Monday, December 21, 2015

FEEL THE POWER OF THE FORCE: a review of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

Based upon characters and situations created by George Lucas
Screenplay Written by J.J. Abrams & Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt
Directed by J.J. Abrams
**** (four stars)

I am overwhelmed. Powerfully overwhelmed.

Dear readers, as with so many millions of people around the world, the cinematic universe of "Star Wars" completely changed my life. I was 8 years old in 1977 and with eternal thanks to my Father, I saw the very first "Star Wars" film on its opening day, the very movie that made me love the art and artistry of the movies, as well as gathering the communal richness of having a shared experience in a roomful of strangers. "Star Wars" creator George Lucas instantly became one of the heroes of my life via the texture of his imagination, ingenuity, talent and creativity, and he remains so to this day, through all of the universally heralded sequels and the excessive--and I firmly believe--unfairly maligned prequels.

The stories that took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away with its heroes, villains and overall mythology has existed as some of the purest and most immersive cinematic storytelling that I have had the privilege to regard. The films have sustained me for so much of my life, that I honestly count this fact as nothing less than a blessing to have been there at the very beginning, when absolutely nobody knew what it all was and we all discovered it together with mouths held agape, minds completely blown and imaginations expanded far beyond anything we could have previously conceived.

Now over these past 35 years since the release of "Star Wars: Episode V-The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), the idea of the "Star Wars" universe consisting of a series of trilogies has been the source of excitement and confusion, entrancement and disappointment over and again. When I was a kid, the word was that there would be three trilogies, of which Episodes IV, V and VI made up the middle section. Yet by the release of "Star Wars: Episode VI-Return Of The Jedi" (1983), Lucas, unquestionably weary from over ten years of creating the films, declared the series finished.

By the time the controversial prequel trilogy was resurrected and began to arrive in 1999 and concluded in 2005, Lucas again declared the series finished, even proclaiming that there never were more than six films in the first place...a statement even challenged by Mark Hamill himself who explained that Lucas even once expressed that there would be twelve films in all. Regardless, the possibility of seeing Episodes VII, VIII and IX felt to be even more remote than ever and I actually began to put the idea out of my mind altogether as I was more than satisfied with the six we have been given and due to Lucas' advancing age, a new trilogy seemed highly unlikely.

Until now...

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens," officially Episode VII in the series and featuring the return of the iconic trio of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo, is the installment I really felt would never see the light of day under any circumstances and I have to say my personal feelings on its road to fruition have been mixed at best. As we all now know, George Lucas has sold the rights of his creation to Disney, an empirical conglomerate if there ever was one. But, Writer/Director J.J. Abrams was put in place as the first to helm a "Star Wars" feature film without Lucas' direct involvement in any capacity, and to that, my excitement and interest grew. Because if there was any filmmaker that I could think of to pass this specific torch along to, it would be Abrams as his deep passion for "Star Wars" and his superior gifts with filmmaking and storytelling made him the perfect fit. Yet, as I have said throughout the making of this film, I trust J.J. Abrams. I do not trust Disney, especially as their plans to create "Star Wars" movies until the end of time smacks of nothing but the most shameless greed that I could think of, especially for material that is sacred to so many, and part of its magic rests in the fact that its cultural presence is not ubiquitous. Frankly, all I could hope for is for Disney to just leave Abrams completely alone and let him make the movie.

Thankfully, they did.

Picking up approximately 30 years after the events of "Return of The Jedi," which saw the destruction of the second Death Star, the end of the Empire and the redemption of Anakin Skywalker a.k.a. Darth Vader before his death, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" finds a new evil known as the First Order, risen from the ashes of the Empire, now underway to overtaking the galaxy, and partially led by the insidious and nearly unhinged dark side of the Force/Vader disciple Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

This new intergalactic conflict finds its way to directly influencing the lives of Finn (John Boyega), a conflicted First Order Stormtrooper who defects to assist the Resistance, including ace X-Wing fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and most crucially, Rey (Daisy Ridley) a scavenger from the desert planet Jakku, whose chance meeting with a small, rolling droid named BB-8 sends her on a life altering odyssey that brings her face to face with Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Resistance General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and the last Jedi Knight, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), figures she thought only existed in mythical tales of old and gone.

After so much wonder, worry, cautious curiosity and anxious anticipation, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is undeniably wonderful and I believe that J.J. Abrams was not only the perfect individual to bring the series back to the big screen, this was the film he was born to make. Remarkably, Abrams has devised a way to not only adhere to everything that has come before, as well as treat George Lucas' creation with the respect and reverence it deserves, Abrams also somehow made a film that the feverish fan base will eat up with a spoon while also possessing a personal stamp and artistic integrity. It is an impossible feat and like the best magicians, J.J. Abrams has essentially pulled the rabbit out of the hat, spun ten revolving plates and made an inanimate object disappear all at the same time!

Yes, this is a film that sits more comfortably with the pace, style and more tactile experience of the original trilogy rather than the synthetic dream worlds of the prequel trilogy. While I never had an issue with the massive usage of CGI technology in the prequels as I felt them to represent Lucas' vision in the most unfiltered fashion, there is also something to be said with viewing a world that does indeed feel to be more tangible, approachable and much less ephemeral. There is a weight to the objects, ships and characters that can be deeply felt within the film, therefore making the proceedings seem to be even more realistic despite their fantastical nature. The sands of Jakku almost feel as if they are settling within your pores even in a comfortable theater seat. The feeling of flight and the impact of interstellar combat is also powerfully noticeable. And having locations that are built by hand rather than machine does indeed infuse a you-are-there quality that has been missing in most feature films for quite some time, and the feeling, also vigorously present in Writer/Director George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road," is definitely welcoming.

In addition to those state of the art and seamless special effects, most importantly, J.J. Abrams ensures that with "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," the story and themes that have made the series what it is remain firmly intact, while also beginning to display some new threads, and the effect is possibly the most emotionally resonant in quite some time. Just as the previous two trilogies have contained echoes that play off of each other, Abrams has beautifully crafted some connective tissue between his film and the previous six episodes masterfully. While again, a lot of visual flourishes and touchstones contain primary references to the original trilogy, it is within the thematic elements where the connections exist at their most profound, and I would also argue, makes this film a particularly dark entry.

As with the past six episodes, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" continues George Lucas' amalgamation of Samurai films, Westerns, 1930's science fictions serials, Nazi propaganda images, and Arthurian mythology more than handsomely--a certain lightsaber possesses a most overt nod to Excalibur, the sword in the stone which can only be released by its rightful bearer. But, it is in the themes present in both the inaugural "Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope" (1977) and "Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace" (1999), where Abrams provides significant nods--the concept of the most unlikely individuals who find themselves caught within an extraordinary situation where they have the chance, or are forced, to become heroic.

While the pilot Poe Dameron is already aligned with the...ahem...forces of good, it is through the figures of Kylo Ren, Finn and Rey, where the eternal "Star Wars" questions of good and evil as they relate to the grander concepts of destiny and free will come into play and form the heart and soul of the film in the process. There have already been some minor criticisms that "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is too derivative and reverential to the original 1977 film, and to that I can understand, yet I disagree with that assessment. For me, the effect is entirely purposeful and essential to the larger existential themes of the series and the characters who populate this film universe. The questions are always variations of "Who am I?" and "Who am I destined to become?" and how the power of choice is crucial within the conflict between free will and destiny. With this installment, Abrams has successfully helmed a chapter that serves as a complete story while also setting up the larger, longer arcs of Kylo Ren, Finn and Rey and their ultimate destinations. Family legacies are paramount once again as are the revelations, triumphs and tragedies our characters face, and as far as the "Star Wars" universe is concerned, Abrams has given his characters a tougher, darker road to travel from the outset, and his cast rises to the occasion perfectly.

Much has been made about the new and more overt sense of diversity contained within the casting of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," and to that J.J. Abrams must also be applauded, as it not only serves the characters beautifully, it also serves the diversity of the audience who loves these films as much as anyone else. As the conscience stricken Stormtrooper Finn, John Boyega wonderfully portrays a figure who emerges from Orwellian/Lucas based enslavement a la "THX-1138" (1971) to emancipated galactic freedom fighter. And while it meant the universe to me to see a Black man wield a lightsaber (Samuel L. Jackson notwithstanding), it meant even more to see a Black man at the epicenter of the film's story. Not as a sidekick or supporting character but as a central figure for whom this new trilogy will surround.

Going even further is the marvelous Daisy Ridley as Rey. Like Charlize Theron in "Mad Max: Fury Road" as well as Rebecca Ferguson in Writer/Director Christopher McQuarrie's "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation," Ridley OWNS the Force as this latest installment is her movie without question. Unlike the heroines of the past films, Rey eclipses both Princess Leia and Padme Amidala by having a trajectory that fully mirrors those of both Anakin and Luke Skywalker, the nobody desert dweller who unwittingly becomes the central figure within an intergalactic conflict and odyssey of transformative self-discovery. Ridley is a natural fit within this cinematic universe with her fully organic performance that surges from areas of abandonment and pain yet fuels them into a character who is resourceful, feisty, compassionate, inventive, resourceful, bemused with her own growing abilities and seemingly possesses a sense of hopefulness that is bottomless. For all of us, this is indeed the heroine we have been looking for and I am already anxious to see where her journey extends in the next chapters.

For all of the emotional heft that is contained within the new story and characters of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," I have to remark upon how primal it was to re-visit the characters and iconography of the original trilogy in a new context and after all of this time. Aided superbly by Composer John Williams' gorgeous score, I found myself often spontaneously finding tears in my eyes with just the sight and sounds that are nothing less than old friends. The iconic theme, the opening title crawl, the first sight of the Millennium Falcon and so on, like Han Solo and Chewbacca, I too felt as if I was home again. It is an inexplicable feeling certainly and I honestly have no idea of how J.J. Abrams captured and harnessed that quality so beautifully. But he did and I thank him.

As the elder statesman with the most screen time, Harrison Ford, who has always maintained a certain difficult relationship with this series, turns in a lovely performance that adheres to all we have ever known and loved about our favorite intergalactic mercenary turned Rebellion leader while also displaying growth and even gravitas. Make no mistake, Han Solo is still a scoundrel but he is a more informed scoundrel, one who has weathered some deep storms over these past 30 years, therefore giving him a wider sense of understanding of the universe he exists within...and to say anymore would produce spoilers, so I'll just stop there.

When "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" concluded, I again express to you that I felt overwhelmed, and I remain so as I write to you now. J.J. Abrams produced a wholly satisfying work of top-flight excellence, that instantly left me desiring Episode VIII, which will be written and directed by Rian Johnson with filming to begin early 2016 for a May 2017 release. And just as when I was a kid awaiting the next chapter, the new adventure cannot arrive soon enough!

That said, the new film did not give me that same feeling as seeing the original for that very first time, and truthfully, it couldn't and I could never have expected it to. However, the feeling I had the most once "The Force Awakens" concluded was extremely similar to the one I had when I first saw "The Empire Strikes Back."

J.J. Abrams has delivered an opening installment of this new trilogy that does not possess the innocence of either Episodes I or IV, but the turbulence and emotional upheaval of Episode V, and possibly "Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge Of The Sith" (2005). "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" gives us a galaxy where darkness rises with constant TIE Fighter air raids, Stormtrooper led exterminations of villages, and with the arrival of the solar sucking, planet sized Starkiller Base (essentially the Death Star on copious steroids), our heroes are constantly on the run or disillusioned or have abandoned the fight altogether.

But also with "Star Wars," hope remains, as does friendship, honor, love and self-sacrifice and the glorious sense of wonder and discovery that can be found in endless possibilities. There is a lot to digest but I was completely enthralled.

To George Lucas, with J.J. Abrams, your creation has been placed in the very best of hands. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is one of the very best films of 2015.

This is for those of you out there who happen to be parents of small children and are wondering if you should take your child to see this film. Well, I will begin with this...

While our film ratings system is highly problematic, as a parental guide, I do think it does serve its purpose very well. This is the second "Star Wars" film to be rated PG 13, and I do feel it to be deserved as this is one of the darker entries in the seven films, as described in the main review . Yes, the action and violence in the film is intense yet essentially bloodless, save for a blood stained hand print on Finn's Stormtrooper helmet and there are a few really frightening monsters to boot.

But, for me, your friendly neighborhood film enthusiast who happens to be a preschool teacher, I have always felt that the "Star Wars" movies, while essentially fairy tales and fables for children, are not designed for children under seven, and definitely not for children 5 years old and under. It is rated PG 13 for a reason, and I feel the over-stimulation of the entire film in a dark movie theater for an extended period of two hours and fifteen minutes is inappropriate for very small children.

That being said, if you are going to allow your children to see it anyway, I urge you to see it first for yourselves as you know your children best with what they are able and not able to handle.  For kids 7 an up, they should be fine, depending upon their individual dispositions. But for those under seven, I highly recommend that you wait until the DVD/Blu-Ray release so the film is not too overwhelming and you have the ability to pause and stop if the experience proves to be too intense for your little ones.

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