Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Rating: ****
Release Date: 12/18/15
Director: J.J. Abrams
Music: John Williams
Fight Choreography: Iko Uwais
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, cameos by Max Von Sydow, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Gwendoline Christie, Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian

Taking place thirty years after the events in "Return Of The Jedi" (1983), little has changed in that galaxy far, far away. The empire that was once ruled by Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader has been replaced with an equally oppressive regime called the First Order. Committing the same tragic mistakes as his mentor Obi Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone into hiding while his former pupil, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), has turned to evil and is obsessively hunting him down. A clue to Skywalker's whereabouts is entrusted to a droid called BB-8 on a desert planet called Jakku, where a young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) scrapes out a meager living while clinging onto the false hope that her parents will someday return to her. It doesn't take long for BB-8 and Rey to cross paths, which makes both of them targets for the First Order and their ruthless shock troops. A narrow escape from Jakku throws Rey and a rogue stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) into the midst of a galactic conflict between the First Order and a rebel resistance force led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). As the First Order steps up its campaign of terror and destruction, the resistance mounts an attack against their new Starkiller battle station.

If it all sounds a bit familiar, that's because it is. Anxious to start seeing returns on their $4 billion investment, Disney plays it safe by sticking to the tried and true "Star Wars" playbook. The film relies heavily on nostalgia and much of the aesthetic is instantly familiar, including minor variations on stormtroopers, X-Wings, TIE fighters, Star Destroyers, and a certain Corellian freighter. The interior of the First Order's Starkiller base reflects the design of the original Death Star and uses the same torture chamber as the one found on Cloud City. Even the locations evoke a sense of déjà vu, with a desert planet, a forest planet, an ice planet, and a cantina full of scum and villainy.

But not all is familiar. Within minutes, it's readily apparent that it's not a George Lucas film, which makes you realize what he brought to the table - both the good and the bad. Lucas is first and foremost a visual storyteller, and the film lacks the grandiose and operatic spectacle of his productions. But it's also free from the goofiness and bad acting that increasingly plagued the series. With J.J. Abrams at the helm, "The Force Awakens" is a much more grounded and subdued experience that focuses more on characters than spectacle. In this way, it feels very much like a retelling of the original "Star Wars" (1977). Even Ben Burtt's sound design and John Williams's music score are subtle and subdued. Whereas Lucas's use of sound and music is very melodramatic and over the top, the music in "The Force Awakens" is hardly noticeable and there are numerous moments when the score is uncomfortably absent. Music is a huge emotional amplifier for me, and the subdued score made the film much less overwhelming than it could have been. On the other side of the spectrum, one of Lucas's biggest failings is his inability to pull good performances out of his actors. Thankfully, the acting and characterization in "The Force Awakens" are quite good, and possibly the best we've seen since "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980). Daisy Ridley delivers an excellent performance, and her character is strong, charming, beautiful, athletic, and emotionally resonant. I'm thrilled to finally see a strong female protagonist as the main character in the "Star Wars" universe, and she doesn't disappoint. In fact, it's really nice to see women represented in a wide variety of strong roles, including X-Wing pilots, stormtroopers, tacticians, and Imperial officers. Finn and Poe (Oscar Isaac) aren't particularly engaging, but I'm sure they'll grow on me in time.

As you might expect, the visual effects are superb. The one exception is the opening star field, which is one of the worst I've ever seen. Seriously, is this the best thing they could come up with? Much like the rest of the film, the action scenes are simple and straight forward, and although they're quite thrilling, they tend to lack the visual flair of Lucas's productions. Seeing the Millennium Falcon fly again was a dream come true for me, except that the flight choreography seemed a bit off. I'm a real nit-picker when it comes to spaceship movement, and I have certain expectations when it comes to how the Falcon should fly. It felt loose and sloppy to me, but I suppose that could be explained away by the fact that Rey was at the controls and that the ship was mostly flying in an atmosphere as opposed to frictionless space. But that's getting REALLY nerdy. The aerial dogfighting scenes are exciting, but overly brief, and left me longing for more. And of course, no "Star Wars" movie would be complete without some lightsaber action. Apart from the ridiculous design and sloppy animation of Kylo Ren's lightsaber, the sword fighting scenes are pretty good. The only disappointment would be when Rey leapt into the fray, as her movements lacked speed, confidence, and strength. Again, this can be easily explained by her character's complete lack of combat experience, but I hope to see her grow as a warrior in future installments.

Overall, I enjoyed "The Force Awakens" quite a bit, and it's definitely a step in the right direction for the series. The treatment of the material is thoughtful and mature, and completely free from the juvenile humor and gratuitous silliness that dragged down the prequels. Its back-to-basics approach is both comforting and refreshing, and sets the stage for great things to come. I also commend Disney's handling of the material, as the film was completely free from any Disney branding. Much like Marvel Studios, Disney continues to let Lucasfilm be its own brand and unique entity. The film is far from perfect, but it's self-consistent, it respects and nurtures its themes, and plants enough seeds to make me genuinely excited to see what comes next. Perhaps most importantly, it doesn't insult the audience, which was the biggest mistake that George Lucas made with the prequels. Let's hope that The Force remains strong with the series, and that it continues to maintain the level of excellence that is demanded by its fans.