Friday, December 18, 2015

Movie Review: "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" (2015)

© Walt Disney Studios

*This is a SPOILER FREE review - includes a basic plot summary*

Last night, I joined six of my closest friends and over one thousand strangers in one of the first public screenings of the biggest movie of all time, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens. Shifting with excitement and more than a little hesitation, this crowd that has endured disappointment after disappointment (after disappointment, we know tragedies come in threes) waited with eager unease for J.J. Abrams to make up for all the wrongs that have been done to this series in the 21st century. And would you believe it? I've never seen a crowd shift so quickly from cautious optimism to riotous glee with such unapologetic abandon. Within minutes, it felt as if we were all experiencing something special, together—I imagine it's what fans felt when Empire Strikes Back premiered.

It has been a generation since the fall of the Empire (and the events of Return of the Jedi), but peace is not easy to maintain. The Republic is one again threatened, this time by the New Order, a re-invigoration of Emperor Palpatine's vision for conformity and order, led now by a new enemy. Their final mission, and the only means of fighting the growing Resistance, is to find the galaxy's last Jedi, Luke Skywalker, who has gone into hiding. Resistance pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), receives access to his whereabouts, and hides the confidential details inside his loyal BB-8 droid. Soon, the New Order begins hunting BB-8, who finds unlikely assistance from a Jakku scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley), and a rogue storm trooper, designated FN-2187 (John Boyega). Together, they must bring BB-8 to safety, and help the Resistance destroy a dangerous weapon and defeat the New Order.

The Force Awakens is a combination New Hope and Empire Strikes Back rolled into one film. The nostalgia of the world, the joy of meeting new characters, the simplicity of the plot (the plots have nearly identical beats), all of it harkens back to the original. But dare I say it, Episode VII is better? Wait wait, hear me out. What it does on top of the aspects that give us that familiar, comforting feeling that New Hope brings is that the writing, the acting, the enemies, all of them in the quality realm of Empire, the best film in the series.

The scope is massive, obviously a benefit of a budget the original never had, but Abrams takes such care with this content, respects it with almost invisible details only true fans would notice (i.e. the breathing masks on the Millennium Falcon certainly having changed since Empire)... But he doesn't let the weight of the Star Wars oeuvre hold him back. He introduces new characters, revitalizes the language and dialogue, gives significance to a plethora of strong, female characters. It's completely inspiring. Abrams is a visionary director, we know this. He recognizes creative possibilities within his favorite cult favorites that could only expand on the world, not deter from it. Every character is introduced to us with great care, and we're privy to a depth of personality within each one of them that inform a backstory we could only hope to learn more about.

Daisy Ridley as Rey stole the film (okay, she may have come in second to BB-8, but more on him later), giving her best Emma Watson for the audience. Rey is not a complicated character, but she does have a complicated history. The life she lives is full of complications and trials, and watching her navigate her limited, stunted world is more telling than any flashback or exposition could ever be. Abrams and writer Lawrence Kasdan don't waste time with all of that. The here, the right now, that is what is important. The best moment in the film is the moment Rey meets terrified, lapsed storm trooper, FN-2187. We learn so much, and no one says a word.

Now... I couldn't share my feelings about BB-8 in more clear terms than Bobby Finger of online publication Jezebel described them this morning. So in lieu of sounding repetitive, I'm going to direct your attention to his article here, and suggest you pay very special attention to all the BB-8 love he expresses. Because while BB-8 caught all of our eyes in his momentary buzzing and whirring across the screen during the trailer, it is BB-8 who is, arguably, the most important character in the film. He is also, in fact, the most expressive, lovable droid the Star Wars universe has ever known. Sorry R-2. To that point, he's also thisclose to being a distraction, as I squirmed and giggled and leaned over to my friends, poking them to watch him as closely as I was, like they somehow didn't see him and fall immediately in love with him, too. Character design at its best, only enhanced by impeccable writing and execution.

There is so much magic that this movie holds. Some of it may be a fabrication, a hopeful projection onto a film that, sure, has it's minor flaws, but had so many expectations piled on top of it—audiences sometimes see what they wanna see. But I don't think so. There is depth here that A New Hope struggled to find, Empire managed to deliver, and Jedi only partially maintained. The prequels... those cartoonish, CGI-monstrosities didn't even come close to what Force Awakens has accomplished. Beautiful, in-camera effects paired with nearly tangible graphic design, it all adds up to a feast for the eyes and a settling of the soul. It also makes a promise, a big one. One that may, potentially, be difficult to deliver on, but Abrams certainly set up his trilogy to do the very best it possibly could.

So if you haven't already seen it, what are you waiting for? Stop what you're doing and get to the theater! The internet is a field of spoiler landmines, and you definitely don't want to know this film's secrets before you see it for yourself.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars

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