REVIEW: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

STAR WARS POSTER

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.

Starwars1

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.

Star Wars3

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.

Star wars2

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.

star wars 4

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

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIE TOUGH GIRLS

There’s plenty of action pictures featuring movie tough guys. In fact, an entire action genre centered around muscle-bound movie tough guys in the 80’s and early 90’s. But we do a disservice if we fail to recognize that there have been some tough-as-nails women that can hold their own against any of the guys. So I thought it would be fun to give the ladies their due by listing 5 Phenomenal Movie Tough Girls. It may surprise you but there are a lot more tough girls to choose from than you might think. So after much deliberation here are my top five. As always, this isn’t the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 Movie Tough Girls are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – ALICE (“Resident Evil” Series)

While the movies are far from great, Milla Jovovich’s Alice has evolved into a very recognizable movie tough girl. Through several sequels she has punched, kicked, sliced, and shot her way through hordes of zombies and creatures. Jovovich has used shotguns, rocket launchers, swords, and special powers and she does it with the same sneering gravitas that many of the better male action stars used. Even though she doesn’t have the best material to work with, there’s just something too cool about watching Alice in action.

#4 – MALLORY KANE (“Haywire”)

Gina Carano blew me away with this year’s “Haywire”. She plays a government black ops agent who is double crossed and on the run. Director Steven Soderbergh puts Carano’s MMA background on display as she kicks butt from New York to Barcelona to Mexico. She has attitude to spare and her ability to fight is undeniable (just ask the likes of Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, and Antonio Banderas). If you doubt that Mallory Kane belongs on this list, check out “Haywire”. It just came out on DVD.

#3 – SARAH CONNOR (“Terminator 2: Judgement Day”)

In the first Terminator picture, Sarah Connor was your basic girl on the run from danger. Boy how things change in “Terminator 2”. Linda Hamilton bulks up and gives Sarah a harder edge and an almost militaristic personality. Knowing the war that’s coming, Sarah fights alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and more than holds her own. Whether it’s with her fists or with machine guns, she blasts away at anyone who gets in her way including the new T-1000 terminator. This new Sarah Connor certainly qualifies as a movie tough girl.

#2 – PRINCESS LEIA (“Star Wars” Series)

When watching the original “Star Wars”, it doesn’t take long to see that Princess Leia is as tough as they come. We see her open rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire and her unwillingness to compromise with them in the movie’s first scenes. It also doesn’t take Han and Luke long to see that she’s a no-nonsense woman who tells it like it is. She’s handy with the laser blaster and she doesn’t mind putting herself in danger. She plays an intricate role in saving Han’s life and it was Leia that kills Jabba the Hutt. Carrie Fisher’s Leia is as surly as any tough guy and she has the smarts to make things happen. Leia is the quintessential tough girl.

#1- ELLEN RIPLEY (“Alien” Series)

It’s been argued that Ellen Ripley is the best female movie character of all time. I don’t know about that but I do think she’s the toughest female character of all time. And regardless of what other role she may play, anytime I see Sigourney Weaver, I automatically think of Ellen Ripley. In the first Alien picture she was the only survivor of her ship’s crew and she single-handedly killed the alien. In the second film we see just how tough Ripley is. She uses grenades, flamethrowers, pulse rifles, and even a robotic crane to kill a load of aliens and even the queen. In the third film she even kills herself to keep the alien inside of her from getting out. Throughout the series Ripley encounters a variety of so-called tough guys. Isn’t it interesting that she is the one that actually survives. Sounds like she’s the one that’s truly tough.

There you have it. There were several others that I considered but these were the five that stood out the most. Do you agree or disagree with my list? Do you see someone who I left off? Who would you include on your list? Please take time to comment and share who is your favorite tough girl.