Walt Disney Pictures.
PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.
Running time: 135 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.
You guys have all seen “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” by now, right? So I can go ahead and wallow in all the spoilers?
Actually, I wouldn’t dream of it. Not here, at least. (If you’re interested in a spoiler discussion after you’ve seen the movie, though, feel free to hop on over to our What the Flick?! review.) But I did want to write a little something, just because I loved the movie so much and I’ve had such a good time over the past few days talking about it with folks — those who had and hadn’t seen it alike.
I had the pleasure of bringing Nicolas (who’s 6) with me to a screening on Tuesday afternoon at the Disney lot. Those of you who know me or have read my previous posts about “Star Wars” know that my kid is obsessed. I showed him all six films — in release order, of course, because I’m a good mom — back when he was 4 1/2 years old. Since then, he’s dressed as Darth Vader for Halloween, carried various “Star Wars” lunchboxes to school each day, romped about with his collection of light sabers and played countless hours of the Angry Birds iPad game. I was more excited for him than I was for myself; he’d only seen the movies at home on television, so this would be his first time watching one in a packed theater with all the excitement and ritual that entails.
He sat in my lap the whole time and was transfixed — although he did ask who Han Solo and Princess Leia were when they came on screen for the first time. (Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher look a little different than they did 32 years ago in “Return of the Jedi.” It happens to us all.) But even before the film began, just during that brief, silent pause between the words: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …” and the first blast of John Williams’ stirring fanfare, there was a palpable sense of anticipation and even reverence. This mattered, no matter how old you are.
And J.J Abrams didn’t disappoint. He actually exceeded my expectations of what this experience would be like — and it truly is an experience on both a cultural and an emotional level, and not just your everyday Saturday night at the multiplex. When Abrams was handed the franchise, the expectation was that he would return it to the glory of the the original trilogy. If anybody could, it was this director. And he did. Working from a script he co-wrote with Lawrence Kasdan (who also wrote the best film in the series, “The Empire Strikes Back”) and “Toy Story 3” and “Little Miss Sunshine” writer Michael Arndt, Abrams beautifully combined the elements of the first three films that we loved so much with a fresh sense of purpose. Characters, images, themes and even lines of dialogue that make the “Star Wars” lore so rich co-exist seamlessly with new faces and adventures and a revitalized energy.
It also blends much-ballyhooed practical effects with the best of what crisp and shiny computer-generated imagery can achieve. “The Force Awakens” flat-out dazzles, filled with a wide variety of perfectly-paced set pieces. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a chase involving the Millennium Falcon zooming through the remnants of a crashed star destroyer that’s the most thrilling sequence I’ve ever seen in the entire series. And yes, that includes the climactic destruction of the Death Star in “Star Wars.” This is not hyperbole.
But speaking of the original film — yes, a lot of what we see here is awfully familiar, but with enough tweaks to provide some novelty. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the plot in the slightest, but there’s a desert planet where a droid (the adorably perky BB-8, arriving just in time for Christmas) is entrusted with secret information. There’s a cantina where various intergalactic freaks meet to mingle and menace (although this time, the owner is a woman, played by Lupita Nyong’o in a vivid bit of motion-capture performance). There’s a giant planet that destroys other planets but also has an Achilles heel that makes it vulnerable to an X-wing attack. And there’s snappy banter between Han and Leia, only now they’re older and filled with regret, which adds a sense of wistfulness to their exchanges.
As for the newcomers, Adam Driver provides real depth and inner conflict as Kylo Ren, Dark Side head honcho and leader of a new evil empire known as the First Order. The black helmet, cape and mechanized voice may all seem familiar, but once again we know the whole film aims for a different perspective when it allows the character to reveal his face and true identity. That element of humanity actually makes Kylo Ren even scarier.
John Boyega is enormously charismatic as Finn, a disillusioned Stormtrooper who must figure out what he believes in and then choose to find the strength to fight for it. If you’re one of the few who saw “Attack the Block,” you know what a pleasing screen presence this young, British actor has. Now the whole world will now. And I love the fact that the massively versatile Oscar Isaac has such a crucial, meaty supporting role as bad-ass pilot Poe Dameron. In the past few years, he’s shown he can really play any kind of character in any kind of film, from “Inside Llewyn Davis” to “A Most Violent Year” to “Ex Machina.” (Isaac’s “Ex Machina” co-star Domhnall Gleeson, who’s also been all over the place lately, is chilling as the First Order’s military czar.) Now, Isaac brings his formidable acting chops to the biggest blockbuster imaginable and provides it with even more substance.
But this is Daisy Ridley’s movie all the way. She is just a superstar. It’s as simple as that. As the plucky heroine Rey, a resourceful scavenger who discovers abilities she never knew she had, she has an electrifying presence but also a down-to-Earth accessibility. It’s a tricky balancing act she pulls off: a mixture of daring and vulnerability, smarts and openheartedness. We now have a “Star Wars” movie for a whole new generation in which the central figure is a woman — and a strong woman, at that. Rey never needs to be rescued. She’s the one doing the rescuing. Ridley has excellent chemistry not only with her fellow newcomers but also with veterans Ford and Fisher. Fellow old friends Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C3-PO (Anthony Daniels) and even R2-D2 are welcome sights once more, with Chewie enjoying a significant and even poignant storyline this time.
“The Force Awakens” is a complete blast but it also features real stakes, which woefully were missing from most of George Lucas’ duly derided prequels (although “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” was actually pretty good). A dramatically lighted scene on a catwalk is a prime example of this; again, I wouldn’t dream of divulging what happens in this moment, but I will say that its familiarity in no way diminishes its power.
That’s what’s so impressive about the tricky balancing act Abrams has pulled off with “The Force Awakens”: He’s made a movie that’s simultaneously gripping and a huge release. We are in good hands, at last.