Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

force awakens xwingI’m not ashamed to admit I’ve been a Star Wars fan for almost my entire life. As I’ve said in my movie meme, I first fell in love with the franchise upon seeing the theatrical release of the 1997 Special Edition of Return of the Jedi (I know, what a place to start) as a wee lad of six. Unlike most of my social media circle, I was a Star Wars fan even before it was cool to do so with the release of The Force Awakens.

I also faithfully saw the prequel trilogy growing up. I will admit that I was someone who was Phantom Menaced in that I was in denial about how disappointing 1999’s The Phantom Menace and 2002’s Attack of the Clones were. Thankfully the prequels finished (relatively) strong with 2005’s Revenge of the Sith. Despite that, I never knew what it was like to see a proper Star Wars film in theaters.

Recently, Star Wars creator George Lucas sold his intellectual property of Star Wars to Disney, and they immediately got to work with the Sequel trilogy with J.J. Abrams at the helm. I was skeptical even upon seeing the first trailer almost all the way until a Rotten Tomatoes score came out.

This is my second experience with J.J. Abrams having seen 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness. J.J. Abrams is a self-professed Star Wars fan, and he brought back Empire Strikes Back scribe Lawrence Kasdan to pen the story.

The Force Awakens takes place about thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi. Out of the remnants of the Galactic Empire rose the First Order who wage their war against the (New) Republic-backed Resistance. In the midst of the chaos, one stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) encounters Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) and finds his destiny on a completely different course.

I’ll do everything I can to avoid spoiling this movie. The Force Awakens was was a Star Wars movie with heart, something lacking in the prequels. I would go as far as to say The Force Awakens is the anti-Phantom Menace. The First Order felt human, even more so than the Empire was in the original trilogy. The Phantom Menace had its Trade Federation fighting using literally mass-produced droids. On the other hand, the First Order military is commanded by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a dark side Force user obsessed with being as strong as Darth Vader.

More than Ren, I really liked how The Force Awakens treated the stormtroopers, even beyond the fact the main character was one. The stormtroopers had humanizing moments. In one instance, we see Kylo Ren raging, slicing a room up with his lightsaber. Outside, two stormtroopers are conducting their routine patrol. They hear what is going on inside the room Ren is in and then decide to alter their patrol route to increase the distance between themselves and Ren. Ren wasn’t Darth Maul, who had no backstory, literally four lines of dialogue, and, if you haven’t done the “summer reading” that was The Clone Wars animated series, was promptly killed at the end of The Phantom Menace.

The Force Awakens also handled the returning cast very well. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) are at believable places in their lives with the thirty years that transpired after Return of the Jedi. They were neither glorified cameos nor were they awkwardly shoehorned into the plot.

The acting cast really knocked their performances out of the park. It was a combination of J.J. Abrams having cast great unknown actors and the fact that Abrams can direct actors much better than George Lucas ever could. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher slid right back into their characters as if they were properly-sized gloves, but I was equally impressed with the new actors. John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are unknown actors but they have a bright future ahead of them.

The acting performances were helped by the fact that they were interacting with real sets as opposed to all settings being green screens. J.J. Abrams did the right decision of having more practical effects in an effort to recapture the feel of the original trilogy. The practical effects and computer graphics meshed together very well to feel like a proper Star Wars universe.

Overall, J.J. Abrams did right a lot of what Lucas ironically did wrong with the prequel trilogy. The lightsaber fight felt dirty and unchoreographed. I felt attached to the characters, so deaths had more impact. I came out of the movie wanting more, finally knowing what it was like to be an audience member at the end of The Empire Strikes Back; the prequels were self-contained almost to a fault. So as a Star Wars fan, I can say this was the best movie since Return of the Jedi. I need to see the movie again in order to see where it ranks between the original three films.