“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”: a dazzling, emotional return to a galaxy far, far away

rogerebert.com

I will try and avoid spoilers but please tread carefully.

My favorite film critic, the late Roger Ebert, wrote in his review of the original 1977 “Star Wars” that watching the iconic film was an out-of-body experience for him. After watching “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, directed by J.J. Abrams, I can get some sort of idea of what that meant. Never have I felt such glee from a movie before. When I saw the original film, it was on a TV and I couldn’t really understand what all the fuss was about, although I grew to adore it. I had a huge grin on my face while watching most of this film. I already want to watch it again, and already excited for Episode 8.

Basic plot run-down: Luke Skywalker has disappeared and the Resistance is looking for him in order to stop the First Order, which has grown out of the Galactic Empire. The last part of the map to find him is kept in a small droid called BB-8, who is left on the desert planet Jakku, and soon found by a young woman named Rey, and setting off a chain of events that affects the whole galaxy.

Abrams has not failed us. He has made a wonderful edition to the franchise juggernaut that is “Star Wars”, full of action, humor and respect to the series’ origins. While Abrams did a decent job with the “Star Trek” films, it is clear that this film is closer to his heart. His use of practical effects and his good direction make this film watchable at the very least, although there is much more to this film than that.

It helps that we have a solid group of new actors to carry on this trilogy. Gone are the days of Hayden Christensen and his rants about sand. The two main characters, scavenger Rey and former Stormtrooper Finn, are endearing, funny, well-rounded and excellently played by their actors, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega (both London-born 20-somethings). Boyega is funny and settles into his role well, showing both vulnerability and a certain magnetism. Newcomer Ridley emerges as simply a marvel, showing strength, cunning, as well as abandonment issues without being another take on the “Strong Female Character.” Ridley’s best asset is her big hazel eyes, which tell so much more than words can. Ridley and Boyega have instant, bubbly chemistry, where both are on equal footing with each other.

Oscar Isaac is somewhat underused as the very charming and Han Solo-like Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, and Lupita Nyong’o does fine work as the motion-captured wise elder, Maz Kanata. Domhnall Gleeson does some entertaining scenery-chewing as First Order General Hux. The droid BB-8 is adorable and hilarious (does a robot count when it comes to acting?).

Another stand-out aside from our two leads is the villain, Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, whose performance I was pleasantly surprised by. As Kylo with the mask on, the six-foot tall Driver becomes a frightening, towering presence, even if he doesn’t reach the enigmatic quality that Darth Vader had in the originals. In the few times where his mask comes off, Driver turns Kylo into a confused, yet eager man-child who is having a bit of an identity crisis and throws temper tantrums. He’s tragic in an unexpected way.

Of course, the original stars fit right back into where they belong. Harrison Ford may have his fair share of squabbles toward his character Han Solo, but in this movie he gives his all, showing decades of hurt and regret simply through his facial expressions. Carrie Fisher does solid work as now-General Leia, and her natural chemistry with Ford has never gone away. I won’t say anything about Mark Hamill, as you should see the subtle work he does for yourself.

The special effects and production design are beautiful, and the fights are exciting. One moment that stood out to me was during a crucial lightsaber battle, when the blue and red blades hit each other and push on each other, lighting up the characters’ faces with purple. A scene early-on of a flight in the Millennium Falcon is simply astounding.

The portrayal of the universe is just so heartwarming. There seems to be such a sense of love and care put into every line and every frame. Everything feels so real and rugged and whimsical. There’s droll banter between characters and the jokes are spot-on. It’s just so fun, dang it, and it just puts you into a certain state of being. It feels like a “Star Wars” movie.

Fans of the series will have a ball with all the subtle and even not-so-subtle references. When a character from the originals show up, it reminds you why you loved that character in the first place. I’ll be honest and say I got teary-eyed during the scenes between Ford and Fisher. The movie becomes surprisingly down-to-earth and poignant in many scenes, and has lost a lot of the corniness that the originals had. If you are easily emotional like I am, bring tissues.

The one thing that keeps the Final Verdict from being a perfect 10 is how derivative the story is. One could call this an updated version of the first film, with some tweaks. While this isn’t really noticeable when you’re watching the film it kind of starts to sink in once you’ve left the theater, and it admittedly makes a lot of the movie predictable. However, what I’ve learned about the “Star Wars” saga is that it is a somewhat circular story. Things are always similar. Even “The Phantom Menace” had moments that were like the original movie. Comparisons are unavoidable.

Even when you’re thinking about how something doesn’t make sense or wondering how something got where it is, you are taken aback by the spectacle in front of you. “Star Wars” is a part of everyone’s history, as well as film history. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is not only a great “Star Wars” film. It’s also just a great film.

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Final Verdict: 9.5 out of 10

Rated PG-13 for Sci-fi action violence.

Director: J.J. Abrams

Cast: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Peter Mayhew, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Max von Sydow.