For The First Time Since 1983, STAR WARS Is Really Back

Opening tomorrow at every multiplex in the galaxy:


(Dir. J.J. Abrams, 2015)
As suspected, J.J. Abrams is much, much better suited for STAR WARS than STAR TREK.

Abrams’ TREK movies were poppy, new fangled approximations of the Star Trek ethos, but his highly anticipated seventh entry in the ultra popular space saga, THE FORCE AWAKENS, really is a bonafide, honest-to-God, gloriously old school STAR WARS movie.

It captures the spirit and replicates the story beats of the original 1977 film so lovingly that it is almost a virtual remake, but that back-to-basics approach hugely works in its favor because, unlike the awful prequels, it’s not cluttered and all over the place.

Now, in order to keep from revealing major spoilers – the kind that would keep people from reading reviews like this in the first place – I’ll try to be as vague as I can with plot points, and other juicy tidbits.

It’s 30 years after the events in RETURN OF THE JEDI, and instead of the Empire and the Rebel Alliance we now have “The First Order,” and “The Resistance.” Darth Vader’s successor, clothed in similar black attire with metal mask and cape, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is, of course, trying to crush The Resistance and find Luke Skywalker who’s gone missing.

On a desert planet that highly resembles Tatooine, but is called Jakku, we meet a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) who befriends BB-8, that cute orange and white spinning droid you’ve probably seen in trailers and TV teasers, who is being hunted by The First Order because he’s carrying a secret message to be delivered to The Resistance. Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, John Boyega (ATTACK THE BLOCK) plays a storm trooper who defects and joins forces with Rey, under the guise that he’s in The Resistance. Fleeing from The First Order, Rey, Finn, and BB-8 happen upon The Millenium Falcon in a space ship junkyard, and luckily it still holds together for their escape.

Before long the Falcon is captured by a large freighter owned by famed smuggler, and rebel hero Han Solo (Harrison Ford in his most invested performance in eons) and that beloved hairy Wookie, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who, unlike Han, hasn’t aged a day.

That’s as much of the plot as I need to go into. You can most likely guess that there is a new Death Star (Starkiller Base) to destroy, a cantina-like scene, light saber battles, X-Wings and Tie Fighter dogfights, and revelations about who’s related to whom.

Carrie Fisher reprises her role as Leia Organa, now a General, with Anthony Daniels back as C-3PO, and Kenny Baker back inside R2-D2, but he hasn’t been the same since Master Luke vanished. 

The new kids, Boyega and Ridley, have great gusto and likable pluck in their roles and are a lot of fun to watch run around through battle station corridors, Endor-like forests, and snowy Hoth-type terrain. It’s like they split the role of Luke into the two characters, who both long for better destinies before getting swooped up into the galactic battle between good and evil.

As for Luke, we all know that Mark Hamill has signed back on, but going into how he appears would be ultra spoilery so I won’t go there.

As for the other new characters, Oscar Isaac, who gets some wise-cracks in (he also appears to be having more fun than I’ve ever seen him have in a movie), plays Poe Dameron, an ace X-Wing fighter pilot for The Resistance; a stern Domhnall Gleeson (Isaac’s EX MACHINA co-star) plays the evil First Order General Hux, Lupita Nyong’o plays the motion capture-enhanced alien pirate/bar owner Maz Kanata (sort of the movie’s Yoda), and Andy Serkis lends his distinctive talents to embodying the sinister Supreme Leader Snoke (another motion-capture creation), the new Emperor-esque figure.

And who knew that Driver, best known as Lena Dunham’s weird, lanky boyfriend on the HBO show Girls, would make such a great STAR WARS villain? He nails the intensity needed for Kylo Ren, and gives him just the right amount of ache as well.

It’s also nice that their dialogue, written by Abrams, Michael Arndt (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, TOY STORY 3), and returning series scribe Lawrence Kasdan, is sharp and witty with just the right amount of call backs. This is especially notable in Han and Leia’s scenes, though I wish they fought a little, with that old Tracy/Hepburn-ish back and forth so memorable in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Fisher, who had to slim down to reprise the part, brings gravitas in the form of her older, dignified Leia, but they could’ve given her a little more to do. However, that’s a small complaint considering.

George Lucas may have created STAR WARS, but somewhere along the line he lost its vision. Abrams sure found it here, as one of the best things that I can report is that while watching THE FORCE AWAKENS, I really did forget about the prequels. Abrams’ film is so immensely entranced with the look, feel, and tone of the original trilogy that all that nonsense about senate treaties, midichlorians, Qui-Gon Jinn, Palpatine, etc. never comes to mind. It’s remarkable how successful it is in rendering Episodes I-III non-canon.

Sure, there’s lots of CGI, but little of the aforementioned clutter of the prequels or many recent sci-fi action films. I really appreciate that Abrams had real sets and models built, and relied on practical effects when possible. David Mindel’s cinematography lovingly apes the look of the original trilogy, as John Williams reworks all the mighty musical cues of his previous series’ scores effectively. 

As a rekindling of the magic of the space opera that I loved as a kid, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a fantastic success. Abrams really pulled off a wonderful, faithful, funny, and intoxicatingly fun entry that had me from the first line of the opening crawl to its powerful last shot. For the first time since 1983, STAR WARS is really back.

When Han says “Chewie, we’re
home,” he might as well be speaking for the masses that are going to eat this up, and go back
again and again for more.

More later…

To Get It Out Of The Way, Here’s My STAR WARS Story From 1977

Not long ago, a film writer or fan (I can’t remember which, and the post is hard to locate) made a plea on Facebook for critics not to all start their reviews of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, releasing this week if you haven’t heard, by stating how much the original movie or trilogy meant to their childhoods.

It’s a good point, as the experiences of so many folks with the series are identical, mine included: As a kid, I grew up on STAR WARS (still not calling it A NEW HOPE, dammit!), THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and RETURN OF THE JEDI, as an adult hated the prequels, and as an older adult I have a sliver of hope that J.J. Abrams will deliver a new entertaining entry that lives up to at least some of the hype.

But, in the interest of keeping it out of my review, I do have a story to share about seeing the film for the first time. I was seven in the summer of 1977, when my family – my parents and my older brother – and I went to the Varsity Theater in downtown Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to see STAR WARS. 

George Lucas’ sci-fi epic had a limited release in May – the date May 25, 1977 is tattooed in the back of every geek’s brain – but it didn’t open wide and come to my hometown until July 1st.

I’m pretty sure we didn’t go to see it the weekend it opened. I have memories of seeing many TV spots for it, plus pictures in newspapers and magazines that intrigued me greatly (that was as big as the buzz got in the pre-internet era) before my Mom and Dad gave in and took us some night in July, which I think was a weeknight. 

Like just about every kid, I was blown away by the movie – it was incredible looking from the first wide screen space shot to the last, really funny (I still remember the roar of laughter when R2-D2 falls face down after being zapped by a Jawa), and all around exciting, ultra fun stuff.

But, although it became my favorite movie in the years to come – collected the toys, had the posters on my bedroom walls, went as Luke Skywalker for Halloween, etc. – my first words walking out of the theater indicated a less than glowing viewpoint:

“‘King Kong’ was better.” I said this to my brother, and he has never let me forget it.

Now, it would be one thing if I meant the original, 1933 classic KING KONG, but I meant the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis remake, which had come out the previous Christmas. Now, I wouldn’t consider that film to define my childhood at all, but at the time it was my favorite of the very limited amount of movies I’d seen, and I apparently thought that STAR WARS hadn’t topped it.

Decades later, it’s been a well told story in my family with even my brother’s kids making fun of me for saying it (I join in on ridiculing my 7-year old self because, yeah, it is fun).

It feels good to confess that embarrassing moment here. I’ve come around to consider it one of my first moments of film criticism (albeit a hilariously misguided one). 

So I’m glad I got my childhood STAR WARS story out the way here so it won’t clog up my review of THE FORCE AWAKENS. For sure, nobody will want to hear it there.

I’ll leave you now with this picture of a couple of iconic action figures that I dug up out of a lunchbox in my closet (a STAR WARS lunchbox, yes):

More later…