awakens among the best looking films I've ever seen. Along with Mad Max: Fury Road, the new Star Wars chapter is a journey of practical effects and awe-inspiring graphics. At a time when CG is overdone, expected, and getting pretty damn boring, The Force Awakens is a minty breath of fresh air. I mean, really. It's just beautiful.
With that in mind, the world of Star Wars has been greatly expanded. The original trilogy created a wonderful world full of possibilities and wonders. Now we're getting to explore that world again. The prequel trilogy did it once in an infuriating way with bad writing and overloaded CG (every single scene... every. Single. Scene. Is filmed on green screen) and we're getting another chance in a spine-tingling, knee-shaking way with extensive puppetry, beautiful sets, and amazing practicality. I cannot wait for the next chapters to expand it even further. That's the kind of movie magic that directors dream of.
Despite an amazing production, the overwhelming fact remains that J.J. and company played the movie utterly safe. There was no attempt to try something original, be it in plot, theme, or science fiction. The Force Awakens is equal parts fan service, beauty, and setup for the next installment. In and of itself that isn't such a bad thing, as it still entertains, but it never feels original and it doesn't push any boundaries. When Star Wars [A New Hope] first came out it was revolutionary. The look and feel had never been experienced that way before. Even it's closest comparison at the time, Star Trek, had an entirely different atmosphere and aesthetic, being clean and perfect and scientific. Star Wars has always been dirty and messed up, with evil and good and unbelievable devices that feel like a daydream. The Force Awakens doesn't push any of that, staying as safe as possible to focus on creating new characters and drama.
Similarly, the pace is relentless. Some might like how eagerly it moves from scene to scene, constantly pushing the next line, but it's exhausting. We hardly get a chance to breathe until the sometimes frequent moments when J.J. forces us to feel the drama with dramatically unsubtle lighting changes and sound design before we screen-wipe to the next exchange. Despite the 2 hour and 15 minute run time there either needed to be some extra cutting or 20 extra minutes to give the movie some breathing room.
Despite the faults, all the pieces manage to come together into a movie that's amazing fun. Star Wars is a space opera: an epic of storytelling and entertainment, with swords of pure light and laser blasters and spaceships that can travel through portals in space and an invisible force of nature that allows people to simultaneously sense the future and choke people to death without even touching them. On paper, and in those words, it sounds ridiculous but on film and in the theater it's utterly exhilarating. Regardless of any faults, the story, characters, fights, jokes, conversations, etc are all combined into an amazing journey, an emotional ride, and a blissful experience.
TL;DR: This has been a cinematic experience a long time in the making. Literally, it's taking my whole life to build up to this. Maybe that's biased because I grew up loving the Star Wars saga, but I don't care. It has it's faults, but The Force Awakens is still a fantastic movie. It's fun... It's dramatic... It's... cathartic... and I haven't expanded on a lot of my opinions because I really don't want to ruin any part of the movie. I want you to experience it all.
I wonder how many times I'm going to see this in theaters...
- Acting – 18 / 20
- Story – 14 / 20
- Cinematography – 19 / 20
- Soundtrack – 10 / 10
- Entertainment Factor – 9 / 10
- Sci-fi/Epic Space Opera – 8 / 10
- Other – 9 / 10