Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Back in 1999 something I thought would never happen finally came to pass.  16 years after Return of the Jedi, we were finally treated to a new Star Wars film.  Despite what George Lucas tried to pass as gospel truth, he had never intended to run through a trilogy and then present the back story.  This was all pie-in-the-sky ideas that he told the press after the original movie became a hit and The Empire Strikes Back turned out to be an even better movie than the original.

We all know what happened with The Phantom Menace, however, and we should have seen it coming.  Lucas went back and retooled the original films, adding in tons of misplaced CGI and practically neutering Han Solo.  Sure, he did some things right, like getting rid of the Ewok celebration at the end of Jedi and digitally erasing some of the matte lines from around the spaceships, but most of the changes were unnecessary.  Still, in many ways I found The Phantom Menace to be better than the original version of Jedi, despite the fact that Jar Jar Binks was all the Ewoks rolled into one extremely annoying toy ad.  And don't even get me started on Midichlorians.  Still, whatever good there was in the first movie from the trilogy, it quickly lost it with the other two, neutering Darth Vader in much the same way the special editions did Solo.  In this case it was all George Lucas's fault, and in hindsight the fact that he had no direct hand in making the first two sequels turned out to be a large factor in why the original trilogy turned out to be a success.

Sadly, any sense of anticipation of seeing any new Star Wars films was long gone.  And, normally, I would continue to voice disappointment after hearing that the franchise was bought by Disney, which is even more interested in dumbing everything down and diluting it to a marketing campaign (and suing the hell out of everyone) than George Lucas.  Still, there was some good news.  Lucas was giving it up.  He would have little to no involvement in the new movies.  The first would be directed by J. J. Abrams, who I have always thought as merely okay, and the script would be written in part by Lawrence Kasdan, who also worked on the screenplays for the two sequels of the first trilogy as well as directed Jedi

Happily, all this added up to a movie that Star Wars fans can be proud of, even if it does destroy the entire extended universe that we all became used to (which is good and bad on several levels). 

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hammill) has vanished.  In the 30 plus years since the fall of the Empire, there was obviously a huge war that led to a New Republic being founded, although it is hinted that it is nowhere near the size of the Old Republic or the Galactic Empire.  The Empire itself is back in the form of the First Order, itself smaller but quickly gaining ground due to the weakness of the Republic.  Instead of the Republic dealing with the First Order directly, they are funding the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher).  Both sides are interested in finding out what happened to Skywalker, and it just so happens that a man named Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow), hiding out on the desert world of Jakku, has a map that could lead to him.  Organa sends her best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his droid BB8 to retrieve it.

Dameron succeeds, but the First Order attacks the settlement and captures him, but not before he is able to hide the map on BB8 and send him off to find help.  The droid is almost capture for salvage, but is rescued by a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley).  Meanwhile, a stormtrooper named FN-2187 (John Boyega) is disturbed by what he sees the First Order do on Jakku, and decides to free Dameron and escape.  The plan works, but not before Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) manages to pull the location of the map from Poe's mind. 

The TIE Fighter Dameron and FN-2187 steal is damaged and crashes back on the planet, resulting in their separation.  Renamed Finn by Dameron, he manages to find Rey and BB8 and escape in a piece of "garbage" ship as the First Order arrives to try and capture the droid.  The ship turns out to be none other than the Millenium Falcon and, after some fumbling, Rey proves to be an apt pilot.  Still, they are almost immediately captured by the ship's former owners, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). 

From there some things are going to seem quite familiar, which is a quibble many will have with this movie: Han Solo and Chewbacca must help Finn and Rey bring BB8 back to the Resistance so that they can use the map to find Luke.  Eventually they must also aid in destroying Starkiller Base, an entire planet turned into a super weapon that harnesses the power of a nearby star in order to destroy multiple planets, rather than one at a time like the Death Star.  Rey herself discovers that she may have a connection to everything that is going on and that her involvement may not be by luck alone. 

So, yes, there are many similarities with the first Star Wars, but then Return of the Jedi also had the Rebel Alliance having to destroy another Death Star.  And, like the J. J. Abrams Star Trek films, there are many references to the older movies.  Still, they seem to fit better here, as the events are taking place in the same span of time it has been since Jedi was released.  It felt less like a retread and more like coming back to something familiar.  I think the fact that many of the only recognizable stars in The Force Awakens are the actors from the original trilogy.  Both John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are good in their roles, and there is quite a lot to expand on.  There has been some criticism about lack of back story, but this worked in favor for the original Star Wars films as well, as the back story was filled in as it went along.  It was when we got too much with the prequels that things began to fall apart.

Also back is the feeling that we are in a real universe.  There is more done with actual sets, models, makeup and robotics than in the prequels, and it works a lot better than it did in the 1970s and 1980s due to advancements in some of the fields.  The technology is still consistent with the original trilogy, and I like the fact that everything once again looks lived-in and beat up.  For a director known for making everything look sparkly, J. J. Abrams managed to revive much of the world that we remember. 

I still have some major problems with the science, particularly with idea of entering a planet's atmosphere going at light speed (any spaceship would be immediately vaporized as hitting at atmosphere at that speed would be like hitting solid ground - and that's not even getting into relativity) and the idea that hyperspace is is like pushing an accelerator down a little harder (one up from light).  I have always had the feeling, though, that most of what we are being told is similar to that of Mad Max, in which many of the details or fudged or clouded due to it taking place a long time ago. 

Despite revisiting some old plot points and still feeling more like fantasy than science fiction, the good news is that the Star Wars saga is back on track.  We have different directors coming up for the other two sequels, so it will be interesting to see if this keeps up. 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Time: 135 minutes
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver
Director: J. J. Abrams


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