Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens - The Franchise Reborn

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) Starring: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamil, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams Michael Arndt. Story by George Lucas. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk. 135 min. Color. U.S.A. Science Fiction, Action, Adventure, Fantasy

You’d have to be off the grid and off planet not to know there is a new Star Wars film in the theaters, The Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams.  Even if you’re not a part of “social” media, you can’t avoid the marketing for this film which seems to have reached most areas within the consumer market, from truck ads to food on the grocer’s shelves to the seemingly endless line of toys.

While no film could live up to such hype, The Force Awakens comes pretty close. As you’ve no doubt heard, this one is setting boxoffice records, but that’s really not a measure of how good a film is. With a built in and loyal fan base, we’ve seen far worse films from this franchise (prequel trilogy) made into megahits. Add in 6,000 screens and higher ticket prices, not to mention add-ons for 3-D and IMAX, and we could be in for a new all-time box-office champ.

I will say that while I waited with my family for the film to start at the Cinerama Dome on Sunday afternoon, I was nervous. The previous films, Episodes I through III, had been disappointing. Maybe it was time for someone else to take over the franchise, but I will admit I was uneasy about Disney putting Abrams in charge. While he might have suggested the story, the lack of George Lucas’ involvement seems to have been a good thing.

The story, and I will endeavor not to spoil anything, is actually very involving. There are a couple of Deus Ex Machina moments, but that seems to be my experience with Abrams’ work. If you accept it as part of the territory, they really don’t get in the way. The story involves many of the same plotlines that have been a part of the franchise from the beginning: parentage and the struggle of good v, evil, once again “the Force” and “the dark side.” There are other throwbacks to the original films as well and John Williams is back as film composer.

To my surprise, for the first time in a Star Wars film, people seem to talk like people talk, with awkward moments and sarcasm. It was quite refreshing. Exposition is handled much better than the clunky way Lucas often did and even the new characters seem to be well-rounded and it didn’t take an entire trilogy to tell their story. Bravo to screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams and Michael Arndt, who have written one of the best Star Wars scripts. Not everything is explained, but that's what sequels are for, aren't they? The writers manage to pay homage to the past while at the same time pointing the way to future adventures or should I say episodes?

Lego recreation of the director and cast going through a table read of the screenplay
written by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt.

The main actors from Star Wars through Return of the Jedi, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, are back, but Ford does most of the heavy-lifting as far as acting goes. He does get top billing after all. Chewbacca is also back in the fold. The droids we’ve also come to love also appear, though in much reduced roles. Lucas had planned for them to be in all nine of the films he envisioned, but if they had been in this much more they wouldn’t have made this film better.

Newcomer Rey (Daisy Ridley) learns from Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in the new Star Wars film.

But The Force Awakens is really more about the next generation and they are very well represented by Daisy Ridley as Rey; John Boyega as Finn aka FN-2187, Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron and Adam Driver as Ben. Ridley, a virtual unknown, is phenomenal in what should be a breakout role for her. Boyega, is also not a familiar face, unless you count the numerous trailers for this film, but he is good as well. I can’t say too much more about these actors and these roles without giving too much away, but trust me, the acting is very solid all the way round.

John Boyega plays Finn in The Force Awakens.

As a counter to the return of C-3PO and R2-D2, a new droid, BB-8 is introduced. While he's presented as a youthful R2-D2 style bot, since he's been available for purchase since the summer, one has to wonder how much of his introduction was for story and how much for merchandising.

BB-8 is presented as the new generation's R2-D2 and is available for purchase at many fine retailers.

Having recently seen the original Return of the Jedi makes the special effects seem all the more amazing. While filmmakers endeavored to make as many of the special effects practical as possible, any film about space requires blue screens, green screens and plenty of CGI, all of which seem to mesh well with location shooting. There are the usual diversity of alien races, but these don’t look like grown up Muppets, the way they did in Return of the Jedi. And if you have a chance to see this in 3-D, then do it.

Despite my concerns, J.J. Abrams really came through here. He not only managed the myth, but he actually made a better story than I could have hoped for. Now, I guess I should worry that he’s not directing the next installment. That’s really too bad, on so many levels. A franchise, like a good team, needs strong leadership. We don’t want to see Star Wars go the way of the Die Hard franchise, which suffers without someone to give it direction. Lucas might have needed to go, but the series needs an overall vision, that constantly changing of creative teams would seem to work against.

I had my concerns, but J.J. Abrams rose to the occasion with his work on The Force Awakens.

Overall I would say that this is the best Star Wars film since the original. It may not live up to the hype, but it is well worth watching at least once. If you’re like my family, you may want to see it again. If you’re a real fan boy, you’ll go broke watching it.

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