Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)


Walt Disney Pictures and Lucasfilm present a film directed by J.J. Abrams. Written by Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams, based on a story by Michael Arndt and characters created by George Lucas. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk. Music by John Williams. Photographed by Dan Mindel. Edited by Mary Jo Markey, Maryann Brandon. Production designed by Rick Carter, Darren Gilford. Costumes designed by Michael Kaplan. Starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hammil, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie.

     Lightsabers hum, spaceships race at the speed of light, and plucky droids, Wookies, star pilots and Jedis band together to save the universe in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the hotly-anticipated, long-awaited seventh installment in the immensely popular space franchise. George Lucas’ original trilogy of sci-fi/fantasy/adventure films holds a beloved place in the hearts of millions, and after a Lucas-produced prequel trilogy that many found busy and soulless, the task has been given to wunderkind director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) to revitalize Star Wars for the next generation. He has succeeded. The movie is a delight.
     The Force Awakens is so shrewdly engineered to please Star Wars fans that it even has callbacks and plot echoes to the original 1977 film hardwired into its DNA. Once again, a droid holds a key piece of intel and finds himself stranded on a backwater planet, leading to a hasty series of introductions as the droid ends up attracting disparate folks in a plot that ends with an assault on a massive super weapon operated by an evil Empire. The coveted object here is a star map held by BB-8 (a cute little guy with a soccer ball torso) that points the way to the location of Luke Skywalker, who has gone into hiding in the thirty years since Return of the Jedi (1983). In Luke’s absence, a villainous sect called The First Order has risen, led by the evil, helmeted dark Jedi Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who wants that map. Slowly allied against Ren are an unlikely trio of allies: Rey (Daisy Ridley), a resourceful junk scavenger who finds BB-8, Finn (John Boyega), an in-over-his-head stormtrooper who has decided to become turncoat, and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a hotshot star pilot for the good guy Resistance.
     Abrams’ achievements in The Force Awakens are numerous, but his most monumental is the way he creates a vivid set of wonderful new characters here. After the flat, disaffected performances of the prequels, the central trio here are a breath of fresh air. Boyega, from Attack the Block, is soulful and put-upon–his exasperation at the movie’s whirlwind of events is utterly endearing. Isaac, a flat-out wonderful actor (Ex Machina, Inside Llewyn Davis) captures the right blend of good natured swagger. Ren is a different type of villain for the series: wrathful, immature and highly vulnerable (he’s also got some secrets) and Driver (HBO’s Girls) gives a superb performance. But the real find here is Ridley, a relative newcomer. She is sensational, conveying a mix of capability, toughness and heart that is utterly bewitching. It’s one of those “instant movie star” moments you hear about but rarely see.
     So good are the newcomers that they can easily stand toe-to-toe with returning series stalwarts General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Wookie copilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and the one and only Han Solo. Yes, Harrison Ford is back, in his best performance in over twenty years. He slips back into Han’s smuggler jacket like a comfortable pair of jeans, and by the time the film’s second act kicks in, the quadruple-act of Han, Chewie, Finn and Rey makes for the best scenes of Star Wars character-based humor since The Empire Strikes Back; credit goes to Abrams and his invaluable co-writer Lawrence Kasdan (who also wrote Empire and Jedi)–together they capture a welcome, light-footed and kookier screwball tone.
     Mr. Abrams, a lifelong Star Wars fan, clearly is relishing his chance to fill in his own corner of the Star Wars universe. He invents a wise, rodent-like, orange-flesh-textured ancient alien and then has her played via motion capture by the beautiful Lupita Nyong’o, almost as a little joke (no matter; Nyong’o is good in the role). He delves deep into the Star Wars canon and crafts his story as one that both contains surprises and hints at future surprises. Like Lucas before him, Abrams clearly kept a dog-eared Joseph Campbell guidebook on his desk, but he’s also able to craft a story that evokes the mythic without feeling overly schematic. There are dogfights and visits to cantinas and gun battles and of course, the indispensible fact of The Force: who can wield it, and who is misusing it. And anyone who tells you anything more explicit than that deserves to be put on a stormtrooper firing line.
     The script has its lapses in plot logic and a few loose ends (Gwendolyn Christie’s hugely-hyped armored villain, Captain Phasma, is a big letdown), but that’s compensated for by wonderful visuals and a lovely return to the “dirty, used universe” design aesthetic of the original Star Wars, which was shucked by the prequels in favor of sparkly CGI (note the quiet, pitch perfect, grimy world-building in Rey’s introductory scenes, or how BB-8 always has a thin coat of dirt on him). The movie also ends in a spot that practically begs you to buy your ticket now for the upcoming episode 8 (directed by Rian Johnson, due summer 2017). But what a final shot it is. Abrams has done the impossible with Force Awakens, and made a new film that stands proud with the original trilogy, but also works like bananas if you’ve never cared about Star Wars before. The force is that strong with this one. Go and experience it.

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