Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Grade : A+ Year : 2015 Director : JJ Abrams Running Time : 2hr 15min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

There are moments that will surprise fans, and there are moments that won’t. There are moments that will bring you to tears, and there are moments that will give in to wonderful laughter. There are moments when you look at the film and think, “Did JJ Abrams just do that?,” and there are moments where you will think, “Thank God that JJ Abrams did that.” Like the best of “Star Wars,” whether you are discussing “A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” a particular moment that may have grabbed you in the prequel trilogy, or the “Clone Wars” and “Rebels” TV shows, “The Force Awakens” will be remembered best for the moments it made viewers feel something. In those moments, it is not “just a movie.”

It is well known to my readers by now that I am a full-bodied “Star Wars” fanboy. What may not be well known is that at one point, I lost that, or rather, I forgot what that meant to me. The prequel trilogy directed by George Lucas didn’t turn me entirely to the Dark Side of “Star Wars” fandom, but it certainly led to a disillusionment with the franchise. While I will defend things about those films until the end of my days, the weaknesses in those movies in terms of writing and performance took a toll, and the movie that led into the “Clone Wars” TV series didn’t help matters, nor did the first few episodes of the show I watched. In 2011, however, you could say I had an awakening of my own with the Force, when a “Star Wars” panel at Dragon*Con with Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Temuera Morrison (who played Jango Fett in “Attack of the Clones”) and Ashley Eckstein (who played Ahsoka Tano in “Clone Wars”), and in particular, the experiences Eckstein had voicing the padawan of Anakin Skywalker, sparked a flame in me about the franchise, and starting with the “Clone Wars” series, I became one with the Force once again. Ever since, my love of “Star Wars” has been full-throated and absolute, and with the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney, and the promise of new movies and TV shows, I haven’t been this excited to be a fan since the days and months before “The Phantom Menace” hit screens.

From this point forward, we may be trafficking in some **Spoilers**, although I’ll avoid them as much as possible. Consider yourself warned.

The opening crawl starts with a simple sentence, one that sets the entire story of “The Force Awakens” in motion: “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” This has been the “official” catalyst for the film, set 32 years after “Return of the Jedi,” for a while now, but seeing it in the yellow letters of the newest crawl, with John Williams’s iconic theme backing it, gives it an urgency and importance that will be maintained throughout the film’s 135 minutes. We are not told the reasons why he has vanished, only that two opposing forces are searching for him- the First Order, which rose from the ashes of the Empire, and the Resistance, which has continued the work of the Rebel Alliance in fighting back the influence of the Dark Side. After the words go off the screen, and the camera pans down in the well-known “Star Wars” manner, we arrive on the planet of Jakku, where a pilot for the Resistance, Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac), is retrieving something from an old ally (Lor San Tekka, played by the great Max Von Sydow) that may lead the Resistance, led by Luke’s sister, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), to the Jedi. However, before Dameron can get away, the First Order and their Sith leader, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), come to the village, and lay waste to it’s inhabitants, taking Poe captive. Before he is taken, though, Poe puts this information into his trusted droid, BB-8, and like R2-D2 in “A New Hope,” this droid will become the center of everyone’s attention as the race to find Skywalker progresses on both sides. It’s also at the village where we meet another important player, FN-2187 (John Boyega), a stormtrooper who, curiously, is unable to do what he is ordered. He is conflicted, and that conflict will be vital to Dameron’s escape from the First Order. “The Force Awakens” has a lot in common with “A New Hope” in terms of it’s structure, as BB-8 will find his way into the possession of a scavenger on Jakku, Rey (Daisy Ridley), who will be our identifying character the entire film, much like Luke was in the 1977 movie.

Though the initial story treatment for the “Force Awakens” came from George Lucas himself, he does not get a story credit in the closing credits, implying a lot of changes along the way. This is not a bad thing, and certainly will be a reason to rejoice for fans who hated the prequel era of the franchise, but JJ Abrams and his co-writers, Lawrence Kasden and Michael Arndt, have not forgotten about Lucas’s core ideas for this franchise so much as rekindled what made it special to begin with on the big screen, much as what David Filoni did on the “Clone Wars” series as it continued, and is currently doing on the “Rebels” TV show. The fundamental problem with the prequels remains their inability to reconcile the emotional heart of their story (Anakin Skywalker’s fall from great Jedi Knight to powerful Sith Lord) within the context of what is essentially a political tale in a way where both could exist successfully (although the limitations of Lucas as a screenwriter and director of actors after 22 years away from the director’s chair did not help, either). In “The Force Awakens,” the balance is restored, with the emotional story taking center stage, and that desire to find Luke driving every main character, even the new characters, in the film. Poe’s desire to find him is an extension of Leia’s mission. FN-2187 (later renamed Finn, rather ingeniously) is coming first from a sense of responsibility to the First Order, but later from a desire to find the person causing him all this trouble. Kylo Ren wants to continue the legacy of Darth Vader, who helped wipe out the Jedi Order all those years ago; Anakin’s son is the last piece of that plan for both him and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), a towering figure who is one with the Dark Side. Rey is the one thrown into the middle, and to her, Luke Skywalker is simply a myth that has been passed down over the years, and of course he is, if no one has seen him for decades after his part in bringing down the Empire. When Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) enter the picture, theirs will be one of a central need to find a person important to them, and to fill in the blanks for Finn and Rey, who have a hard time believing what the smuggler has to say at first. Watching Harrison Ford play the material given to him by this screenplay is one of the most exciting pleasures this franchise has had in a long time. We are a long way from the cynical pilot who didn’t believe in “one all-powerful Force guiding everything.” When he tells Finn and Rey, who have escaped the First Order on his beloved Millennium Falcon, that all of the stories and legends they have heard about the Jedi and the Dark Side are true, it’s spoken with an authority and purpose that recalls the wisdom of Sir Alec Guiness’s Obi-Wan Kenobi in “A New Hope.” That doesn’t mean Han has abandoned his reckless nature and become a mentor, though; he and Chewie still know how to get themselves in a whole heaping of trouble. This is one of the best things Abrams and Kasden (who had the ultimate say on the screenplay) do in their film- rather than follow “A New Hope” beat-for-beat like “The Phantom Menace” attempted (and faltered at), “The Force Awakens” takes the first film’s base-line structure, and tweaks it ever so slightly by assigning roles not by copying what came before, but what feels right for the story being told. This leads to some of the biggest surprises in the film (or not, depending on your ability to connect some dots), and I’ll be damned if I’m going to spoil them here. Let’s just say, I can’t wait to see what Rian Johnson has in store for us in May 2017 when “Episode VIII” comes out.

One of the most encouraging quotes to come out of JJ Abrams’s mouth in the lead-up to “The Force Awakens” has been that he and Kasden (who co-wrote “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”) wanted to make a film that was, first and foremost, “delightful,” and I couldn’t be happier to report that they most certainly succeeded in that. They find that happy place between fun and drama that “Empire” did 35 years ago, and exploit it for the greatest storytelling effect. BB-8 is one of the biggest sources of fun in the film, and he is a droid more than worthy of the mantle of “McGuffin and important players” that C-3PO (played, as always, but the wonderful Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (now fully motorized, but still consulted on by Kenny Baker) shared in the original trilogy. Oscar Issac may be best known for his intense work in films like “Inside Llewyn Davis” and this year’s “Ex Machina,” but Poe Dameron is a whole new look for the actor entirely, and he has so much fun playing the role that one can picture JJ Abrams having to tell Issac not to make the “pew pew” sounds while in the cockpit of his X-wing fighter during filming. Before “The Force Awakens,” Boyega was best known for the wickedly fun sci-fi action comedy “Attack the Block,” and the deft, smart leading-man quality first seen in that cult favorite is utilized effectively in the role of Finn, who has some of the most interesting twists in store with his arc. For the third new lead in the film, Abrams went with a relative unknown in Ridley, but whatever he saw in her comes through beautifully as Rey. She is the last person we meet of the new cast, but she is immediately the most engaging. We first see her looking through the wreckage of a downed star destroyer, and the imagery Abrams, cinematographer Dan Mindel and Industrial Light & Magic conjure is breathtakingly powerful for both the casual and obsessive “Star Wars” fan alike. Seeing Rey walk from out of the massive engine of a star destroyer is a perfect reflection of the character’s isolation and place in life. When she comes across BB-8 and Finn, however, her world is about to get a whole lot bigger. The light, however, cannot exist without the dark, and Abrams and Kasden create a menace more potent than anything we experienced in “The Phantom Menace” or “Attack of the Clones.” The First Order is the final evolution of the direction Emperor Palpatine wished to take the Empire. The Empire disguised it’s fascist agenda in the guise of bring peace to the galaxy, whereas the First Order is prepared to burn that galaxy down for ultimate power. The faces of this power are Kylo Ren, who has chosen the Dark Side consciously, and wishes to further himself as its servant, and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), who has much in common with Governer Tarkin from “A New Hope,” but appears to have more sway with Supreme Leader Snoke than Kylo Ren does, hinting that Kylo Ren, like Darth Vader, still has some good in him. The tension between these three forces for evil is a fascinating dynamic we never really saw play out in the previous movies, but has been hinted at several times on both the “Clone Wars” and “Rebels” shows. How Abrams and Kasden manage to deliver a fully-realized thread and dynamic to this film in only a few scenes gets me excited to see where the storytellers who follow after them will go next.

I cannot wait to see this film again. I cannot wait to experience this story, and these performances, again to see subtle hints I may have missed the first time out. I cannot wait to really focus in on John Williams’s score, and to devour what little tics and musical themes the great maestro has weaved into this film’s sonic tapestry; his score, by the way, is on par with the best work he has done for the franchise. I cannot wait to really watches the edges of the frames of this film, to see what details and “easter eggs” the visual effects team have included for long-time fans of the franchise. And I cannot wait to see how the work JJ Abrams, Lawrence Kasden, Simon Kinberg (part of the “Star Wars” braintrust that is helping usher in this new evolution of the series) and Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy did here informs what comes next in that galaxy far, far away, whether it’s the next chapter in the Skywalker family saga two years from now or what happens next in the “Rebels” TV show or what Gareth Edwards has in store next year with “Rogue One.” A letter grade seems irrelevant for this film, at this point. If you can’t feel my excitement over the film that JJ Abrams delivered, I don’t know how to help you.

**The following was written on Facebook after my second time watching “The Force Awakens,” and it delves more into spoilers.**

Okay, so now that I have seen “The Force Awakens” twice, and time has passed, it’s now time to really discuss it, and yes, there will be spoilers.

“Luke Skywalker has vanished.” This is an amazing opening to the crawl. Even if this was all there was to the crawl, it would tell us everything we needed to know right off the bat about what “The Force Awakens’s” story is. This is the driving force of the entire film, and it’s a Hell of a grabber.

Personally, I’m content to be left guessing what Rey’s backstory, and parentage, is for now, simply because she’s such a great character. Arguably, just knowing what we know about her, she’s a much more fascinating character even if she is “nobody” than Luke was in “A New Hope,” because she is far more self-sufficient than Luke was. They’re equally driven by longing, but in different ways, and the way Daisy Ridley and JJ Abrams make that clear in just the introduction of the character, both in Ridley’s performance and in Abrams’s visuals, is some of the best, and simplest, character development we’ve seen in a movie, let alone a “Star Wars” movie, in quite awhile.

(For the record, though, I am hoping she is Luke’s daughter, because it would form a fascinating dynamic between Luke and Anakin’s arcs. Anakin succumbed to the Dark Side because he couldn’t let go of his attachments to his mother and Padme. Compare that to Luke (if he turns out to be Rey’s father), who is able to let go of his emotional attachments, but is arguably as weak as his father because he isolates himself from the attachments that helped him be strong, even though he resisted the Dark Side. I really can’t wait to see what Rian Johnson, the writer-director of “Episode VIII,” and writer of “Episode IX,” has in store for us narratively, on this front.)

On the other side, we have Kylo Ren. One of the best things about him is that he is not just a carbon copy of Anakin/Darth Vader, or any other villain we’ve seen in the “Star Wars” universe (save for the non-canon Expanded Universe). Here, we have a character who has actively followed the path to the Dark Side. He doesn’t try to resist it, but heads right to it, wanting to follow the path of his grandfather. I have a feeling, though, he wasn’t told the full story of Anakin Skywalker, however, because he would then know that Anakin turned back to the Light because of his son. He struggles because he feels good in him still, and he cannot stand that, which leads him to do to his father what Palpatine wanted Luke to do to Vader as a final test to go fully to the Dark Side. I’m reminded much more of Tom Riddle, aka Voldemort, from “Harry Potter,” who picked up the ball of evil and rolled with it. Like Voldemort, though, Kylo Ren has a weakness, and it is the pain and lasting memory of the moment he kills his father. That is his horcrux, and it will likely be his downfall.

If it hadn’t been such a late-comer to the awards season, I very much think we’d be talking about Harrison Ford in the Best Supporting Actor race the same way Sylvester Stallone is gaining traction for “Creed.” Perhaps the most inspired touch in Abrams’s and Lawrence Kasden’s screenplay is casting Han Solo in the same sort of “I have exposition” role Obi-Wan Kenobi had in “A New Hope,” all the while keeping him defiantly Han Solo. The way Han and Leia’s current relationship status is defined in only a handful of scenes is a credit not only to the writing, but the performances; they need to be doing what they are doing in this film when we first see them, and they need to be separated from one another. If Ford was sick of playing Han, it doesn’t show, because this is probably his best work since “Air Force One” and “The Fugitive.” We see how the character has grown, and also how he has remained the same, as he finds himself in one damn situation or another that leads him into the same fray he ran away from when his son turned to the Dark Side. Ford’s work here makes me very nervous about how a younger actor will take up the mantle of the character in the Han Solo film coming in 2018.

There’s so much more to say about this film. That John Boyega and Oscar Issac are amazing additions to the cast, and like Rey, I can’t wait to see where Finn and Poe go from here. That Dan Mindel’s cinematography is breathtaking, and the sets, effects, and locations add so much to the film. (Add to Bucket List- Trip to the island of Skellig Michael, off the coast of Ireland.) That John Williams’s score is easily one of the 10 best scores he’s ever written (no easy feat for a 50-plus time Oscar nominee), and probably 2nd or 3rd best in the franchise after “The Empire Strikes Back” and (possibly) “Revenge of the Sith.” Finally, that “The Force Awakens” easily lept to being my favorite film of 2015, and has me excited for what the “Star Wars” universe has in store for us from this point out.

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