STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
***1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY J.J. Abrams
STARS Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley
(For a look at the Best & Worst Films of 2015, go here.)
Um, is anybody out there even reading this?
In all my years of reviewing movies — certainly, in all the years that the Internet has been in existence — never has there been a film as critic-unfriendly as Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The reason is different from the norm — the norm being, of course, that a studio is hiding its awful picture from reviewers lest they warn the public that it's wasting its collective time and money on garbage. With this seventh entry in the franchise that began back in 1977, that's not the case. Instead, the issue is that viewers are so eager and excited to see this picture in a virginal manner that they want absolutely no spoilers whatsoever. It's an understandable position: After the relative disappointment of the prequels and the positive buzz surrounding this latest chapter, it's not surprising fans want to experience it in innocent, wide-eyed wonder, with no chance of attached baggage.
So where does this leave critics, all of whom have seen the repeated comments from Facebook friends that all reviews will remain unread (at least until after the initial viewing)? I'm generally very strict about not adding any spoilers to my reviews anyway, but with this picture, I'm wary of detailing any plot. But surely I'll be allowed to reveal the film's first line, glimpsed in that now-iconic opening scrawl that fades into the background: "Luke Skywalker has vanished." And with that, the film begins to work its magic, by bringing back many familiar faces and introducing new characters who will help carry the franchise forward. Among the old-school players are Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher); newbies include reluctant heroes Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) and cocky fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).
These characters are indicative of the respect writer-director J.J. Abrams and co-scripters Lawrence Kasdan (who also co-penned The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Michael Arndt pay toward the past, present and future of the franchise. The original stars haven't lost a beat with their characterizations, while the newcomers prove to be an irresistible lot. The casting of a woman and a black man in the central roles doesn't feel like forced political correctness (as the idiotic Men's Rights Activists and the Trump-supporting racists contend) but a natural progression, and the characters are two of the richest yet seen in the Star Wars universe. There are also some notable new villains, though I'll keep them under wraps.
The first three Daniel Craig James Bond films honored the storied franchise's history, but SPECTRE overplayed its hand by making awkward connections where none previously existed (Bond and Blofeld? Really?). Force doesn't fall into that trap — rather, all of its ties to the original trilogy are measured and make sense. There are also some visual cues to its predecessors, many guaranteed to delight the faithful.
Perhaps the film's strongest component is its visual effects. That may sound like a no-brainer, but after the prequels, it's anything but. The effects work in those movies was often excellent, but the absolute reliance on CGI ultimately stifled much of the wonder and left audiences grousing about the artificiality of it all. With The Force Awakens, Abrams has graciously patterned the look after the 1977, '80 and '83 efforts, with many of the visuals created with models (as opposed to computers) and actual earthbound locations (as opposed to green screens). It's a noble and appreciated gesture, and it's enough to make a grown fan cry.
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