Friday, December 25, 2015

My Official Take on 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

After more than a week and no less than four viewings, I've finally decided how I truly feel about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Yes, I was ecstatic about the movie when I first watched it in a theater packed with die-hard fans, ready to rank J.J. Abrams' continuation of George Lucas' groundbreaking saga just behind The Empire Strikes Back. Following my initial gushing, I've been bombarded in person and on social media by differing opinions, many of which have weirdly forced me to defend this movie as though I have some kind of stake in it. Yet, in many ways, I do. The Star Wars series has been a huge part of who I am since I was three years old, so it's hard not to take that criticism personally. That's likely why it took me so long to fully collect my thoughts on the film. As I sit here in my Yoda shirt on Christmas night, ready am I.

My final verdict? Yes, I still love this movie and, yes, it's still just behind Empire in my mind.

I know, I know. This movie was just a rehash of A New Hope, right? There's no way I could possibly love a sequel that intentionally shares the same motifs as the original, could I? So I should also hate movies like Jurassic World, the Toy Story sequels,  Terminator 2: Judgment Day, every James Bond movie after Dr. No and all of the superhero origin stories we've seen on film over the last decade, shouldn't I? Got it.


Moving right along, The Force Awakens is fun, giving us that swashbuckling, escapist sense of adventure that was sorely missing in Lucas' prequel films. The new cast, including Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron) and Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) is fantastic, and I'm excited to see how these characters and their relationships to one another shift and evolve in the next two films. It was great seeing old faces return to pass the torch to the new cast, with Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher bringing some welcome gravitas as aged smuggler Han Solo and princess-turned-general Leia Organa. Chewbacca steals more scenes than he ever did in the original films, and C-3PO and R2-D2 shine despite the introduction of the ultra cute and incredibly toyetic BB-8. I also really enjoyed Lupita Nyong'o's Maz Kanata, a mysterious sage who has a deep connection to the Force and the Skywalker clan. As for Luke ... let's just say his big reveal has me clamoring for Episode VIII.

There's visual grandeur to be experienced for sure, including a thrilling Millennium Falcon chase through starship detritus on the junkyard world of Jakku and eye-popping dog fights between X-wings and TIE fighters. But it wasn't all about computer-generated wizardry this time around. Practical effects were used liberally in the production of The Force Awakens, with puppets and costumed actors populating sets and starships that were created by real-world craftsmen, not animators. Abrams' ability to discern what should be created physically to get the best performances possible from his cast is one that I hope he shares with the other filmmakers charged with continuing the franchise under Disney.

As incredible as this film looks and feels, the real effect that impressed me throughout The Force Awakens' 136-minute running time was the script by series veteran Lawrence Kasdan. While the prequels frequently suffered from clunky dialogue delivered by actors that seemed less than confident in what they were saying, The Force Awakens' script crackles with life, mixing humor with peril in ways that never involve an aquatic cartoon rabbit stepping in animal feces.

Despite my praise, I would never call The Force Awakens perfect. The monstrous Supreme Leader Snoke, the main baddie played by Lord of the Rings veteran Andy Serkis, would probably have been more effective as an actor wearing makeup, and not a CGI creation. There's also the issue of Captain Phasma, who amounts to a non-character. Why cast Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones) if she's just going to be window dressing? When we pegged her as "the next Boba Fett" a year ago, we were kinda hoping she'd have more screentime than he did.

Star Wars is back in a big way, and The Force Awakens is exactly what I wanted in a continuation of the story I fell in love with nearly 30 years ago. Kids have new characters to latch onto (namely Rey, who's one of the best female heroes to emerge this year), and adults have all new questions to obsess about as we wait impatiently for the next installment in 2017. As Billy Murray's Nick Winter once sang on Saturday Night Live,  "Gimme those Star Wars ... don't let them end."

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