‘The Force Awakens’ returns the ‘Star Wars’ saga to its glory days with pizzazz

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Consider this a review or consider this a rant but because of how important this movie is to so many people, I vow to keep this primer on The Force Awakens short, to the point, and absolutely devoid of spoilers. I won’t even discuss the basics of the plot or even what you’ve probably seen countless times in the trailers.

So let’s get this out of the way, shall we? First of all, believe the hype because after 32 long years, the wait for a straight up, rock solid new Star Wars movie has finally come to an end! J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens is a jubilant, thrilling and energetic joy ride that plays like a greatest hits mix-tape of everything you loved about the original Star Wars saga – and then some. It’s breathlessly paced, beautifully shot and told with panache. It’s a rousing high-stakes adventure chock full of flashy gizmos, droids and critters, space dog fights and light saber duels. At the same time, it’s also an intimate and human story about characters with character; living, breathing individuals defined by their dreams, fears and insecurities. Gone are the days where a new Star Wars movie meant endless scenes of mannequins masquerading as characters dangled in front of green screens. Though we’ll never be able to wipe our memories clean of the putrid excesses of George Lucas’ prequel trilogy, there’s a quantum of satisfaction in knowing that the future of this series is once again in safe hands.

Although Episode VII steadfastly plays within the iron-clad template established by The New Hope, checking off all the requisite beats you’d expect from a blockbuster of this scale, Abrams along with co-screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt succeed in crafting a picture that somehow still manages to feel fresh and exciting. They do so by introducing an endearing slate of new characters, by weaving a propulsive narrative that hits the ground running and never lets up, and by carefully stirring all these new elements with the old staples. This is a film that pays homage to the franchise’s glorious history while also looking to the future. Moreover, unlike the people involved with this summer’s deplorable Jurassic World, there’s no shameless fan service here. Sure, there are nods aplenty but they’re seamlessly integrated – never distracting from the story and characters at hand.

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But perhaps the most revelatory aspect of this new movie is how progressively minded it is. The fact that the three leads in the biggest movie franchise on the planet are played by a woman, a black man and a Latino is truly… invigorating. While Oscar Isaac is given the least screen time of the trio, he nevertheless makes his mark in a fun and enthusiastic performance as a gifted rebel pilot. Ditto John Boyega who gets to sink his teeth in what may be the most complex character arc of the film. But if The Force Awakens has a breakout star, it’s Daisy Ridley. Her Rey is a strong-willed and independent woman—brave and talented like Luke Skywalker, rebellious and badass like Han Solo, and shrewd and charming like Leia. Ridley is the soul of this picture and her tremendous turn is a long-needed respite from the days of Hayden “Manakin” Christensen. As for the old guard of characters… you know, Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie and gang… all I’ll say is I was beaming like a kid at Magic Kingdom when they first pop up on screen.

Contrary to early reports, The Force Awakens isn’t the greatest blockbuster ever made (hah!) nor is it among the very best movies of 2015 either. The movie has its fair share of problems but I won’t be getting into those problems in this space. Still, whatever those flaws are, they’re minor speed bumps compared to its numerous strengths. This may be as safe and nostalgic as blockbuster cinema can get but from the very first note of John Williams’ iconic theme song to its stirring final shot, you can tell that this is a piece of fizzy pop blockbuster filmmaking that’s been seasoned and seared by people who know exactly what they’re doing. In the end, that’s all what I ask for in a franchise like this.

Like Star Trek and Mission: Impossible before this, Abrams has now built a reputation for stewarding classic properties of pop culture and repackaging them for new generations. With The Force Awakens, he not only refashions Star Wars for the future, giving it that trademark Abrams energy (zooms, push ins, pans, shaky cams, longer takes, flickering lights etc…) but he also gives us hope—a new hope, if you will—that wherever the series goes from here, the stage has been set. Your move, Rian Johnson!

 

B+ Grade

 

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenwriters: J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk

Editing: Maryann Brandon, Mary Jo Markey
Cinematography: Dan Mindel
Music: John Williams
Production Design: Rick Carter, Darren Gilford

Running time: 135 minutes
Companies: Walt Disney Pictures, LucasFilm
Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence

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