STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) Brings Home The Memories

star wars force awakens poster

STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

Movie Review

By Michael Arruda

If there’s one thing that STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS does well, it’s that it hearkens back to the original trilogy and if you liked those movies, you’re sure to enjoy this one as well.  Of course, it does a few other things well, too.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS takes place 30 years after the events in RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983).  As the familiar golden words on the screen at the beginning of the movie explain, Luke Skywalker has disappeared, and both the evil First Order and the feisty Rebels are looking for him.  A map exists which shows the hiding place of Luke.  Whoever finds the map will find Luke, and so the race is on.  That in a nutshell is the plot of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS.

When the movie opens, a rebel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) possesses the map, but he’s captured by the First Order, the baddies in this one who look and act exactly like the Evil Empire in the first trilogy.  Before he’s captured, Poe slips the map to his droid BB-8 and tells it to run.  [Sound familiar?  Princess Leia did the same thing with R2D2 in the original STAR WARS (1977).  There are lot of homage moments like this in the THE FORCE AWAKENS.  For the most part, I enjoyed them.  However, this ploy also works against the film’s originality.  More on this later.]

Poe is captured and interrogated by one of the leaders of the First Order, a Darth Vader wannabe, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), but with the help of a former Storm trooper Finn (John Boyega) Poe escapes.

Meanwhile, a young woman Rey (Daisy Ridley) crosses paths with BB-8 and befriends the droid.  When the First Order arrives in search of BB-8 and the map, Rey and the droid are helped by Finn.  They receive further assistance when old friends Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) arrive, and they bring the three back to the Rebels, now led by former Princess and now General Leia (Carrie Fisher).

The battle lines are drawn.  Both sides are searching for Luke Skywalker, while at the same time the Rebels are forced to defend the galaxy against another powerful planet-destroying weapon possessed by the First Order, a weapon that makes the Death Star in the original STAR WARS seem puny in comparison.  Of course.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is clearly an homage to the original trilogy, especially to the first film in the series, STAR WARS. I had a love/hate relationship with this.

For the most part, the homage style works.  I absolutely loved how director J.J. Abrams re-introduced all the original characters.  Everyone- Han Solo, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, C3PO, R2D2- receives a dramatic entrance.  Heck, even the Millennium Falcon gets a heroes-welcome first scene.  This all works for me and provides the fans with plenty of loud ovation moments.  It reminded me a lot of when I saw STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979) years ago at the movies, the way that film gave each main character a dramatic entrance, as that was the first time those folks were appearing on the large screen.

However, where this style faltered was in the construct of the story’s plot. In STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, once again the First Order is in possession of a planet destroying weapon, and once more the Rebels detect a weakness in its construction, and so they come up with a plan to sneak in and destroy it.  This plot point is right out of both STAR WARS and RETURN OF THE JEDI.  You would think that at this point the bad guys would have come up with a different weapon or would have eliminated these weaknesses.  They haven’t won yet.

While this may sound like nitpicking, a different plot point in these movies would be most welcome.  It’s like when Lex Luthor shows up as the villain in all the SUPERMAN movies.  Nothing against Lex, but can we have a different villain once in a while?

Likewise, I realize that it’s the STAR WARS universe and the expectation is that things are somewhat similar.  I have no problem with the style and the looks being similar, but in terms of plot they need to shake things up a bit.  Not all film series have to do this.  Take the ROCKY series for example.  You expect those films to end with a climactic boxing match.  That makes sense.  Rocky is a boxer.  But the STAR WARS films take place in outer space and have entire galaxies as their canvas.  The plot points should be endless.

I really enjoyed the cast in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, and the film combines both the old and the new seamlessly.

Of the original cast members, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) gets the most screen time, and since Han has always been one of the most interesting and compelling characters in the STAR WARS universe, this is a good thing.  Harrison Ford is once again excellent as Han Solo, and he shows that at 73 he hasn’t lost much in terms of his charisma and acting chops.

Carrie Fisher as General Leia is in the film less, and based on her few scenes, this is also a good thing.  Of course, we don’t see a lot of Luke, since a key plot point of the film is that he’s disappeared, but since his name is in the credits, it’s a good bet he will show up at some point.

That being said, this was another plot point of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS that I did not enjoy.  Luke Skywalker is the single most important character from the original series, and now we have a new STAR WARS movie which hearkens back to the original, and as a key plot point, the film chooses to have it so that Skywalker has vanished?  I don’t know about that.  To borrow a title from that other science fiction series, I would have preferred that this movie not played out like STAR WARS:  THE SEARCH FOR LUKE, which is a roundabout way of saying I wanted more Luke in this movie.

Of course, what truly helps this movie is that the new cast members are for the most part excellent.  Daisy Ridley nearly steals the movie as Rey, the new heroine who promises to be the next big character as this series progresses.  She’s that good.  Other than Harrison Ford’s return as Han Solo, Ridley was my favorite part of this movie.

John Boyega is nearly as good as Finn, the former Storm trooper now turned rebel hero.  He’s likeable, humorous, and gutsy, and he fits in perfectly in the STAR WARS universe.

I didn’t think Oscar Isaac fared as well as super duper pilot Poe Dameron.  He’s likable enough, but he’s more one-dimensional than the other two characters.  Perhaps he will be developed more later.  We saw Isaac earlier this year in the science fiction film EX MACHINA (2015).  His co-star in that film, Domhnall Gleeson, also stars here in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS as one of the villains, General Hux.

And this is another place where I thought STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS had some problems.  I just wasn’t all that impressed with the villains in this one.  The main villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) just didn’t do anything for me.  I found him whiny and wishy-washy, about as effective a villain as Loki in the Marvel superhero movies.

With his mask, he’s supposed to be a younger Darth Vader type, and in fact he is related to the character— another thing that strains disbelief in this film- everyone seems to be related to each other.  Is the universe really that small?— and some have cited his inner struggle— he’s not yet completely sold on the Dark side—as a compelling character trait.  I just found it weak and juvenile.  Choose a side and get on with it.  Hamlet, he wasn’t.

Plus, he takes off his mask at will.  What’s up with that?  What is the mask’s purpose, then?  A fashion statement?  To make him look scary?  Darth Vader wore his mask because without it he would die.  Kylo Ren wears his mask because he’s afraid to be evil without it, I guess.  I have to admit, whenever he took off his mask, I thought of Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet  in Mel Brooks’ SPACEBALLS (1987) and wanted to laugh.

The other villain in the film, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis)— how’s that for a presumptuous name?  He’s the Supreme Leader because name says so, not because of anything he does in the movie!— is reduced to appearing as a holographic image a la the Emperor in the original series.  He gets to say ominous lines to Kylo Ren, but that’s about it.

Snoke is played by Andy Serkis, who is the top guy in the movies when it comes to motion capture performances, as he has hit homeruns with his performances as Gollum in THE LORD OF THE RINGS series, as Caesar in the new PLANET OF THE APES series, and he even made for a decent King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of KING KONG.  But here he’s reduced to a stationary holographic image.

Nuff said.

Chewbacca, C3PO, and R2D2 all enjoy fine moments, and the new droid BB8 is also very enjoyable.  One more new cast member who makes an impression is Max Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o).  Kanata is a CGI created creature with wide eyes who enjoys some key scenes, and Nyong’o makes the most of her brief screen time.

For the most part, I enjoyed the directorial work of J.J. Abrams here.  He has made a crowd pleaser, and STAR WARS fans should walk away from the theater satisfied.  It’s clearly a homage and it works.  It brought me back to the time when I watched the original three films at the theater, and this was a lot of fun.  STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a much more satisfying STAR WARS vehicle than the previous three films, the prequel trilogy of the 90s and early 200s.

And the film looks great.  Again, it hearkens back to the original series, and really captures the original look of the first STAR WARS.  And while there were some cool scenes, I can’t say that they blew me away, since nearly everything that happens in this movie was very familiar.

The screenplay by director Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan who also wrote both THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI, and Michael Arndt successfully creates nostalgia but falters somewhat when it comes to original storytelling.  At times, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS almost plays like a straight re-boot of the original STAR WARS.  I would have preferred it had this new film taken a far more original route.  Is it asking too much that the evil First Order develop a new way of doing things rather than creating yet another planet destroying weapon with a glaring weakness?  Is it asking too much that the good guys face some other conflict instead of trying to destroy another Death Star?  There are far too many exciting plot points for a STAR WARS movie not to seek them out.

John Williams once again wrote the music score, and once more it’s a phenomenal soundtrack.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a rousing tour de force, full of STAR WARS nostalgia and a genuine crowd-pleaser, but it lacks originality and as such offers nothing new, other than new younger characters who face the same adversities our original characters faced in the original trilogy.  So, yes, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS  also plays like STAR WARS:  THE NEXT GENERATION.

While it’s all unabashedly fun, it’s also completely predictable.

May the Force Be With You.  Again.

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