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And just like that, the scars of 16 years and lesser trilogies were magically washed away.  Thank you, J.J. Abrams

Not being allowed to print a full review due to strict Disney embargo rules, the above was all I could say to express my immediate and overwhelming feeling upon leaving the press screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  I normally try to enter a preview with as little information and few expectations about a film as possible, but letís face it, itís freaking Star Wars.  Thereís no way I could avoid it.  After J.J. Abramsí ebullient reboot of the Star Trek film series, I hoped he could work similar wonders on the Star Wars franchise.  Of course, there was the question of whether lightning could strike twice in a similar area.

The other quandary mightíve been, could Abramsí film reach the high standard that Star Wars fans - truly the most rabid and devoted in the universe - would accept?  Fortunately for Abrams and unfortunately for the fans, the bar for Star Wars films had been dropped unfathomably low by the franchiseís own father.  George Lucasí decision to fill his Special Edition original trilogy rerelease with unnecessary flotsam like tons of toylike, highly merchandisable CGI creatures that only seemed to crowd the screen, the previously cut faceoff between Han Solo and loan shark, Jabba the Hutt, played for corny, childish laughs, and most infamously, the Greedo Shot First fiasco, caused disturbances in the fan Force.  So when Lucas released 1999ís The Phantom Menace, a flat, lifeless, green screen extravaganza that featured world class actors giving the worst performances of their lives, a script full of gobbledygook, and introduced asinine, borderline offensive characters like Jar-Jar Binks, the uproar was deafening.  While the second trilogy made buckets of money, it seemed Lucas had simply lost touch with what it was that had made his own story so beloved.  Having instituted (over)zealous, viselike control over his property previously, it is to his credit that Lucas chose to hand the reins over to Abrams for this possibly final attempt at the seriesí redemption.

As informed by the familiar crawl of yellow Franklin Gothic text over a galaxy of stars, our story begins after the first trilogy ends.  Led by General Leia Organa, the rebel forces are still at battle decades after their victory against the Empire; this time with an offshoot military faction called The First Order.  A possible key to turn the tide in the fight lies in recovery of the Jedi master, Luke Skywalker, who had gathered a group of young Jedi to train to fight on the side of good until his apprentice embraced the Dark Side of the Force and slaughtered all the Padawan. (Already sounding familiar, ne, and this is just the crawl!) Emo as he ever was, Skywalker blamed himself for the action of his student and pulled a Yoda, becoming a hermit in a place where he couldnít be found.  Trouble is, the Resistance needs him back and the First Order is also desperate to keep him out of the action.  The chapter opens with a rebel soldier smuggling information on Lukeís whereabouts in the chassis of an adorable little droid, sending it off on its own, tooling across a desert planet. (Sound familiar?, Pt2. And itís just the first 10 minutes; weíve got over two hours to go).

The droid finds itself abandoned after its master is captured by the First Order troops, so itís lucky that he (?) should meet up with another lonely, lost soul in the sand.  Rey makes her living scavenging wrecks that turn up across the barren landscape, selling them in town for a dayís meal, while she waits for the return of an unknown person to claim her from this sunburnt planet.

Meanwhile, a burning of another kind is taking place as First Order soldiers torch a town and ruthlessly execute innocent civilians in their search for the Skywalker intel.  The monstrous behaviour is more than one stormtrooper can stand, and young FN-2187 is a quivering mass of jelly who begins to seriously rethink his career choice.  Seeing the imprisoned rebel as his way off the Order spacecraft, he helps Poe escape and reluctantly agrees to help him retrieve his lost droid, BB-8, and get the info to the Resistance stronghold.  A crash landing finds the newly-dubbed Finn alone, wandering in the desert wasteland and fortunate to have a camelís sense of detecting water, as he makes his way exactly to the oasis where Rey is declining an offer for the cute little bot that follows her around.  Having to emphasise her words with a staff and some well-placed high kicks, the girl is on edge when the stranger approaches her and spins a few fibs about his being a member of the Resistance, there to transport the droid to safety.  Rey hasnít got much time to question the veracity of Finnís claims as the Order arrives to blast first and ask questions later.  Fortunately, thereís a semi working old pile of junk in the salvage yard thatís got just enough juice in her to get them off the planet.

As the boy, girl and droid fly off in the Millennium Falcon, they arenít long for the chase before breaking down and being beamed aboard a cargo ship that is luckily not owned by the First Order, but by a handsome, grey-haired feller and his somewhat hairier companion.  Young as Finn and Rey are, they know the name of the legend before them; but Han Solo isnít quite at ease with his heroic reputation, especially as his introduction to the escapees is interrupted by - what else? - bounty hunters coming to collect Soloís never-ending debts.  Their inevitable escape with Solo once again at the helm of his beloved ship is only the first reunion he faces as their journey to the rebel base sees him face to face with his old squeeze, Princess Leia.  Though details are fuzzy, itís apparent the Ewoks mustíve made Solo do the honourable thing by the tonsorially majestic royal, which seems to have resulted in an offspring, who is currently not a part of either parentís life.  It doesnít take Yodaís prescience to reckon that the lightsaber-shanking, Darth Vader shrine-keeping figure in the metal mask, using the Force to crush windpipes for the First Order is said baby boy.  This whippersnapper found more in common with dear old granddad and embraced Vaderís Jedi-stomping ways without considering Anakinís late-in-life epiphany.

Kylo Ren, AKA Ben Solo, is a wannabe of his famous grandsire, from his red lightsaber right down to his  affinity for capes, but has a long way to go.  While strong in the Force, he is still insecure and immature (Vader would have spanked this kid at the first tantrum) and carries none of his forebearsí sense of purpose.  Instead of the comfortable leader/enforcer relationship Vader had with Grand Moff Tarkin, Kylo Ren competes pettishly against the weaselly General Hux, who shows him up in front of the Supreme Leader Snoke (?! Ė Who thinks up these names?) time and again, yet somehow the unctuous officer is possessed of an operational pharynx.  Booo!

Itís also telling when Kylo Ren imprisons and interrogates Rey after the First Order tracks down her group, that his power to read and even destroy minds, cannot break through Reyís defence.  Itís the first real show of a hidden power released after Rey is drawn to Anakin Skywalkerís lightsaber.  Itís the moment that shows Rey whatís sheís really been waiting for.

The First Orderís aims are no surprise, they are building yet another Death Star-like floating weapon with the power to blast entire planets into oblivion.  If at first you donít succeed, try a third time! (But of course, like the previous two space stations, make sure you build a fatal mechanical flaw into the thing so the rebels have a sporting chance at blowing it up. Fair play is important, even to the Dark Side).  Itís only a matter of time before the villains discover the Resistance headquarters and set forth to blow it out of the galaxy, so our good guys have to invade the First Orderís Starkiller Base, save Rey, destroy said base, get out alive, and then go find Luke Skywalker.  No biggie.

If much of the film fills you with a sense of dťjŗ vu, Iím sure itís all perfectly intentional.  This is a strange furtherance of the Star Wars story whilst simultaneously rebooting the 1977 film.  Itís not unreasonable that The Force Awakens is meant to relight the fire under the original batch of Star Wars fans and rally back to the movie theatres.  Itís an olive branch to the devoted, and an easy, albeit higher tech introduction to bring their kids (and grandkids!) into the fold.  The amount of screen time many of the characters from the first trilogy gets is no accident.  Neither are the numerous retro instances; thereís an ďIím here to rescue youĒ moment when Finn sneaks in to save Poe, while Han suggests tossing a captive down a garbage chute.  Inside the Millennium Falcon, thereís the laser blasting ball that Luke used for lightsaber training, as well as the chess set where C-32O sagely advised R2-D2 to ďlet the Wookiee win.Ē  We see ruins of old Imperial Cruisers and AT-AT Walkers in the desert.  It might be worth it for fans to see the movie multiple times just to pick up all the visual in-jokes and homages.

There are some downsides to all this good stuff.  Almost as if a mirror to the original film, there is a slight weak link in the acting department, and once again, itís the wide-eyed ďorphanĒ from the desert planet.  While Daisy Ridley is feisty and game as Rey, her line readings were sometimes stiff and awkward, verging on the amateurish, kind of like Mark Hamill in the first movie, but with a posher accent.  Like Hamill, Iím sure Ridleyís technique will improve between this chapter and its inevitable sequel, and I look forward to more of her selling the combat action as well as she did here.  Itís great to see a confident, smart, capable female protagonist with all hands in her own rescue.  Thankfully, Rey doesnít seem remotely like sheís going to kick the bucket because ďShe has lost the will to liveĒ anytime soon.

This is a Star Wars film, so itís not exactly a spoiler to say thereíll be a sequel, but there is a big development (Which I shall keep unspoiled) that is meant to be startling, but is actually just kind of frustrating.  Itíll certainly be interesting to see if itís not addressed in future chapters, but as it happens on screen, this huge occurrence lands with a bit of a thud.  Unfortunately, the moment was so far telegraphed, that itís no surprise.  I wondered if the choice to lessen the impact was a remnant of the coddling ďDonít scare the kiddiesĒ Lucasfilm sensibility that permeated the prequels, or the fact that these films are now owned by Disney, after all?  That moment shouldíve been a gasp-worthy, didnít-see-that-coming shock, like Obi-Wan Kenobi getting cut down by Vaderís lightsaber, or, ďI am your father.Ē

(Tiny peeve: How very handily everyone in this movie seems to work a lightsaber.  A rare weapon even back in the first film, that required extensive training to use properly; itís odd that both our young heroes wield it like masters from the very moment it falls into their hands.)

Our villain shouldíve kept his mask on.  Actor Adam Driver wears the metal purely for effect (and fabulosity?) as the former Ben Solo; removing the Kylo Ren helm reveals a head of shiny, shoulder-length Byronic locks and basset hound eyes in an unscarred - if oddly asymmetrical - face.  The guy is just not scary or imposing, nor is he handsome enough to be the opposite of the scarred Anakin Skywalker and play seductive but deadly.  He simply looks sort of hangdog and mopey and his non-mask acting is bland.  When you find out so much of Kylo Renís motivation is to do with daddy issues and insecurity, that face instantly becomes punchable.  Having slaughtered an entire school full of apprentice Jedi and become the Supreme Leaderís favourite son, youíd think heíd more impressive, but heís just meh. 

The opposite of meh is the wonderful John Boyega, who chomps down on his role as Finn, the new golden boy of the series, with gusto, yet doesnít overdo it.  While showing us the doubt and fear of this turncoat stormtrooper groomed to serve the First Order from birth, yet never making it much higher than the sanitation department, Boyega looks like heís having the time of his life and is engaged and charismatic in every scene.  Notable but too brief was his chemistry-filled interaction with Oscar Issacís rebel, Poe; instant bromance.  Boyegaís Finn is a mix of Luke Skywalkerís innocence and astonishment with Han Soloís swaggering style of self-preservation.

Swagger is in abundance in the greying form of Mr. Harrison Ford as Han Solo, looking wonderfully fit for his nearly forty years in tight Corellian trousers.  Ford has lost none of his arch wit as the bounty hunting would-be bad boy, whoís just too good underneath for business.  For all the movieís fuss about family ties, the script development isnít much and feels a bit square peg in the round hole amidst all the action, but Ford and Carrie Fisher, returning as Princess Leia, give it their best shot, and damned if theyíre still not the cutest romantic couple in space.  However, I must put a troll alert on Ms. Fisherís hairstylist.  I could (reluctantly) live without 1977ís iconic Kaiser rolls, but I cannot let stand this new contraption on Leiaís lovely skull toward the filmís end.  Who did Fisher tick off that they planted Gary Oldmanís butt-cheek wig from Dracula on the poor ladyís head?  Into the Sarlacc pit with them!  As for the rest of the original cast, Peter Mayhewís Chewbacca keeps up perfectly with his old running buddy, Solo, trotting around under many pounds of fur, grunting and squawking meaningfully.  Anthony Daniels is still as annoying perky and tactically clueless as C-3PO, but I couldnít tell if it was actually Kenny Baker in the can, but heíd have gotten some paid shuteye as the original cute droid, R2-D2, has put himself into a self-imposed shutdown while Luke is missing.

Connecting only with the first trilogy, itís as if the prequel trio of films never happened and nothing could be better.  The Force Awakens is filled with the exuberance of the savvy, crowd-pleasing Empire Strikes Back, while making space for a new beginning, complete with origin story, as in the 1977 film.  We have seen very much of whatís onscreen before, but Abrams brings a freshness and energy with his pacing and performances that is infectious and reminds us of the joy of watching the Star Wars films.  While the script still bears some clumsy, plodding edges - particularly the dialog - the whole endeavour is so much fun and such a welcome true return to the beloved Star Wars universe, no one minds.  The high-energy mix of new enthusiasm and wonderful nostalgia hits the spot; winning over die-hard fans who queued up for the 1977 film, as well as their kids and grandkids.

It feels very strange and wonderful to actually look forward to the next Star Wars film again.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Dec 18th, 2015

 

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Stills Courtesy of Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Pictures

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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