The votes are in! We now know what The Most Entertaining Movie of 2015 was…and it’s ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’! Yes, folks…I had a feeling it was going to come down to this…and it did. ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ was, hands down, the coolest movie to hit screens this year, in my humble opinion. But…’The Force Awakens’ isn’t lagging THAT far behind. It’s also a damn good movie; a movie that effectively removes the putrid shit stink residue left by Star Wars creator George Lucas’ mind-numbingly stupid and incompetent prequels. THIS IS A STAR WARS MOVIE!! It’s what we, the fans, have been hoping for since ‘The Return of the Jedi’ hit the screens way back in 1983. JJ Abrams once again proves that he has the Midas Touch when it comes to the rebooting of old, beloved franchises (see: ‘Mission: Impossible’, see: ‘Star Trek’, etc). It’s clear that the man is an old-school fan, just like SO many of us out there. I grew up with the Star Wars franchise. The first one came into existence the year I was born and I was a Star Wars fanatic as a kid through the entirety of the 1980’s. When it was announced that more Star Wars movies were coming out, following the questionably retouched 1997 rereleases of the original trilogy (Blinking Ewoks? Sure. Musical number in Jabba’s palace? Fuck no!), I was naturally excited. Then I had the distinct pleasure (yep…heavy sarcasm) of seeing ‘Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace’ in May of 1999…and for a moment, I knew what prison rape must be like. THAT piece of shit was a harsh slap in the face of the fans, a slap that called into question every positive thing ANYONE had EVER said about George Lucas and his abilities as a competent filmmaker. It was a painful realization to come to, the acknowledgement that the creator of the series may NOT be the best caretaker of it’s ongoing legacy. Then, in case there was any doubt, Lucas followed it up with ‘Attack of the Clones’ and ‘Revenge of the Sith’…both of which also mostly sucked. We were all let down. I could also go into how ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ went even further to demonstrate his shocking level of cinematic ineptitude, but let’s keep this lil chat about the movie at hand. Then Disney paid Lucas $4 BILLION dollars for Lucasfilm, and the entire library of intellectual properties that came with it. Naturally, the Star Wars franchise, the one that still had a vastly expandable, untapped ‘universe’ and accompanying mythology, in conjunction with the now-cautious but still loyal-to-the-originals fan-base, was the first to fall under the microscope. Then we heard that Geek Culture Movie Icon JJ Abrams was set to take the helm of this NEW and IMPROVED Star Wars flick, much as he had with ‘Star Trek’ in 2009, and jazz that shit up the way that we, and thankfully he, as a self-confessed Star Wars Nerd, wanted and deserved it to be. Then we got the superb trailer campaign that showed us the familiar and expanded ‘world’ of Star Wars without giving us the plot, and managing to hide some effective secrets. Anticipation grew. Then…it was upon us. My original plan was to avoid the inevitable Star Wars juggernaut for the first week or so of it’s release, as I’m not a huge fan of elbow-wrestling the person next to me for space on the arm rest, or risking someone’s obnoxious child getting unruly in the darkness. I like space. I like being alone in the dark, in comfort, when I’m transported to some fantastic cinematic ‘world’. But…’Star Wars’ fever got the better of me and I threw caution to the wind. My girlfriend and I just got back from the theatre, after having gotten lucky with some strangely private seating in what was nearly a ‘full house’. FINALLY, ‘Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens’ has played across my eyeballs and assaulted my eardrums…and it was pretty damn good.
‘The Force Awakens’ takes place 30 or so years after the Galactic Empire was defeated during the Battle of Endor. The last remnants of the fleeing Fascists have banded together to form The First Order; a determined continuation of the Empire’s sinister mandate through harsh military means. Naturally, the Resistance rises again in reaction to this alarming development and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) sends a crack Rebel pilot named ‘Poe Dameron’ (Oscar Isaac) on a mission to retrieve a key piece of information regarding the whereabouts of ‘Luke Skywalker’ (Mark Hamill); the legendary Jedi Knight who vanished soon after the rebel victory so long ago. With this as the backdrop, we are quickly introduced to ‘Finn’ (John Boyega), a rookie Stormtrooper who questions his allegiance to the First Order after partaking in a vicious raid on a village; the village where ‘Poe’ and his soccerball-like astromech droid BB-8 were meeting his Resistance contact. ‘Finn’, realizing his shaken faith has been noticed, breaks the rebel pilot out and the two men flee via hi-jacked TIE fighter. They escape…but are shot and disabled, crash-landing back on the desert planet of Jakku. Soon after this, ‘Finn’ meets the orphaned ‘Rey’ (Daisy Ridley); a resourceful scavenger living among the ruins of a vast Imperial battle (crashed Star Destroyers, AT-AT Walker carcasses, etc) in the sand. The two ‘orphans’ are forced to team up when they are caught under a deadly bombardment from First Order TIE fighters and stormtroopers led by a Dark Side fanatic named ‘Kylo Ren’ (Adam Driver), which plunges ‘Rey’ and ‘Finn’ headlong into more adventure and peril than either of them ever expected.
I’ll say it again: ‘The Force Awakens’ IS the Star Wars sequel we’ve been waiting for, for so long. It was an almost physical relief to see things Abrams got right play out before my eyes. And there’s a lot of them. Now, considering just how low Lucas managed to set the bar with his bullshit prequels, it really wouldn’t have take all that much to get back in the fans good graces. Luckily, Abrams himself is a fan of the original trilogy and understands what Star Wars is to us and also, with his shrewd directors eye, was able to clearly see what really hadn’t worked in the Lucas’ films and avoid the same mistakes.
First things first…the cast. Abrams has knocked it out of the park, in this respect. Not only do we get Original Trilogy faves like Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill back (along with Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and Kenny Baker), but we also get the considerable acting talents of Oscar Isaac (‘Drive’), John Boyega (‘Attack the Block’) and fresh newcomer Daisy Ridley. The new additions to the Star Wars universe all brought their A-games, sometimes too well. I found myself thinking that Isaac’s ‘Poe Dameron’ was such a cool character that we kinda got ripped off with how much time we get to spend with him. The real treat, however, was seeing Harrison Ford NOT mope his way through a role, as he’s done on and off over the last decade or so. With ‘Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’, it felt like Harrison Ford ACTING like ‘Indiana Jones’, whereas here…it was ‘Han Solo’ all the way! He was exactly as ‘Han’ should’ve turned out 30 years on and it seemed like Ford knew it. Carrie Fisher was a little stiff (physically and in performance), but seeing the ‘Leia’ character again was nice. Plus there’s a couple of touching scenes between her and Ford that really spoke of a history between the two characters.
As expected, the effects were kick-ass and yes, much of what we see was practical and it was SO awesome. We get big fiery explosions and sharp laser hits, all happening on set with the actors and it really helped sell many scenes of peril. The elements that were CG, with the exception of a couple mo-cap characters, were beautiful, especially the scenes depicting spacecraft. The dogfights were great, but it was the shots of the First Order Star Destroyers and smaller craft that had me mesmerized, especially in 3D. The two motion capture characters were a little distracting, given how much make-up and prosthetics were being put to use else where in the film, but it wasn’t a deal breaker. Going back to the use of practical effects, I really hope that the inevitable success of this, and ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ this year will help usher in a resurgence of ‘in-camera’ movie making. A call to embrace the old techniques that give a film a timeless quality, as opposed to CG that will undoubtedly diminish in quality and ‘date’ a film as time goes on. Fingers crossed, because that’s something I would LOVE to see happen.
The Music. What can I say…John Williams is back and, of course, his classic, iconic score and it’s medley of beautiful themes were back with him, and fit the visuals like a glove.
There’s so many other little details I could launch into, but this review would then be Ridiculous in length, so let’s cover some of the Bad.
As I mentioned, this movie is damn good…but not great. There are some problems and, while many nerds probably expect this flick to be some absolutely flawless masterpiece that will bring peace to our planet and yaddah yaddah yaddah…unfortunately, that’s not the case. There are some issues and they’re almost all script-related. This movie felt like it should’ve been 3 hours long. Some of the pacing wasn’t as finessed as it could’ve been and, as a result, some of the narrative felt a little clunky or episodic. Space never felt big. Other planets were just a light-speed blip away and no time was given to take a breath between set-pieces. Also, several key incidents are the direct result of coincidence. Just a little too much. When one event happened thanks to coincidence, it was forgivable. But when another happened, it felt a little lazy. We’re lucky to get likable characters that evolved as the story went on, but there are also some that remained one-dimensional and untapped the whole way through (Um…’Captain Phasma’, anyone?), and I thought they could’ve been handled a little better.
All in all, I’m glad I didn’t wait for another week to go see this and I got what I hoped I would get. ‘The Force Awakens’ is a solid entry into the Star Wars franchise that honors and adds to The Old while also ushering in and embracing The New. It gives us characters we know and care about in fantastical situations that are both fresh and also familiar, where the stakes feel real (though not as much as they could’ve). Does it use nostalgia and ‘call backs’ to the Originals as a crutch? Maybe a little, but with the possible exception of a REALLY familiar plot-line *cough, cough*…’A New Hope’…*cough*, it doesn’t come off as desperate or forced. I think that my new order of preference will be ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, ‘A New Hope’, ‘The Force Awakens’, then ‘Return of the Jedi’. No…I’m not including the Prequels in the ranking…piss off. So after all the hype, JJ Abrams has pulled it off and given Star Wars, as we all knew it and loved it before it was soiled, back to us, the fans. I must dip my hat to you, sir. You did it. Now our fingers are crossed that Disney will take note of what you’ve done right (which is a lot), and to improve on it as the next crop of films come at us. You’ve got the ball, Disney…don’t drop it!
* If we’re going to be totally honest…this movie is careful Fan Fiction with a helluva budget. There’s no shame in that.
**Fun Trivia – In a scene where a key character is being held prisoner and decides to try using the Force influence on a lone stormtrooper to escape, listen to the troopers voice. It’s Daniel Craig!! James Bond was a friggin stormtrooper!!