REVIEW: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

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Caution, concern, skepticism, uncertainty. These are just a few words to describe my feelings after hearing a new Star Wars movie was on the way. After all, we aren’t talking about making any old thing. J.J. Abrams was taking what is arguably the most popular brand of any entertainment form and bringing it back to the big screen. He was tinkering with a property known for having the most passionate, the most protective, the most dedicated, and the most outspoken fan base. He was tackling a franchise viewed as more than a simple series of movies by millions of people from practically every demographic. Abrams was making a new Star Wars movie. No pressure.

Let’s be honest, when Disney acquired the Star Wars brand from George Lucas for $4.06 billion there was reason for Star Wars junkies like myself to at least be cautious. The Disney-fication (my new word) of Star Wars worried me. Then J.J. Abrams was given the keys to the new film. Abrams, a guy I have always seen as hit-or-miss, is best known for rebooting the Star Trek film series. But he didn’t only reboot Star Trek. He completely altered the structure, tone, and feeling of the Star Trek universe replacing it with a hip new Hollywood version. That’s the last thing I want in a new Star Wars picture.

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Abrams, a self-admitted Star Wars fanboy, has said all the right things when talking about the new film. He directs, co-writes, and co-produces “The Force Awakens”, which is essentially Episode VII. It is a film positioned as a conduit connecting the old to the new as well as an injection of fresh energy for a new generation. That sounds good, but can it deliver? Can this new era of Star Wars suck me in like the previous efforts. An answer was hinted at once John Williams’ score struck that glorious and familiar opening note.

I was able to avoid spoilers and all story details which made my viewing experience all the better. For that reason I’ll stay away from any semblance of a plot synopsis. But let’s just say the film starts with a bang and we are quickly introduced to the franchise’s new players. Abrams wants us to make early connections with these folks because they are clearly set to be key ingredients in this film and the franchise in general.

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On one side we meet the resourceful scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley). She’s the highlight of the new bunch – a strong independent sparkplug who is remarkably resourceful yet burdened by her past. We get the jittery, disillusioned Finn (John Boyega). He’s the film’s cowardly lion – a man with a conscience but who is too afraid to follow it. Boyega goes full throttle in every scene which isn’t always the best acting choice. And then there is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the best pilot in the galaxy. He’s a cool, rousing Han Solo type but with Luke Skywalker’s unwavering devotion to his cause. And then there is the little droid BB-8, an example of a cutesy character done right.

 

In the other corner we have The First Order, an evil Third Reich-ish force risen from the ashes of the Empire. They are led (or are they) by the volatile and dangerous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). He is driven by an almost maniacal obsession to be the most feared person in the galaxy. There is the smug opportunist General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) whose lust for power rivals that of Kylo Ren. He operates a Nazi-like military force and flexes his murderous muscles at will. But there is also the shadowy enigmatic Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) who we only see in a familiar grainy hologram form.

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And then you have the classic characters who Star Wars fans love. It has been roughly 30 years since the events of “Return of the Jedi” and names like Han, Luke, and Leia are spoken of by many in near mythical terms. Harrison Ford returns as Han and he gets the bigger chunk of screen time. He’s slower, grayer, but ever the cool space pirate. He and his howling compadre Chewbacca feel as if they haven’t missed a beat. Leia (Carrie Fisher) is focused on leading the resistance movement against The First Order. Luke (Mark Hamill) has disappeared after a particularly troubling event. And of course there is C3PO and R2D2. Seeing these characters again is exciting for any true fanboy. I do think there are moments between them that deserved a little more attention, but I’ll leave that one alone for now.

The real trick for Abrams is juggling all of these characters both old and new. To help he brought in writers Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan (who also worked on the scripts for “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”). The script works mainly because the characters never get lost in a deluge of special effects. Each are given their own moments particularly the new faces who are well-developed and left with enough questions to be intriguing.

Speaking of the effects, there is a ton of CGI yet it never looks overused or blatantly obvious.  As good as the prequels often looked there were many instances where Lucas would visually overload his screen. Not here. Regardless of how fantastical things get, the special effects work to promote the setting, the characters, or the story. The new weapons, vehicles, and technology are fun, much of it based on blueprints from the original trilogy. Star Wars has always been known for its top-notch sound design. Here is no different. And Williams’ score is perfect sometimes feeling plucked right out the earliest films.

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Seasoned Star Wars fans will notice several nostalgic throwbacks, entertaining Easter eggs, and cool bits of fan service, but in a sense this contributes one of the film’s few problems. It plays it too safe specifically in the final act. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fan service. It struck a strong chord with me. But at the same time it kept the big ending on a relatively short leash. It was way too familiar down to certain details. Not bad by any means, but very familiar. It could be that Abrams feared alienating the tough-minded and vocal fan base. I can respect that. Now that he has expressed himself as a Star Wars loyalist I’m hoping the next installments will take us into some newer directions.

But enough of that. I am so happy to be able to stand up and tip my hat to J.J. Abrams. Talk about a bold and pressure-filled undertaking. Taking the reigns of the biggest entertainment franchise in the world was gutsy and the pressures to deliver a new yet faithful sequel were intense. But he does it. “The Force Awakens” is a fun, action-packed tablesetter for a new era of Star Wars. It has heart, emotion, and a childlike exuberance that should spark a flicker of excitement in even the most hardened person’s heart. But most importantly it FEELS LIKE a Star Wars movie. That may sound a bit silly to the more casual audience, but Star Wars fans know exactly what I mean and that may be J.J. Abrams’ single greatest accomplishment with this film.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

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55 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

  1. It does feel like a Star Wars movie. I got so nostalgic when the music started and the words went upwards on the screen. I wasn’t thrilled with Fin and thought he wasn’t as funny as he was meant to be. Would have liked some of the names to be more creative too. But for me when the older characters come back it was golden.

    • Oh man, I had that same reaction once the word started scrolling. I hate to make myself sound like a goofball, but my heart literally started racing. I agree with you about Fin. I think a lot was due to the performance. He is just so big at times. He rarely dials it back at all. I do think he gets better as the movie goes on. Do you like where the story seems to be heading? I think there is loads of potential.

  2. One of the reasons the Special Effects work is because they are used for things that are supposed to be special, rather than filling in every wall, door, hallway and weapon. Sometimes you need the CGI but most of the time, old fashioned miniatures, sets and location work make everything feel so much more real. It’s hard to avoid the spoilers but Abrams did a good job keeping things under wrap for the most part. The last shot id exactly what it is supposed to do, make us want to know what happens next.

    • You are correct on every point. We are on the same page regarding the effects. Abrams really gets it here. And you’re exactly right, they did a superb job of keeping the main plot under wraps. I had boycotted any and every article about the movie for the last several months. That may have been a little extreme but it was worth it.

  3. Great review! I agree that this FEELS like Star Wars. 🙂 Like you, I was very nervous. But they’ve done an excellent job! Even better than I was expecting (and much better than I was hoping). 🙂

    • Thanks so much. I’m with you, this exceeded every expectation and quenched any fear or hesitation I may have had. And don’t you like where it leaves things? There’s no huge monumental cliffhanger. Just characters that we have learned to care about in very intriguing situations.

      • The coolest thing for me is how it has left me feeling! Just like every Star Wars film before it (yes, even the prequels) it has me wanting to talk about it – constantly talk about it. Basically I’m a kid again! 🙂

  4. It must have been a heck of a workload for Abrams undertaking this, good grief. And the guy has been in charge of Star Trek as well, you want to talk about risking filmmaking fatigue? Goodness! I wouldn’t be surprised to hear him make comments some time in the near future that echo Joss Whedon’s sentiments about feeling the pressure, though. 😉

    In all reality, I wasn’t expecting to have much fun with this. I knew I was going to have to see it, but it felt more obligatory than something I truly looked forward to. Still bought a midnight ticket on opening night, got into a theater which wasn’t sold out (that must have put me in a much better mood 😉 ) and ended up having quite a great time. There were some legitimately awesome sequences here, and it was just nice watching on and feeling included in the celebrations rather than feeling stuck on the outside looking in

    • That is an awesome testimony bro. I can’t imagine the pressure especially when you have crank skeptical fanboys like me examining ever decision. Some pretty spectacular groundwork has been laid. And what do you think about their decision to pass the other installments around to different directors (ala Mission Impossible perhaps). Ryan Johnson gets Episode VIII which could be really great.

      • I have to say, I haven’t done much research going forward with the franchise so the rotating of directors is news to me, but I must say I like that a lot. It gives the film fresh eyes, something that I think The Bond franchise has benefitted 100-fold with (and maybe Brosnan just got stuck with the worst bunch of directors!), and it gives this guy some time to breathe as well. I can’t imagine having to shoulder this responsibility. It’s going to be something repeated from now and until forever but I think it’s pretty respectable how Abrams took on this job. Just had to be immensely intimidating

      • It took some guts. I liked Abrams’ Star Trek films as action movies. But they didn’t feel like Star Trek. I was terrified that he would do that here. I think the key difference is that this is a bonafide sequel and I respected his appreciation for that.

  5. Nice review Keith. I was pretty cautious about The Force Awakens as well as my memories of Star Wars had largely been tarnished by the prequels and Lucas’ re-edits of the originals. But seeing this reminded me how much I love the original trilogy and Star Wars in general. I can’t remember coming out of a movie feeling so overjoyed in such a long time.

    • Wasn’t it nice? I left with the exact same feeling. And we had every reason to be cautious. What do you think of Abrams up to this point? I have been very mixed. But I give it to him. He deserves so much credit for getting this thing off on the right foot.

    • Oh Cindy it didn’t disappoint. Abrams really stayed true to the special feel of the franchise. I have to give him a ton of credit. I wouldn’t want that responsibility but now I can say I’m glad he took it on himself. He has thing off on the right foot! Seeing it tomorrow? Anxious to hear your take on it.

  6. Couldn’t agree more. I loved the start of this journey for the characters. Finn was my favorite as I felt he at first represented the audience, but becomes his own later on. I love the charisma that John Boyega brought to the role. It may take a lot from A New Hope but I won’t complain since that’s my fave film in the series and favorite film ever. Another great review!

    • I was proud at the reverence shown by Abrams. You can tell he has an affection for this franchise. And don’t you love the new and fresh energy this film has brought? I think Rey is my favorite of the newcomers. I like Finn but I was a little mixed on Boyega’s performance in the first half. But I thought he got better as the movie moved along and I’m really interested to see where the character goes.

  7. Awesome review Keith! Abrams was certainly the right man for the job (I’m one of the few die hard Trekkies that actaully liked what he did with the Star Trek reboots). I agree, though, that it would be good to see Episodes VIII & IX venture into less familiar territory plot-wise.

    Looking forward to Rogue One next year!

    • Thank you Chris. I can’t tell you how excited I am for where the franchise is at tight now. I was really skeptical (unnecessarily so). Hats off to Abrams though. He did it! And yes, bring on Rogue One!

    • Thanks a ton Adam. Abrams definitely laid some good groundwork, didn’t he? And the more I think about my main quibble (the familiarity of the story) the more I am okay with it. In a sense it is like Abrams is putting our minds at ease by showing his devotion to the roots of the franchise. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next film really branched off into new areas. Do you read it the same way?

  8. I had to avoid the spoilers for the past few days and man, it was worth it as I was wowed by the film from start to finish. I may have gone to a morning screening at 9:30 AM but it was fucking worth it. J.J. did it right and he managed to convey the things about what I loved about the series where he wasn’t afraid to borrow storylines and such but he also brought something new as well as characters to root for. Now I want to see Episode VIII

    • Wasn’t it great? Completely surprised me. I had bad feelings about it. Serious hesitations. All of those feelings were for nothing. Abrams genuinely showed reverence for the franchise and I greatly appreciate that. Now that he has shown his loyalty, I’m anxious to see The series mark a new path. And think about it, with the one-shot movies combined with the regular series, this thing could explore so many areas.

  9. Glad for you and glad for the rest of us that this stacked up! It exceeded my expectations and I had a real blast with it, as you know. Just so great to be properly back in this universe, but like you I’m delighted that the new characters worked and that there are plenty of questions about them going forward. I especially didn’t want a one-dimensional villain, and Ren is anything but. I want to see what happens to him even more than I want to see what happens to Rey. Loved BB-8 too, I think they got that just right and the film didn’t miss R2 or 3PO. Anyway, forget about Luke…where was Lando?!!!

    • My son asked that same question, “Where is Lando”. I mentioned that he didn’t appear until the second film of the original trilogy so maybe in episode VIII. Obviously that is the flimsiest and most uneducated speculation!

      I’m glad you mentioned Ren. I too found him interesting and multi-layered. SPOILER WARNING (for anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the film). When leaving the theater I heard two different guys complaining about him to their friends. Both were talking about how the just laughed when he took off his helmet. They were complaining about him not looking tough or intimidating. But isn’t that the whole point. As cool and as menacing as he looks, once the helmet is removed he is anything but. We clearly see weakness. We see it in his failures and in his tantrums. And we even see it in his helmet. He doesn’t need that helmet the way Vader did (whom is desperately wants to be). He wears it to be menacing. It even changes his voice to sound more menacing. I was surprised these guys didn’t pick up on those things. That is what made his character so unique IMO.

      • Excellent points. I saw it with a friend who was also unimpressed by Ren, but as you say there are so many doubts and desires to be perceived a certain way it makes the character very interesting. I’d expect to see the whole ‘hero’s journey’ thing but it’s pretty cool that we’re (probably) going to see the full journey of a villain too.
        You may well be right re Lando…perhaps he will show up later!

  10. Hey Keith! Great review man, you made a lot of great points here about why this film works. Abrams must’ve breathed a sigh of relief given that most fan seem to be happy w/ it. “…a property known for having the most passionate, the most protective, the most dedicated, and the most outspoken fan base…” You can say that again, ahah, I feel like even though I wasn’t really harsh in my *review*, some people can get quite defensive. I didn’t rate this one, but I think I’d give it a 4/5 given the arduous task Abrams had before him and yet he managed to pull it off. Certainly way better than what Colin Trevorrow did w/ the Jurassic Park franchise.

    • We Star Wars maniacs can get a little defensive. But I thought you were very fair with your review. We talked about a few points on it but I could tell you enjoyed it, maybe more than you ever expected to. To be honest that’s how it was with me. I was so hesitant and overly cautious. I saw so many ways this could go bad. I think that’s why I’m so thrilled with the end results.

  11. Great review. I loved this movie. I’m going to go see it again on Christmas with my parents and then I’ll deliver my own review of the film. But what I can say, is that this is easily the best Star Wars film in decades. What I’ve noticed about what other people have said about The Force Awakens is how much it feels like A New Hope in terms of story beats. I can certainly see that, but with the exception of one MAJOR plot point, I can honestly say that J.J. Abrams was playing it safe. He wanted to give the fans a film that felt both familiar and fresh at the same time. To do that, sometimes you have to follow what a previous film had done before. In doing so, Abrams managed to do what George Lucas failed to do with the Prequels: preserve the spirit of Star Wars. The film wisely answers certain questions about what we saw in the trailers and yet leaves other questions unanswered for Episodes VIII and IX to address. The film was absolutely epic, but I’m sure it will pail in comparison to what’s coming. While The Force Awakens isn’t perfect, it is by far one of my favorite movies of 2015, if not my favorite. I didn’t think it would be, since we saw an incredible year of movies. With Episode VIII in pre-production with filming starting next year, I’m genuinely excited about Star Wars again. Next year, Rogue One is apparently going to address how the Rebels got the plans to the original Death Star. In some ways, it’s supposed to a kind of a heist movie. I think it’s okay to be a Star Wars fan again.

    • Thanks for the great comments. Glad you liked it too. I agree that JJ was playing it safe but I do think it’s understandable. I think he wanted to put at ease the minds of the skeptics (which I admit to being). I think he did a great job and I too think the next films will launch into some cool new places. I too am seeing it again this coming weekend and I can’t wait.

      • I wasn’t quite as skeptical once I heard that Abrams was more of a fan of Star Wars than Star Trek. It was definitely wise of Disney to put him in charge, and the results speak for themselves: Records have been shattered, and the film is well on its way to being one of the biggest movies of all time. Easily. After I take my parents to go see it, I’m going to go see it for a THIRD time in IMAX 3D. Never been to an IMAX theater before, so for my first time, it’s gonna be a Star Wars movie. Now, I’m honestly thrilled about the New Expanded Universe surrounding these movies.

      • You will love the IMAX experience! I bet it is especially good for this one. And it is definitely shattering records. $517 million globally on its opening weekend??? Wow!

  12. Well, Keith, I took my parents to go see Star Wars today, and they loved it. For me, it was even better the second time around. I’ve got my review of the film up on my website, but I plan on doing another post, just talking all about the movie, where I think it’s going to go, who Snoke actually is, among other things. It’s just genuinely a great movie. Is it the best Star Wars movie? No, Empire Strikes Back still has that title, but The Force Awakens isn’t really that far behind. I’ve always been a huge fan of Star Wars, but I’ve got the Star Wars fever the likes of which I haven’t felt in a long time.

    • I love what your saying. TFA has definitely stirred up that excitement again in me as well. I’m with you, Empire is still the top dog, but this has the new era heading in a potentially terrific direction.

      Seeing it again Sunday. CANNOT WAIT!!!

  13. Pingback: The Top 10 Films of 2015 | Keith & the Movies

  14. Excellent work here! I loved this. I was really worried up until it was announced that Abrams would helm the film’s direction. Then I got excited. Very excited. I had a blast with this, and it does feel like a Star Wars film. So much worked in here, even though there were some drawbacks I wasn’t too keen on. I happily went to this film twice, and will certainly be adding it to my collection!

    • You and I felt exactly the same way then. Abrams did give me cause to worry. But I am so happy that my worries were for nothing. I too saw it twice and I think it was even better the second time. And don’t you think Abrams has put the franchise in a really good place going forward?

      • 🙂 It would seem so hehehe. Ah, I am happy to hear you were worried for nothing. Abrams understands sci-fi, and he understands taking on such a huge franchise. Personally, I love what he did with Star Trek, so when he came on board I got excited cause I know he is a SW geek. I think he has set up the future for these films beautifully, and I cannot wait to see where they go. That, and I really, really want to see Adam Driver’s hair again. For glory.

      • LOL! The glorious Adam Driver hair! Who knew that was going to be such a big thing? 🙂

        It’s funny, I like what Abrams has done with Star Trek also, but I am a pretty mediocre Star Trek franchise fan. I do think if I was thoroughly invested in all of Star Trek I may be mad at how he turned it into a big action-oriented sci-fi film series. But I am a Star Wars junkie and the main thing I wanted was for this to feel like a Star Wars movie. I know it sounds weird but Star Wars films have a distinct camaraderie and connect between them. If this one had lacked that I would’ve been heartbroken. But who cares now, it absolutely feels like Star Wars.

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