December 18, 2015

STAR WARS THE FORCE AWAKENS [2015] movie review – spoilers

**SPOILERS**

 

Even now it is hard to process and write my thoughts on STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS [2015]. I went in essentially spoiler free. The only thing I knew was that Luke was only in the movie briefly, at the end. With so much unknown, so entirely not knowing what to expect, it is hard to process AWAKENS with a single midnight (11:20pm to be exact) viewing.

Let me set the scene for this viewing as it is both familiar and different. Long, long time movie watching friends Steve & Anna came all the way from Tampa so we could see the movie together, as I have with Steve since 1997 and Anna 2005, and those are just Star Wars movies. Seeing a Star Wars premiere in a non-sold out theater was very weird. No one in costumes, no light saber duels, no hype, no buzz. Earlier this morning I was emotional thinking about it, but the long wait, totally unnecessary as it turned out, drained some of that energy I had myself. I was shocked to arrive at 6:50pm and there was NO LINE for our 11:20pm showing. I could not have been more shocked. To see THE PHANTOM MENACE we had to wait in line over 12 hours! Such is the difference seeing a Star Wars movie in 2015 in miserable SW Florida.

In the weeks prior I watched all the previous six Star Wars movie in episode order. The prequels after 10 years away were finally undependable by me. The original trilogy held up. The former were mere video games with lifeless characters, the original trilogy contains the greatest genre movies ever made. So what is AWAKENS? Is it like the prequels or the original trilogy? Neither, it is quite different. It is not a video game like the prequels thankfully. There were real actors playing real characters with real emotion. Yet it was not endearing like original trilogy.

AWAKENS is a sad movie.

A new critical flaw in the prequels I realized in recent viewings was that they did not introduce a single, new beloved (or feared) character to the Star Wars universe. I would argue that AWAKENS introduces three. BB-8 the droid definitely will delight fans for a long time. I was most skeptical of John Boyega’s character, who turned out to be a storm trooper who had a change of heart in his very first firefight. He brought so much energy and life to the screen, he is perhaps the revelation of AWAKENS. Then there is Rey, whom appears to be the character that this new trilogy will come to center around. I was skeptical of her too. I thought in the trailers she looked too pretty and clean, but she quickly showed she is a tough girl with real personality.

My friends and I tried to guess how the opening sequence would be now, as there is no more 20th Century Fox fanfare. It was just the LucasFilm LTD logo silently, then a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, then the Star Wars fanfare and crawl. It was almost a startlingly sudden start to a new Star Wars movie and the pace of it all did not let up until the final credits. It was a relief to see from the first frames that this was a tangible, real movie with real actors. The crawl told us Luke has vanished, that this new dark power The First Order is trying to seize control of the galaxy and that the Republic is in trouble supported by a resistance.

We meet the new characters first, Fin, Rey and Rylo Ken. I was again relieved when Rylo Ken, the bad guy, had more lines in the first five minutes of the movie than Darth Maul had in the entire PHANTOM MENACE. He seemed powerful and menacing, but I did not think that still come the end of the movie. Fin and Rey are soon brought together by everyone searching for the map to where Luke is held inside BB-8. The movie as I have said is nearly relentless in its action, perhaps too much so.

The Millennium Falcon is a sad pile of junk as Rey refers to it just sitting collecting dust on a Tattooine-like dusty planet. I mentioned that AWAKENS was a sad movie, and the Falcon looked sad sitting there and even flying it looked very old and well past its prime. Han Solo and Chewbacca capture the Falcon in short order. Han too, looks sad. He is old. Even Chewie is sad, as he no longer has his usual exuberance. Yet, Han and Rey have great chemistry together and there is energy in this that goes throughout AWAKENS.

The rest of the movie is a series of chases with Rylo Ken looking to get that map to Luke info. In this time we get pieces of what has been happening in the Star Wars universe. This is perhaps where I was most disappointed. After RETURN OF THE JEDI I wanted Luke, Han and Leia to have a happily-ever-after, at least for a good amount of time. And I thought AWAKENS would start at the beginning of the end of that happy time. There was never that happy time. AWAKENS is a sad movie.

There is some supreme leader who is Kylo Ren’s master that we only see in a hologram at gigantic size. This was the worst special effects in the movie. Little is known or learned of him. He has ordered the construction of a weapon way more powerful than even the Death Star. The resistance must destroy this planetary weapon before it blasts apart the planet their base is on.

To this point I still had no idea what to think of the movie, and was tending toward disappointment or indifference. I was ok, but not into it. By the way, Rylo Ken? He is Han and Leia’s son who turned to the dark side despite Luke’s Jedi training of him. There is a confrontation between Han and Rylo Ken. I knew when Han stepped out on a narrow bridge inside the new planetary weapon, that Han was going to die. This, apparently, was a major spoiler that some (many?) in the theater knew already. Fortunately, I did not and it produced the only real emotion and connection I felt to AWAKENS. The boldness to kill one of the main original trilogy characters was needed to make AWAKENS have impact, and to let the new characters, Fin and Rey, have their time. It still feels shocking and not possible to lose Han.

Rey now has started to realize she is Force sensitive. So much so that she can fight Rylo Ken, who is no Sith Lord, that is for sure. He himself is not fully trained in the Dark Side such that Rey can fight him on seemingly near equal terms. They fight in a snow covered forest and I really appreciated seeing for the first time light sabers interact how I always thought they would with the environment. Dipped in the snow steam comes and it melts. Swinging around trees, they fall cut right in two. Brushes from sabers scar the body. This is the most visceral light saber duel we have seen on screen.

The fight ends due to the ground falling out from underneath as the planetary weapon is blown up. Chewie comes to pick up Rey and the wounded Fin. Again, AWAKENS is a SAD movie. They return to the resistance base where many are happy and celebrating, but Rey, Leia and Chewbacca are all sad at the loss of Han.

In the very end we get to see Luke, now bearded like Obi-Wan was as Rey reaches out to hand him his old light saber.

So much mystery come the end credits. How is Rey related to Luke, if at all? Who were Rey’s parents? Who is this supreme leader? Where did he gain the power of the Dark Side?

THE FORCE AWAKENS will take more viewings, more processing. It did not blow me away, but it was no fail. There is hope for the Star Wars movie franchise, thankfully.

UPDATE – SECOND VIEWING – December 19, 2015

Since the first 11:20pm viewing on Thursday night my mind has remained in the Star Wars universe. I watched no other shows or movies. I did not want any other characters or storylines to break my thinking on what I saw in THE FORCE AWAKENS. What became clear was I needed to see the movie again soon, so I got a ticket for an 8:30pm showing tonight.

My thoughts after a second viewing — where on first viewing I thought it was almost non-stop action, to its detriment, on this second viewing the movie seemed much less fast paced, to its benefit. No doubt I was on edge the first viewing like I was not this viewing. I could breath this time, so the movie seemed to breath a bit more too.

The scene I most wanted to pay attention to more carefully was the Rey vision sequence when she first touches Luke’s light saber because I had since heard that shows her future, and thus bits of Episode VIII and perhaps even Episode IX. Also, possibly Yoda and Obi-Wan speak to her. I think for sure the last words in the vision were from Obi-Wan saying, “these are the first steps.”

The only performance I still do not care for in AWAKENS is Leia. Carrie Fischer’s voice is totally different and her face seemed frozen in place. I saw nothing of Leia in her, it was like she was a mummified version.

One cinematic detail I did not notice in the first viewing was when Han is facing Kylo Ren, holding his light saber thinking he is going to bring him back to the light side, the starkiller weapon fully charges draining all light from the sun. Cut back to Han and Kylo and the loss of light results in a dark shadow physically falling over Kylo’s face, and that is when he ignites his light saber and slays his own father. He struggled with going to the dark side completely, and the movie cinematically shows this in the shadow falling on his face and then through his action of killing his father like he killed his ownself, Ben Solo.

One thing I felt stronger about and more emotion from in the second viewing and I thought was a true, genuine Star Wars moment, was in the final confrontation with Kylo Ren and Rey. Finn has been wounded and knocked out. Kylo reaches with the Force to retrieve Finn’s light saber which is actually Luke’s and before that Vader’s so it is very sought after by Kylo. He struggles to Force pull it into his hand . . . because Rey is trying to Force pull it into her hand and she is the stronger and that is a moment a Star Wars fan can get chills from.

I do not believe Rey is either Luke or Han/Leia’s daughter. I carefully tried to read Luke’s face at the very end. There was no sign of recognition in it, no sign of surprise either. I think his reaction is more from seeing his old light saber than it is from seeing Rey herself.

I feel good about THE FORCE AWAKENS. I have nothing really to nitpick about it and despite reading some negative stuff about it, none of it is sticking in mind. It is a very solid addition to the Star Wars saga and what it needed to be to launch this new era of Star Wars.

THIRD VIEWING — January 03, 2016 (9/10)

In the past my custom was to see Star Wars movies 9 times in the theater. That custom actually started with the X-Files movie FIGHT THE FUTURE, which I just happened to see 9 times, so that set the precedent for both Star Wars and also Lord of the Rings movies, and it matched the 9 black riders in LOTR too. I will not be continuing that custom this time, but for sure two viewings were not enough. I carefully planned out this third viewing waiting for the right circumstances and the most ideal circumstances. I almost went to another night showing, but hearing of a cold front and rain coming through, I presciently waited for a Sunday early afternoon matinee showing, and one in 3D. I normally really dislike the 3D versions of movies, but it was recommended to me from a trusted source to give it a try and I have to admit, I think THE FORCE AWAKENS is best seen in 3D. I saw many more details than in the two other viewings, and the movie actually looked sharper and crisper. Seeing the opening crawl in 3D established right away the different visual experience this would be.

What I got from this third viewing was a real sense that Lor San Tekka has a deep connection to what we only heard of and did not see in the 30 years since ROTJ. Kylo Ren knows him, but has not seen him for a long time. Lor San Tekka is very familiar with the twists in the path that made Kylo Ren who he is today, and mocks him for it basically calling him a pretender, and not really from or of the Dark Side. Lord San Tekka must have had a role in the Rebellion. For sure he was close with Princess Leia and an admirer of her since he says to Poe she is royalty to him.

Since the second viewing I have been trying to guess what Episode VIII would be like hearing the criticisms that Episode VII is too much like Episode IV (did not notice nor in light of hearing that still seems to be its own movie) and that new writer/director Rian Johnson may be going in a completely different direction than any previous Star Wars movie. This made me think of a GODFATHER PART II style narrative, with two intercut stories. One, being Luke training Rey. The other, the betrayal of Kylo Ren of Luke when he is training the next generation of Jedi. Then the third act brings everything to the present day. We already saw part of that betrayal in flashbacks, can that really be all we see of it?

The two new main actors really, really stand out. What energy they bring to the screen, especially John Boyega as Finn. His “whoo” and other reactions are unprecedented for energy and enthusiasm compared to any other past character. He is great at producing comedy too. His confession to BB-8 was hilarious.

Then there is Rey. Even on the third viewing, it still gave me chills to see her win out of Kylo Ren in force pulling the light saber in the snow to her. That is as pure a Star Wars moment as there is in any other movie or medium. There has also never been more mystery behind a character than her come the end of a movie. The debate over her parentage is a hot topic among fans. Is she in the Skywalker family tree somehow? How could that even be possible?

I upped my rating from 8/10 to 9/10 after this viewing. The energy from the new characters, the moments with them and Han Solo, the great way light sabers are reintroduced to a new level with them being shown interacting with the natural environment and casting a glare on the faces they are close to, and just the potential of Rey as a character, I do not care how similar the beats of the movie are allegedly to other Star Wars movies, to me after this third viewing THE FORCE AWAKENS holds a very high place in the lore of Star Wars. What a re-introduction to the Star Wars world and there could not be more excitement for what comes next in Episode VIII.

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