STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS – Movie Review

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WARNING: MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW

There’s something about being an outsider. As I sat in the theater awaiting The Force Awakens, I kept internally punching myself for being so late to the game. I didn’t grow up watching Star Wars. It just never hooked me, and that may be because my first stab at watching one of the movies was when I was around twelve and it was The Phantom Menace (because, you have to start with Episode I, right?). Ever since then, I just ignored the franchise.

A few years later, though, I tried it again, this time starting with the real first episode, aptly titled Star Wars. Still being my favorite of the franchise, Lucas’ first film (now retitled A New Hope) is a marvel in science-fiction, not for groundbreaking new dramatic concepts (although those do arrive in The Empire Strikes Back), but for an enormous sense of fun and adventure, as well as for being the introduction to a universe that has grown enormously.

I like to consider myself a “Star Wars fan.” I’ve seen all the movies, I own all the movies, I’ve watched some of The Clone Wars (I know, I know, I’ll get back on that very soon), I watch Star Wars: Rebels, and I have many Star Wars action figures and diecast models. However, as far as the “true fans” are concerned, the force may not be as strong with me as it is with them. They are the ones that wore out their VHS tapes by rewatching the original trilogy over and over again, while I was reading my Batman comics and missing out on a childhood.

Still, even though I didn’t grow up hearing John Williams’ epic theme paired with the iconic opening crawl, I have learned to adapt to it and it wasn’t until “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” lit up my theater screen that I truly felt like I was among a new breed of species. This whole Star Wars thing may have some truly silly and flawed elements, but as the yellow Star Wars logo rolled from the front of the screen and the crawl introduced “Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” and everyone in the theater applauded, it was truly something of a spiritual experience.

The Force Awakens has not only everything Star Wars fans want, but also everything they need. This is a completely, unwaveringly satisfying motion picture, and it goes beyond just being satisfied as a Star Wars fan. There’s great humor, great action, great cinematography, sure-handed direction, wonderful acting, gasp-worthy moments, emotional tenderness, and, to top it all off, the best villain the Star Wars franchise has seen (more on him later).

In direct opposition to the prequels (none of which I like), The Force Awakens opens on the new planet of Jakku, a place not unlike Tattooine and one that Star Wars fans are sure to fall in love with. Of course it’s sandy, because this series thinks that showing you sand will subliminally tell you that the bad guys won’t be there because they don’t like sand. Sorry, Lucas, but that was only Anakin, and that is made clear within the first fifteen minutes. After being introduced to BB-8 (my favorite droid in the Star Wars universe) and his master Poe Dameron (a terrific Oscar Isaac, who hopefully gets much more screen time in the next two installments), the baddie of this Episode lands right on the sand.

His name is Kylo Ren, and he’s come in the spirit of Darth Vader, trying his best to mimic Vader’s legacy (apparently he didn’t hear about the sand). He may not have control on the galaxy with such a firm hand, but that hand is there and his control is known throughout a decent part of the galaxy. After the introduction to his character, we’re off. We meet our main character, Rey, a scavenger roaming random wreckages among Jakku just to make a living. As Rey, newcomer Daisy Ridley is unfathomably wondrous, and that’s just because I can’t think of any better words. After meeting Finn, a Stormtrooper on the run due to an internal moral struggle, Rey takes him (and BB-8) along for a journey that includes the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo, and a map.

In terms of structure, The Force Awakens borrows heavily from A New Hope, and harsh critics are taking that and running with it. But when the prequels released, their biggest complaint was how different it felt from the original trilogy. You can’t please a critic. So, when I say that The Force Awakens is structurally identical to A New Hope (with some Empire and Jedi stuff thrown in), don’t take it as a criticism. I loved it, even if it does get a bit silly in the third act.

Up until then (and even afterward), The Force Awakens is nearly flawless, completely nailing what Abrams and company set out to do: please the fans and spark a new adventure. Throughout the entirety of the 135 minute run time, I was engaged, never once wanting to check my watch. Just like Abrams’ series Lost, the pace of Star Wars VII is so rapid that you won’t believe it’s really over when it is (which is partly due to the insane final shot, which may leave some fans upset, but it just left me eager).

As I’ve been saying all along, J.J. was a perfect choice to helm this movie not because all of his past movies have been flawless (they haven’t) but because he is a true fan of the material. The Force Awakens is what happens when you let a fan step behind the camera. As director, Abrams nails it, doing for Star Wars what he needed to do. He introduced new characters, gave us some emotional content, but for the most part, let us indulge in some grand character moments, iconic revivals, and breathtaking action. His signature directorial stuff is there (lens flares, crash-zooms, etc.), but strangely, it didn’t make the movie feel like less of a Star Wars movie. It felt lively and enthusiastic. I bet Abrams had a blast making this movie.

From the moment it was announced that Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew would be returning as Han and Chewie, it was assumed that they would make some kind of cameo or play a small role in the film’s finale. Nope. They’re in for the long haul, being introduced fairly early on and actually going on the adventure with Rey and Finn. Seeing those two back on screen, bantering back and forth in ways that perfectly recaptured the original trilogy, was truly something special, and it’s something that’s going to remain with Star Wars fans forever.

Surprisingly, though, Han and Chewie aren’t the best part of the movie. Rey, the film’s primary protagonist, is intriguing, and I choose this word over “a great character” because, even though I think she is a great character so far, the movie doesn’t give us much of a backstory with her, which I think is necessary before we start calling her a great Star Wars character. What is certain is that she is awesome, wielding her stick and using her fighting abilities both surprise Finn (who constantly wants to save her) and even do some other interesting stuff in the third act. Which leads to more questions like, “How did she do that with no training at all?” But I’m assuming that Episode VIII will answer those questions.

Finn is another awesome new character, and Attack the Block star John Boyega has really visibly had a blast portraying him. His character is a fascinating one because he is technically on the bad side at first, but the good within him takes over, and seeing his journey with Rey and BB-8 is a hilarious and adventurous one.

Another character that is on the dark side but feels the good within him is Kylo Ren. Only thing is, he chooses to fight the light and longs to stay in the darkness, speaking to Darth Vader’s burnt helmet in an attempt to gain wisdom and insight from the darkest Sith of all. There are a few differences between the two though. One, Kylo Ren has a temper tantrum, and the filmmakers use that for some pretty hilarious moments (one involving two Stormtroopers). Secondly, Kylo Ren has some gorgeous black hair. And finally, well, simply put, Kylo Ren is better.

I know what you’re thinking. How on earth could I call this new villain in a movie that just released yesterday better than the most iconic movie villain of all time? Kylo is more relatable, he’s more personal, and his heritage interested me more than Vader’s. Again, this is probably because I didn’t grow up watching the films over and over again, but I think Kylo Ren is the best Star Wars villain, barely edging out The Inquisitor from Rebels (yes, I also like him more than Vader). Adam Driver is phenomenal in the role, and his voice is equal parts funny and menacing. He’s easily the best movie villain in years.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens borrows heavily from the original trilogy, but that can’t be considered a flaw. If anything, we should be thanking J.J. Abrams for reinvigorating the franchise on the big screen again and getting a new generation (as well as the older) excited for Star Wars again. From the opening shot, the battles, the props, the creatures, the explosions, and the music (oh, John Williams’ sweet, sweet music) just feels like Star Wars. It isn’t without its flaws (pacing issues in the second act, silly third act actions by the First Order), but this is truly one of the most satisfying movies I’ve ever seen.

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