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Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
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by Peter Sobczynski

"We Need To Talk About Kylo"
5 stars

Before getting to discussing "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," a film which is arriving in theaters on an astonishing wave of hype and anticipation, I suppose I should preface my remarks to confessing my occasionally conflicted feelings about the saga as a whole. I was old enough to see the original film during its first theatrical release back in 1977 and like most six-year-old boys (and six-year-old boys at heart), I was pretty much enthralled by it all, although I must confess that even then, I found the bad guys, Darth Vader and his boss, Gran Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing 4-Evah!) to be far more interesting than nominal hero Luke Skywalker. However, since I had already discovered the power of cinema by this point, it wasn't quite the revelatory experience that it clearly was for so many other members of my generation. The first sequel, "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) was almost as good, though I seem to remember a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the fact that it told a story that wasn't going to be resolved for another three years. (This is why I continue to prefer the original even though "Empire" is the stronger and deeper film in many ways.) However, when "Return of the Jedi" finally arrived in 1983, "dissatisfaction" was putting it mildly--even as a kid, I recognized that George Lucas was squandering this grand myth that he had created in order to sell more toys (stupid Ewoks) and the fact that the big finale was pretty much a rehash of the original's conclusion also stuck in my craw. As for the prequels, they were generally irritating works that found Lucas more interested in merchandising than in telling a compelling story or giving his actors dialogue that didn't sound like it came straight from an improper Babelfish translator--yes, "Revenge of the Sith" was okay but it was the best of a bad lot and much of the praise it received was largely due to the fact that it was the conclusion of that otherwise misbegotten trilogy. (Don't even get me started on that animated "The Clone Wars" film.)

Anyway, the fulcrum of my particular gist in rehashing this for you is to emphasize that, my generational bona-fides to the contrary, I am not a dyed-in-the-wool "Star Wars" fanatic by any means (frankly, I was always more of an "Alien" guy but that is a discussion for another time) and therefore went into the screening of "The Force Awakens" with more than a little bit of trepidation on my part--this was in marked contrast to my colleagues, many of whom were practically vibrating with anticipation over the film. It is important that you know that so when I tell you that the film is actually pretty fantastic, you don't think that I am merely toeing the fanboy line. Not only is it by far the best installment in the franchise in 35 years, the blend of thrills, laughs, awesome sights and moments of genuine emotional heft that director/co-writer J.J. Abrams has offered up here is the first one good enough to actually deserve comparison with both "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back."

So as not to incur the wrath of spoiler obsessives or the goons hired by Disney to ensure that no significant information leaks out before its official release, I will tread as lightly as possible in regards to the plot details. (That said, readers who are sensitive about hearing anything about it are advised to skip out on this review now.) Set roughly 30-odd years after the events of "Return of the Jedi," we learn in the opening credit crawl that the vanquished Empire has been replaced by an even-more-insidious force known as The First Order, Luke (Mark Hamill) has seemingly vanished and his sister, Leia (Carrie Fisher), now a general in the resistance force battling the First Order, has sent her best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to the remote and desolate planet of Jakku to find an old comrade of Luke's (Max von Sydow) who might have a clue to his whereabouts. He does, but no sooner has Poe acquired it than the place is attacked by First Order forces led by the masked monster known as Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Before being captured, Poe passes the information on to his trusty droid, BB8, and sends him off to the nearest town in the hopes that they can be reunited.

Along the way, BB8 is rescued by Rey (Daisy Ridley), a spunky scavenger who has been waiting patiently for years for the return of the parents that left her on Jakku years earlier. By this time, of course, the First Order has figured out that BB8 has the information they need and set off to reclaim it. At the same time, Poe is saved from certain death by Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper who has decided that a life of slaughtering the innocents is just not his bag, and the two escape in a TIE Fighter, only to be shot down over Jakku. In the ensuing crash, Poe is feared dead and so Finn heads off to the nearest village as well and happens to run into Rey and BB8, not to mention a lot of stormtroopers who want to kill him and grab the droid. During their attempt to escape their pursuers, the three race towards a fancy ship but when it gets blown up real good, they are forced to settle for "the garbage ship" and this is just about the point where I am going to cut the plot revelations short, except to mention that the eternally roguish and occasionally heroic smuggle Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and trusty sidekick Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) soon figure heavily in the proceedings as well.

Like most moviegoers, I was a bit relieved when I heard that "Star Wars" creator George Lucas had sold his cinematic empire to Disney and would no longer have anything to do with them from a creative standpoint--considering the near-complete atrophying of his filmmaking skills as evidenced by the prequels, this could only be considered a good thing. That said, when it was announced that J.J. Abrams was the new man in charge, there was a certain amount of apprehension on my part because while he has created some fascinating original works over the years (such as the great TV series "Alias" and the lovely Spielberg homage "Super 8"), he has been less successful when playing in the sandboxes of others--his "Mission: Impossible III" was the least interesting installment in that series and his two big-screen "Star Trek" adventures both proved to be embarrassments that seemed to have no clue as to what made that franchise so special in the first place. While it seemed unlikely that any even vaguely competent filmmaker could do a worse job than the likes of "The Phantom Menace," could he somehow put together a film that would reignite the flame in fans who found themselves profoundly alienated by the likes of such artificial creations as Jar-Jar Binks or Hayden Christensen and at the same time thrill and delight viewers who might not have been old enough to see the prequels in theaters, let alone the original trilogy?

Does he ever. From an action standpoint, the film is as exciting as any state-of-the-art genre film that you are likely to see anytime soon but, as opposed to hyper-edited dreck like the "Transformers" films, you don't come away from them feeling as if you have been assaulted. Intriguingly, Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi") and Michael Arndt has taken care to suggest to viewers that the warplay on display is not all fun and games, in one of the more arresting images, a stormtrooper has his mask splattered with the blood of a fallen comrade. (Is this the first time in the series that blood has visibly been shed during one of the combat scenes?) Then again, we have so come to expect startling visual pyrotechnics from these films that their excellence this time around could almost be taken for granted. (It also leads me to suggest that viewers eschew the 3D option for the flat 2D version that will allow them to more fully appreciate the visuals without the inevitable loss of brightness caused by those dopey glasses.)

What is surprising is that the screenplay also triumphs in many other areas as well. Although many of the details of the story may go over the heads of newcomers to the saga, the plot is clear and concise enough for such people to follow along without too much confusion and throws in a few unexpected twists that will have an impact on both veterans and new arrivals alike. For the first time since "Empire," the plot contains some blessedly nuanced emotional underpinnings that ensure that the film is about more than just blowing stuff up. In another key difference from the prequels, the film is also genuinely and deliberately funny as well--the dialogue crackles with the kind of effortless wit that Lucas could never quite manage on his own (notice how the best-written film in the series, "Empire," is the only one not to feature Lucas' name on the writing credits before this one) and the film also includes a number of references, shout-outs and in-jokes to the original trilogy that score big laughs without distracting too much from the story at hand.

The performances that Abrams gets from his cast are also a vast improvement over the prequels where normally reliable players like Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor seems positively stricken by some of the dialogue they were given to say. Among the newcomers to the saga, the virtually unknown Daisy Ridley knocks it out of the park as Rey, who appears to be the new focus of the story--her physical and vocal resemblance to Keira Knightley is a bit distracting at first but once you get past that, you begin to realize that she is delivering a smart and focused performance that should end up making her the heroine of millions of little girls around the world (not to mention the instant crush object of millions of little--and not-so-little--boys as well). As former stormtrooper Finn, John Boyega is quite good in navigating his character's turn from the cowardly to the heroic and supplying both a lot of good humor and an interesting potential romantic interest for Rey down the line (though there is no time for love this time around, Dr. Jones). Among the slightly more familiar faces, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver prove to be interesting choices as, respectively, the faces of unambiguous heroism and conflicted evil. As for the veterans of the series who pop up, they are all fun to see once again in their iconic roles but it is Ford who takes the honors and steals the show here. Having long demonstrated a certain ambivalence towards the role that made him a screen icon over the years, he seems to have finally come to terms with the character and the results is the loosest and most entertaining performance that he has given in ages. (Of course, the fact that he has been given real dialogue and dramatic situations this time around might have something to do with that.) And while I won't spoil the particulars of his initial entrance, I will say that when he does first appear, audiences are likely going to stand up and cheer out of sheer delight.

Aside from the fact that the change in distributors from Fox to Disney means that the immortal studio fanfare is absent from the opening moments, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is a blast from start to finish--funny, thrilling and heartfelt in ways that I didn't think were possible from the franchise anymore. Does it supersede "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back"? Maybe not but it honors them more than any other element of the franchise that I can think of. Does it live up to the gargantuan levels of pre-release hype? Probably not--not that anything could--but it comes far closer to doing so than any level-headed person could have possibly expected it to do. And when the whole thing is said and done, I realized as the end credits were unspooling that I was feeling a sensation that I hadn't experienced in 35 years--the desire to see a new "Star Wars" movie.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=27482&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/16/15 03:00:00
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User Comments

5/10/18 Suzanne Ridley and Ford make this movie - music great as usual 4 stars
9/09/17 morris campbell good but wont make u forget a new hope 3 stars
12/20/16 Chris A complete insult to A New Hope - almost a cheap money spinning remake. 1 stars
6/01/16 Chelsie Entertaining, Desirable taste, but could be even more delicious with new original flavors. 4 stars
5/19/16 Jason Interesting new characters! 5 stars
5/13/16 Chelsie Entertaining, Desirable taste, but could be even more delicious with new original flavors. 5 stars
4/04/16 J herman Basically boring. Really really boring. Except that Ridley is fun to watch,. 2 stars
1/15/16 Charles Tatum Gets back to the spirit of the orig trilogy 5 stars
1/08/16 Loopy Despite some bullshit moments and Jar Jar Abrams tendacies it was an enjoyable time 4 stars
1/07/16 John Loved the new characters! Rushed, sometimes clunky, but still very fun and classic SW 4 stars
1/02/16 PAUL SHORTT I wish Carrie Fisher had showed her bum, otherwise a great movie. 5 stars
1/02/16 Boobie Fett This is one film I will gladly see again in the theatre 5 stars
1/01/16 Jack The worst of all the Star Wars films. Abrams is a hack. 1 stars
12/29/15 Paul Saw it twice, can't wait to go to more viewings! 5 stars
12/28/15 Brightblade My Brain screamed WTF? was that- had to rewatch originals 10 x to clear it. Shameful criti 1 stars
12/28/15 KingNeutron Lots of shoutouts to the 1st (original) movies, really liked it 4 stars
12/27/15 mr.mike I wish this had actually been filmed in Ultra Panavision 70. 5 stars
12/26/15 Michael B Enjoyable as a family outing, but proof that J.J. Abrams is the P. Diddy of movie industry 4 stars
12/26/15 Bob Dog Too much action, too litte character - I was flat out bored. 1 stars
12/26/15 M De javu much?? Still an amazing film, goosebumps of traditional cinema, score is incredible 4 stars
12/25/15 Tony Brubaker I want to bugger Carrie Fisher 5 stars
12/22/15 mr.mike Starts well then fades with some unconvincing detours. 3 stars
12/22/15 zenny Didn't I see this already in 1977 when it was just called "Star Wars"? 3 stars
12/21/15 Koitus Like others said - more of a "reboot," like Jurassic World. Still good, though. 4 stars
12/21/15 gcc This is not a sequel. Its a reboot of the original star wars.. 1 stars
12/18/15 KRS too much remake episode IV rehashed 1 stars
12/18/15 Benji OMG SOOO AWESOME!!!!!1!! 5 stars
12/17/15 Bob Dog Just a remake of the best of IV & V - - zzzzzzz... 2 stars
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  18-Dec-2015 (PG-13)
  DVD: 05-Apr-2016

  17-Dec-2015 (12A)

  DVD: 05-Apr-2016

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