THERE HAS BEEN AN AWAKENING.


Synopsis

With Luke Skywalker, our boy-turned-jedi hero from Episodes IV-VI vanished, a new evil has awoken in the form of the First Order. A successor to the Galactic Empire, the new First Order, led by the menacing Kylo Ren and General Hux, have developed a new super weapon known as Starkiller Base.  With the help of Han Solo, two newborn heroes Finn and Rey (the former an ex storm trooper, the latter a scavenger from the desolate planet of Jakku) embark on a journey to discover the secrets of a hidden map that leads to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker.  Believing that Luke can help to stop the evil First Order, Rey, Finn, and Han begin to seek help throughout the galaxy to find the missing pieces of the map.  After teaming up with the new Rebellion, led by General Leia, our heroes unite to destroy Star Killer Base, and stop the First Order from finding Skywalker before they can reach him.  


Story

The story in The Force Awakens is, well, unoriginal.  Borrowing what is basically the same story arc from A New Hope, as well as pieces of Empire and Jedi, we are thrown into a familiar story of good versus evil, and the evolution of heroes and villains.  The movie begins by introducing us to Poe Dameron, who, as we find out later, is the best pilot in the galaxy.  After receiving a piece of the map leading to Luke Skywalker, Poe is captured after the First Order raids a small village on Jakku where Poe received the map from a mysterious old ally of the Rebellion.  After our main villain Kylo Ren extracts the information of where the map is from Poe, he orders General Hux to send troops back to Jakku in search of BB-8, the lovable droid companion of Poe, who is now holding the map. 

After a brief glimpse of a frightened and hesitant stormtrooper from the raid on Jakku, we are then introduced to our new hero, Finn.  Our first glimpse of Finn's face is of him panting for air after having just witnessed the slaughter of innocent people on Jakku (something we will later come to see has an influence on many of his actions).  After (very conveniently for the plot) being tasked to escort Poe to Kylo Ren, Finn quickly captures the attention of Poe, and tells him of his plan to escape the star destroyer they are currently on.  Poe immediately goes along with Finn's plan, and a bond is quickly formed between the two.  

 Copyright: Lucasfilm, Disney

Copyright: Lucasfilm, Disney

During their escape, Poe and Finn are shot down by the star destroyer, and crash land on Jakku.  After being separated from the crash, Finn wonders the desolate planet until he stumbles upon a small junkyard.  Here, Finn catches his first glimpse of Rey (who was briefly introduced earlier in the film as a lone scavenger, fighting to survive in the outskirts of Jakku), who is being attacked by two thugs that are trying to kidnap BB-8.  After witnessing Rey fend off the two attackers, Finn quickly realizes that Rey is no ordinary damsel in distress.  The two eventually meet and Finn (after seeing the excitement and wonder on Rey's face) tells Rey that he is part of the new Rebellion (though we know as an audience, he is not).  The two new characters are quickly discovered and attacked by storm troopers and TIE fighters, and quickly escape the planet together.

 copyright: lucasfilm, disney

copyright: lucasfilm, disney

After reaching space, Rey and Finn are captured by a freighter, and their ship is quickly boarded by none other than Han Solo and Chewbacca.  Han is then convinced by Rey and Finn to help them with their quest, after he hears that they may have a clue (in the form of the map carried by BB-8) to discover the whereabouts of his old friend, Luke Skywalker.  With these events set in motion, the Force Awakens kicks into full on space adventure as our heroes race across the galaxy in search for help, and clues, to discovering Luke and defeating the evil First Order. 

The main gripe a lot of people have with The Force Awakens is exactly how familiar it is to the original 1977 film.  I am not necessarily one of those people.  I feel that the story most importantly pays homage to the original, which has been beloved by moviegoers for decades.  By having a familiar, and fairly straightforward plot (evil empires, unlikely heroes, good uniting to destroy a big base), the story lends more focus on the development of the new characters.  After all, this is the first movie of a trilogy, so it's important to build a strong group of heroes and villains to build a new franchise around.  That being said, there is still something that is left to be desired in terms of originality.  I understand the producers of this movie wanted to really please fans who were (mostly) unhappy with the prequels.  By throwing us into the familiar plot of A New Hope, the film hoped to reintroduce fans to the magic and excitement of the original trilogy.  

The story works, mostly, for me, because it has a very traditional structure that fans of the originals love.  It's been over 30 years since we have seen the Death Star destroyed above Endor, so to revisit a similar plot here did not feel as stale to me as it did to others.  I loved the journey that I was taken on with these new characters, and after the adventure really got rolling, I couldn't wait to see our heroes overcome the evil First Order.  It was because of the great acting, characters, and direction that I forgave the unoriginal story and simply bought into the adventure.  For me, it worked, and it worked well.  


Characters

The Force Awakens introduces several new characters to the franchise, most of which are structured very well and bring a lot to the table in terms of character traits and personality.  With a movie like this, it is very easy to overlook these characters in way of action and spectacle.  Here's what I thought of the new and returning players...

Though not introduced until about 15 minutes into the film, Rey becomes the central character of the story as it develops.  Played with total conviction and ferocity by Daisy Ridley, Rey quickly becomes the breakout star of The Force Awakens.  She is curious, vulnerable, strong, independent, and utterly magnetic throughout the entire film.  As her character develops, I couldn't help but have more and more hope for further episodes of the saga to be great with her in the pilot seat of this franchise.  Daisy Ridley went from a relative newcomer, to an instantly classic hero practically overnight.  Her performance was absolutely amazing, and I can't wait to see where she takes this character next.  Bravo Daisy, bravo.  

As her equally charismatic counterpart, Finn provided a nice bit of contrast to the heroic duo.  Thriving with charisma, energy, selflessness, and most importantly, humor, John Boyega brought an amazing amount of energy and fun to help anchor this film.  Finn provided a great balance of fear and eagerness to his hero archetype, and Boyega really knocked it out of the park.  Him and Ridley have some of the best on screen chemistry I have seen in an adventure film in some time.  Again, I can't wait to see where the story takes his character.  

As the most badass pilot in the galaxy, Poe Dameron nearly took the top spot for my favorite new character in The Force Awakens (that spot still belongs to Rey).  Played with amazing charisma and coolness by one of my favorite actors working today, Oscar Isaac, Poe represents old school heroism at it's finest.  In one of my favorite scenes in the entire movie, we see a long tracking shot of Poe shredding through TIE fighters (seen from the perspective of Finn on the ground of Takodana).  A brilliantly directed shot I might add.  This scene says all it needs to say about Poe: he is the best damn pilot in the galaxy.

 Copyright: lucasfilm, disney

Copyright: lucasfilm, disney

The first moment I saw BB-8 in the teaser trailer, I knew that damn little droid was going to be an instant breakout star.  Stepping into a spot previously held for six films by the unforgettable R2-D2, BB-8 was as much adorable as he was magical once you realize that most of his movements are all done practically by the wizardry actions of the effects team.  To give a droid so much character and likability seems like a hard thing to pull off, but the crew behind BB-8 did so with stride. 

Following in the footsteps of Darth Vader (one of the greatest villains ever put to screen) was no easy task.  The central villain of the story is Kylo Ren, a lightsaber-wielding, force manipulating, robed crusader.  A lot of people had an issue with the humanization of this character, but for me, he worked.  I loved the fact that there was more than just an evil side to this character.  This is a villain who is layered, complex, and conflicted.  There were certain deliveries from the character himself toward the end of the movie that fell just a touch flat with me, but overall I think Kylo Ren is the most interesting character in the movie.  Adam Driver really delivered a menacing yet humanized villain, and I loved his performance.  

Returning to their roles for the first time since Return of the Jedi in 1983 (unless you count Chewbacca's cameo in Revenge of the Sith), Han Solo and Chewbacca are back with full force and commitment.  Like many others, I was a bit concerned about how the returning cast members from the original would step back into the shoes of these classic characters.  After the first few minutes of Han Solo and Chewbacca onscreen, that concern was far gone and I never second-guessed it again.  Let it be very clear, Harrison Ford is not the person you see on screen here, it is HAN SOLO!  Ford played this character with just as much charisma and conviction as he did in the originals, and it was an absolute pleasure to see him and Peter Mayhew back in these roles.  I can't say enough about how great they were in this film.  Ford, especially, really knocked it out of the park here.

 Copyright: lucasfilm, disney

Copyright: lucasfilm, disney

The other characters in the movie played back seat to the ones mentioned before.  Carrie Fisher was just fine as General Leia.  Though we didn't get to see her do much in the movie, there was a very effective and emotional scene with Han Solo before he takes off on a mission later in the film.  Domhnall Gleeson was menacing as General Hux, though a bit one-sided and cliched.  In one of the more disappointing aspects of the film, Gwendoline Christie's Captain Phasma was almost non-existant.  Though the few lines she delivered were great, I do wish I could of seen just one moment of her in action to get me excited about her hopeful return in Episode VIII.  


Directing

Do you think J.J. Abrams felt some pressure when he accepted the daunting task of directing a new Star Wars movie?  No, right?  All kidding aside, we can all accept that there was a lot resting on the shoulders of Abrams and his team to deliver an enjoyable Star Wars movie.  Did he succeed?  Yes.  Could he of done better?  Maybe.  Do I think he was the right choice for the job?  Yes.  Do I think another director could have done a better job?  After watching the film, absolutely not.  

I'm sure directing the most anticipated movie of all time must of been stressful, but dammit does J.J. Abrams pull it off.  There already so many memorable and classic shots in this movie.  So many images stuck in my head after watching this movie.  The camera work, the use of practical effects, the blending of CGI (minus a few instances that I'll point out in my "Flaws" section), the incredible action and set pieces, were all spectacular.  Praise has to be given to Abrams and his team for delivering on such an anticipated movie as this, and living up to the legacy of the original Star Wars trilogy.  

There were several "wow" moments in this movie that stood above the rest.  On Jakku, Abrams holds on a few wide shots of the desert with a crashed star destroyer in the back.  Beautiful and epic in scale, I knew this movie was something special after seeing these shots.  It gave the movie a very real and believable feel to it.  In a scene I mentioned earlier involving Poe Dameron in his X-Wing, we see a long tracking shot from the perspective of Finn on the ground, as it brilliantly captures not only a character-building moment for Poe, but a moment of pure joy and triumph for our heroes.  The final 30 minutes of this movie were just spectacular.  One shot in particular shown from the perspective of Poe's X-Wing was great.  Also, how could I not mention the final lightsaber battle in the snow.  There was one scene in particular that literally gave me chills from excitement involving a character catching a lightsaber.  It was a perfect shot, and just floored me.

 Copyright: lucasfilm, disney

Copyright: lucasfilm, disney

Abrams definitely had his hands full with this movie.  What makes it work is his love for the material, and the fact that he first, and foremost, respects the characters.  There were certain times I had wished he would of held on some shots just a little bit longer, but I understand it's hard to do that in a movie with so much going on, and that which is already running at 135 minutes.  Still, with all the spectacle and fantasy elements involved with making a Star Wars movie, the film felt very real and tangible.   Good job, sir. 


  Flaws

My gripes with this film are minor, though that's not to say they are nonexistent.  The first major issue involved creatures on the loose aboard a freighter.  It wasn't necessarily the context of the scene, but the use of CGI for the creatures.  This was the first scene in the movie that the CGI really stood out, and for a second, sort of made the world that had been built up to that point, feel a little less believable.  That's not to say that the scene itself was bad, but it definitely puts a slightly bad taste in your mouth.  

The next was basically the same effect as this creature scene.  This is when we are first introduced to Supreme Leader Snoke, played by Andy Serkis.  Serkis was great, but the first image of Snoke (which comes shortly after the CGI creature scene), again, feels very unnatural and takes you out of the practical feel of the movie.  The context of the scene again was fine, but I didn't care for the initial shot and atmosphere of how this character was introduced.  The character of Snoke himself, was also a bit uninteresting and one-note.

Let's talk a bit about Captain Phasma.  I'm not sure why they decided to have, what I think, is the coolest looking character in the entire Star Wars universe, basically wasted to a few lines of near meaningless dialogue.  This character was really built up before the release of the movie, and man does she disappoint.  I just wanted ONE scene of her doing some sort of action.  Just something to get me excited to see more of her in Episode VIII.  As it stands, though, I am remaining hopeful they develop her character more in the future episodes, as I can see her having a lot of potential to becoming a great villain opposite Kylo Ren and General Hux. 

 Copyright: lucasfilm, disney

Copyright: lucasfilm, disney


Personal Thoughts

At the time of writing this review, I had seen The Force Awakens five times in theaters within the first week of its release.  Was I overly excited for this movie?  Yes.  Could my thoughts have been easily been persuaded by my hopes and ambitions for the film before I had even seen it?  Yes.  Do I think this is the greatest movie ever made? Absolutely not.  The Force Awakens is, though, a great film.  This isn't a film that needs to be overanalyzed, put on a gigantic pedestal, or condemned just because it has been so successful.  I encourage anyone watching this film to appreciate it for what it is, and what it has accomplished.  

The thing I love most about this film is how it managed to capture the feeling of wonder and excitement, of fun and emotion, and of pure excitement I felt watching the characters and story unfold in this world.  The movie does such a great job of establishing new characters, while also containing itself as a true continuation of the story set about from episodes IV-VI.  The use of practical effects and J.J. Abram's direction are what put it over the top for me.  Amazing set pieces, great characters, great acting, and a fun space adventure all set in the Star Wars universe.  What more could a Star Wars fan ask for?


Conclusion

The Force Awakens manages to pull off a very difficult task of reviving a franchise that fell a little flat with the last three installments.  By brilliantly mixing in familiar characters and story from the original trilogy, J.J. Abrams delivers what fans of the Star Wars franchise have been waiting years for.  Practical effects, amazing new characters, and an emotionally engaging story are what make Star Wars: Episode VII one of the best, and definitely most entertaining, movies of the year.  Go into this movie expecting a fun adventure, and be surprised at how well this movie engages you emotionally and makes you care for these characters.  The action, set pieces, and design will not let you down, while Daisy Ridley and John Boyega will make you fall in love with Rey and Finn.  The force is strong with this one.  Go see it. 


Verdict

Spectacular.