January 6, 2016 Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (Movie Review)
“This will be a day long remembered. It has seen the end of Kenobi, it will soon see the end of the Rebellion,” declared Darth Vader (David Prowse, the bodybuilder, in the suit, and voiced by legendary actor James Earl Jones) in 1977’s Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. The force was not strong with old Darth as even he managed to make an appearance in director J.J. Abrams’ (Mission: Impossible III 2006, Star Trek Beyond 2016) direct sequel to 1983’s Star Wars: Episode VI – Return Of The Jedi.
Hitting theaters on December 18, 2015, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was directed by Abrams, and co-produced by Abrams, new Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy (E.T.: the Extraterrestrial 1982, the Jurassic Park series) who became president after Star Wars creator, George Lucas, sold the company to Disney Studios in 2012, and Abrams partner, Bryan Burk (Cloverfield 2008, Star Trek Beyond 2016) from a script co-written by Abrams, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back writer, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine 2006, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire 2013) based on characters by George Lucas. The film was co-produced by Lucasfilm and Abrams’ and Burk’s Bad Robot Productions for Disney Studios. The incomparable composer John Williams returned to the Star Wars fold to create a whole new score.
There is a disturbance in the force, more malevolent than Darth Vader’s and Emperor Palpatine’s Galactic Empire thirty years before run by the unpredictable Kylo Ren (Adam Driver: J. Edgar 2011, Midnight Special 2016). Will the new Resistance led by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher: Star Wars 1977, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return Of The Jedi 1983), Han Solo (Harrison Ford: Star Wars 1977, Raiders of The Lost Ark 1981), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew: Star Wars series), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels: Star Wars series), R2-D2 (returning Kenny Baker as consultant), maverick Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac: All About the Benjamins 2002, X-Men: Apocalypse 2016) and his droid, BB-8, who is holding a secret, desert nomad, Rey (Daisy Ridley: Scrawl 2015, Only Yesterday 2016), and the rogue Finn (John Boyega: Attack the Block 2011, The Circle 2016) be able to save the galaxy without the help of the Jedi? And, what happened to the Jedi, where’s Luke? Listen for Obi Wan Kenobi’s and Yoda’s voices (Ewan McGregor mixed with archived bits from Alec Guinness and Frank Oz respectively) and cameos from returning Tim Ross and Mike Quinn as Admiral Akbar and Nien Nunb (voiced by returning Kipsang Rotich) respectively.
Setting out to do a sequel to the most known franchise in the world must have been one of the most daunting projects of Abrams’ career: where to go with it, what to say, who should or should not be in it. So, he taps someone who has history in the Star Wars universe, someone who wrote what most of the Star Wars fanbase consider the best episode in the Star Wars saga, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back writer, Lawrence Kasdan, to script the film. They went for the nostalgic feel for the oldtimers, to give the audience winks to the original trilogy while moving the story forward, which he has succeeded in doing while leaving Rian Johnson’s sturdy bones to play with in Episode VIII. He wanted to bring back the original cast to meld with the new cast, which they jumped at. Filming (shot in IMAX 70mm and IMAX 3-D) started April 2014 in locales like Ireland, Abu Dhabi, and Pinewood Studios in England, but was put on hold for a couple weeks in June after Ford broke his ankle onset.
Going for the nostalgic, lived-in world of the original trilogy, Abrams used as many practical effects as he could, making living set pieces, putting people in costumes, and creating workable animatronics and puppets like the skeleton of the Star Destroyer Rey pilfers or the ATAT she sits against to the giant hog that smacks Finn away from the watering trough on Jakku. Everything is grimy, which is a stark contrast to the First Order’s polished look from their uniforms to their new Star Destroyers. Many scenes shot did not necessarily mirror Episode IV, but gave gentle nods by coming from different angles, so the observant fan could notice, like the opening sequence or panning Jakku’s horizon. Jakku’s cantina is the same, but different from that of Tatooine. Then, there are in-planet dogfights, which has never been seen in a Star Wars film!
Fisher, Ford, Mayhew, Daniels, and R2 easily slip back into their roles as if the episodes had been shot back to back, not the thirty-three years since viewers last visited them while Ridley, Boyega, Isaac, and Driver slip into the universe and make their characters their own. Leia, Han, Chewie, and even C-3PO and R2 wear the scars of the last thirty years in their faces, in the way they carry themselves. We also see some of that lift when Han and Chewie get back the Falcon, or the tentative happiness/relief when Han and Leia reunite. As far as the new characters, all have strong bones while leaving enough of a carrot for Episodes VIII and IX to see how they grow. Ridley’s Rey is a scrapper, always doing what is right in her heart instead of what human nature would probably have her do, as does Boyega’s Finn, but in his case, it is against his training. Isaac’s Poe is the Resistance’s ace. If the mission’s going to be accomplish, Poe will make it happen…regardless of what happens to him. Adam Driver is a former marine, so his turn as Kylo Ren fits into the First Order’s militaristic rituals. For all Ren’s posturing and saying he is so versed in the Force, he’s very sloppy. His mask looks like it is been beaten together with a sledgehammer, and his lightsaber, though cool from outside appearances, has a very wonky beam. He also has rage issues.
Some characters that were hyped in trailers, like Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus 2009, Swallows and Amazons 2016), the first female Stormtrooper of the First Order, or Supreme Leader Snoke (Motion captured by Andy Serkis of The Lord of the Rings series), who, like the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back, is only seen as a hologram, failed to live up to said hype. Hopefully, this will be rectified in the coming episodes.
Aside from having to wait until Episode VIII next year to fill some plot holes and some clunky dialogue, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a spectacular feat everybody hoped it would be, but feared it could not live up to the tales “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” CrypticRock gives Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens 5 of 5 stars.