MOVIE REVIEW: No Jedi mind trick – ‘Force Awakens’ IS the ‘Star Wars’ film you’re looking for
Just a few minutes into “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” longtime fans of the franchise can sense something, a presence they’ve not felt since… seeing “Return of the Jedi.” Whether you loved the prequel movies or despised them, many can at least agree that they are quite different films from the original trilogy in both appearance and tone, fitting together in some ways and standing in stark contrast in others. It’s clear right away, however, that “The Force Awakens” manages to capture the iconic feel of the old films while exploring parts of the galaxy far, far away and its mythology that we’ve never seen before.
Picking the space saga up roughly 30 years after “ROTJ,” it actually feels more like “A New Hope,” and that’s on purpose; unlike many blockbuster films these days, it’s evident that each and every detail here was carefully thought-out and constructed. Yes, it’s truly constructed – genuine sets and practical effects help establish these alien locales as real places and, directorially, it’s easily J. J. Abrams’ best-looking film, inspiring awe in some shots and nostalgia in others, accented by a familiar John Williams score.
It’s the engaging cast, though, that really pulls it all together. In the opening scene, we meet Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, the best pilot in the Resistance (formerly the Rebel Alliance) who is trying to keep important information out of the hands of the First Order (previously the Empire) with the help of his likeable droid, BB-8. He finds an unlikely ally in John Boyega’s character, Finn, a stormtrooper who doesn’t agree with the ruthlessness of the First Order but isn’t quite ready to become part of the Resistance just yet. Daisy Ridley is the feisty Rey, a scavenger on a desert planet who is forced out of her simple but sad existence when she crosses paths with BB-8 and begins following her destiny.
Adam Driver dons the mask and black robes as Kylo Ren, the somewhat sympathetic Sith Lord that you are guaranteed to hate by the end of the film. Domhnall Gleeson plays General Hux, a rival bad guy to Kylo with his own brand of efficient evil, and Gwendoline Christie is Captain Phasma, sort of the mysterious Boba Fett of “Episode VII.” Toss in Andy Serkis as the shadowy Emperor-like Supreme Leader Snoke and you’ve got a well-rounded group of villains to keep things interesting – even the Stormtroopers pose a viable threat as they hit their targets and slaughter anyone in their path.
While the returning cast members from the original trilogy are reduced to supporting roles or, in some cases, small cameos, they are there to enhance the stories of the new characters, not overshadow them, while bookending their own story arcs from the previous films. That’s a smart move, considering how “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” turned out, though Harrison Ford is, thankfully, given much better material to work with here. Both Han Solo and General Leia Organa are older and wiser now, and so are Ford and Carrie Fisher – a silent exchange of looks when they first meet on-screen again after 32 years says it all. Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker is… well… worth waiting for. The first and final shots of the film stick with you long after the lights go up.
There is plenty more to be said about “The Force Awakens,” but with so many fans out there hoping to avoid spoilers, it’s best to simply see it for yourself. Yes, it lives up to the hype. Yes, it ranks up there with the old movies. Is it as quotable? Will its scenes become as quintessential? That is to be determined by time and multiple viewings, but if you really need further convincing, just stand outside a movie theater at the end of any showing.
After seeing it at Cinemark in Moosic on opening night, clusters of fans gathered in the halls and throughout the parking lot to discuss what they has seen and plan their next showing. Hands flailed wildly as excited voices recalled new favorite moments and debated what future installments would bring. Aptly named, “The Force Awakens” rouses the kind of joy and enthusiasm that only something as classic as “Star Wars” could bring, so don’t mistake this as the empty nostalgia fest that many sequels and remakes have become – this is a true “Star Wars” film as only true fans like Abrams could create.
Following years of bitter debate with creator George Lucas over the direction he took the franchise, Disney’s first crack at the series may surround us, penetrate us, and bind the fandom together, just like the Force did all those years ago. Isn’t that what “Star Wars” is all about?