Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams & Michael Arndt
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson & Max Von Sydow
More than a year after its teaser trailer and announcement excited fans everywhere, STAR WARS Episode VII has finally arrived! What better way to get into my review of this first entry in a brand new trilogy than by briefly recapping the past Episodes. Regarding the original trilogy, A NEW HOPE is great, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is perfect and RETURN OF THE JEDI is where the series began to reveal noticeable weaknesses. From 1999 to 2005, Lucas managed to piss off diehard fans with an underwhelming prequel trilogy that spent way too much time on stale romance, over-the-top humor, and useless plot details, than it did on having much fun with its space opera material. PHANTOM MENACE was a massive disappointment, while ATTACK OF THE CLONES was okay and REVENGE OF THE SITH was the best of the prequel trilogy (faint praise, I know). 32 years after the original trilogy concluded and a decade after the prequel trilogy annoyed, THE FORCE AWAKENS has emerged as a hugely entertaining opening chapter to a whole new era of STAR WARS.
Thirty years after Episode VI, Luke Skywalker has vanished. The only clue to finding Luke is a map stored inside the adorable little droid BB-8. A tyrannical new enemy, the First Order, has risen out of the Empire’s ashes and is viciously attempting to track down the map contained within BB-8. The masked Kylo Ren and his many stormtroopers encounter resistance as scavenger Rey, stormtrooper-turned-good-guy Finn, and X-wing pilot Poe try to safely get BB-8 (and the map) to rebel forces. Along for the ride are a couple of very familiar faces from the past.
Props to J.J. Abrams for capturing the tone of the original trilogy so perfectly. Many fans will be relieved to find that the prequels and THE FORCE AWAKENS are night and day. Abrams picks up in the decades-old remnants of Episode VI and it feels like almost no time has passed at all. Tonally, this is the same STAR WARS that original fans grew up with and kicked off the cultural phenomenon. The plot is simple and doesn’t feel the need to overcomplicate proceedings with unnecessary politics (e.g. conversations about taxes, diplomacy, and trade routes). This to-the-point screenplay allows room for the characters to grow and what great characters they are!
Obviously, everyone is excited that Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Chewbacca are back. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher (who receives significantly less screen time than Ford) jump right back into the roles that made them famous as if not a second has passed them by. Even more impressive is the new blood that’s come into the series. Daisy Ridley is a bad-ass heroine for the ages (up there with Ripley, Sarah Connor, and Furiosa) as scavenger-turned-rebel Rey. John Boyega is wonderful as a stormtrooper who’s been given a second chance at life and delivers some of the best comic relief in the film. Oscar Isaac is great (though underused) as skilled pilot Poe, while Domhnall Gleeson (who starred alongside Isaac in EX MACHINA earlier this year) fills the shoes of an evil commander quite well. Adam Driver is a stand-out as the complicatedly evil Kylo Ren. I don’t want to tell you why his performance is so great (no spoilers), so I’ll leave it at that.
As fun, fast paced, and highly entertaining as THE FORCE AWAKENS is, I couldn’t help but notice a couple of faults that kept the movie from being perfect or amazing to me. One of which is some spotty CGI that’s employed mainly in two characters: a big eyed alien and the Supreme Leader Snoke, the new stand-in for the Emperor. The latter of these characters was done via motion capture with Andy Serkis and it just isn’t quite up to the level that we’ve seen Serkis work with before in other huge blockbusters (Gollum in LORD OF THE RINGS and Cesar in PLANET OF THE APES). These are two silly looking characters in an otherwise effects extravaganza as the rest of the aliens (mainly done through practical puppetry and costumes) look fantastic. There’s also one sequence involving a giant beastie or two (made entirely of CG) that look Lovecraftian in design and I loved that!
My second (and last) problem with Episode VII comes primarily from an overwhelming amount of hype and Abrams doing everything in his power to stick to a certain formula. As enjoyable as the plot of FORCE AWAKENS is, the story also hits many familiar beats that seemed to be put in purely for fan service. We get revised versions of a few scenes that have already occurred (multiple times) throughout the series, the key difference being that new characters are now placed in these well-worn scenarios. To say anything more would be giving away spoilers and I’m not about to do that, so I’ll leave my gripe intentionally vague. This isn’t a huge complaint though as I still had a blast watching this film, but it definitely leaves me hoping that Episodes VIII and IX will be more creative.
Overall, Episode VII will likely satisfy legions of STAR WARS fanatics and ecstatic movie lovers alike. The film is constantly moving, packs in many exciting set pieces, and has stellar characters. Though it’s not perfect, I had a great time watching THE FORCE AWAKENS and many rewatches definitely lie in the future. A new chapter of a beloved, decades-old film series has arrived. It is going to please many old-school fans of the original trilogy, millennials who were brought in by the prequels, and an entirely new generation of movie goers. That in itself is a hugely remarkable feat. Well done!