Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Gallagher’s Forum

By Jon Gallagher

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Lucasfilm/Disney, 2015) – Director: J.J. Abrams. Writers: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, & Michael Arndt. George Lucas (characters). Stars: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max Von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie, & Joonas Suotamo. Color, Rated PG-13, 135 minutes.

There will be no spoilers in the first part of this review. That way, you can read through without having any of the surprises or plot twists revealed before you see the movie. I’ll clearly separate this review without spoilers from the review with spoilers so that those of you who have seen it can get an idea of what I was thinking during the movie.

The Prelude

A long time ago, in a city, not that far away, it began. Outside the local theater on June 17, 1980, a line started to form. Sleeping bags were unrolled on the sidewalk, out of the way of those who were showing up to see John Travolta in Urban Cowboy or Clint Eastwood in Bronco Billy. Those hardy souls braving the weather and the taunts of others, movie-goers or those just driving by, were in line so that they could be the first to see the long anticipated sequel to Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back.

Yes, those of us who were so enthralled by the original George Lucas movie, released three years prior, were going to be able to tell our grandkids that we were one of the first to see the sequel.

As for me, I waited till the crowds died down a little, then I went.

Cut to the present, and people were camped out in front of theaters across the country here in 2015, awaiting the release of Star Wars, The Force Awakens, the 7th movie in the franchise.

Thirty-five years later, we have a lot of things we didn’t have back in 1980. We have the Internet, which spewed forth the secret plots and characters that Lucas and director J. J. Abrams had protected like Fort Knox gold. We also have midnight showings, something that just didn’t happen 35 years ago, at least not in our neck of the woods. Also, people reviewed the movie, including some while watching it, on Twitter, Facebook or other blog type things that didn’t exist in the dark ages.

In fact, we now purchase our tickets in advance via the Internet, something else we weren’t able to do three and a half decades ago.

Locally, one theater decided to put advance tickets on sale for the new movie and it sold out in less than two minutes. They added a second show, but this time, they upped the price to $25 a ticket rather than the $8 they charged the first time. The $25 tickets went just as fast. In fact, you couldn’t buy a ticket to see Star Wars on opening night at that theater because all showings of it, on two screens, had sold out at $25 a pop.

A couple of enterprising young jerks bought up a bunch of tickets and listed them on CraigsList and eBay for $250 each. No word on whether some other insane idiot(s) agreed to part with that much money for the right to see it first.

The Film

However, it turns out that the Force was with me, for I saw it on opening day. I went to a multiplex in Peoria where it was playing in 3D on one screen and in two other smaller theaters down the hall. I attended the 2:00 pm showing, and to my surprise, had no problem getting a seat or standing in line. Only about 30 people were in attendance. The usher told me that they had screened it the previous night to a full house and that he expected that all the evening showings would also be sold out, but with school still in session and people working, I made a good choice if I didn’t want people beside of me.

Star Wars at this theater was just $4.50 for the matinee. It’s playing at two other theaters in Peoria and prices for the matinees range from $6 to $8, with evening prices going as high as $10 (more if in 3D or IMAX).

I would not have wanted to be Abrams. He was given the task of taking a beloved story that had already had six different movies in its franchise, and not only writing a script to cover the last 30 years, but also direct a combination of old stars and new.

Now combine that with having to please those who live and breathe Star Wars and who can answer absolutely any trivia question about any of the six movies.

Talk about a daunting task!

That’s why I figured I’d be trashing the movie once it came time to review it. There was no way it could live up to the hype it’d gotten. There was no way it could come close to fulfilling the expectations brought on by the years of anticipation (Lucas had originally promised us a movie every three years till he had nine total, so he’s about 20 years behind where he should be).

Somehow, though, Abrams pulls it off and produces a finished product that will no doubt garner just as many accolades as did the original film. It gets an A+ on my scale, and won’t be just one of those movies I have to own; it’s one I’m probably going to go see in the theater again. It was that good.

The original film (Episode IV) had a magic that is nearly impossible to capture in a film. The storyline was tremendous; the acting superb, and the action sequences were top notch. It had an “edge of your seat” excitement about it, especially in the final few scenes as the rebels tried to blow up the Death Star.

None of the other Star Wars movies were able to capture that magic. The next two sequels, although not bad, seemed more interested in trying to tie in merchandising by selling toys (Ewoks and the like) than in moving the storyline along. They even tried to blow up a second Death Star, presumably, because they ran out of ideas of how to make the Empire more evil.

We did get some surprises out of the second two movies. We found out that Luke and Leia were brother and sister and that their father was not just Anakin Skywalker, but Darth Vader himself. We also got to meet Yoda, the Jedi Master, who was probably seen by producers as nothing more than huge dollar signs.

Then came the prequels, introducing us to Obi Wan Kenobi and how Anakin was found, trained, and led astray by the Dark Side of the Force. Episode I, the Phantom Menace, was the hardest to sit through as Lucas tried to explain after the fact where all his characters had come from while staying true to his original work. In all fairness, that had to be a really tough job, evidenced by the fact that all three prequels fell short of expectations.

The Force Awakens seems to get away from the merchandising, although in the past six weeks it seems that every frickin’ thing in the world is tied to the movie from cars (?!?) to toothpaste to soup, and concentrate on the storyline.

If that’s what Abrams set out to do, then it’s an unqualified success.

Abrams gives us characters we care about, who we get to know right off the bat. He provides enough information in dialogue to give us an idea of what’s been happening over the past 30 years.

He also gives us plenty of action. There are lots of dogfights with the X-wing aircraft battling the Tie-Fighters from the original movie. The Millennium Falcon is also back, and no worse the wear.

He gives us plenty of light saber fights as well. I can’t say much more than that without spoiling it so we’ll just leave it at that.

Reprising their roles from the original trilogy are Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and the actors inside the Chewy, C-3PO, and R2D2 costumes (Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, and Kenny Baker respectively). Ford gets the lion’s share of screen time, which is a nice surprise. He does a superb job of combining his cockiness with the wisdom he’s gained over the last 30 years.

Newcomers Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Adam Driver (Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren respectively) give us a new crew to cheer (or boo), and the “passing of the torch” to them is done nicely.

There is one new droid, BB-8, who takes the place, so to speak, of R2D2. If you’ve seen the previews, and who hasn’t, you’ll recognize him as the ball with the hat. He’s cute, speaks the same bee-bob language as his predecessor, and adds some comic relief.

The movie isn’t all action. There are some funny parts, mainly one-liners, mixed in too. There’s even a bar scene, reminiscent of the original film. ET may have finally found work after all these years as Maz Kanata, the owner of the bar. If so, he’s had a Bruce Jenner moment and his vocabulary has grown beyond the simple “Phone home.”

As I’ve said, there’s enough of a plot and enough fun and thrills to keep everyone interested. It’s two hours and 15 minutes, but I guarantee, you won’t be checking your watch.


This is the plot, without the spoilers.

Several things are borrowed from the original. The scene is set 30 years or so after Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker has gone missing of his own accord. We learn that he had been training young Jedi Knights until one turned on him. Luke went into exile, much the same way that Yoda and Obi Wan did before him.

The bad guy in the movie is Kylo Ren (Driver), a Darth Vader wannabe. He’s trying to find Luke, but the Resistance (Rebels in the first movie) doesn’t know where he is. Their best pilot, Poe (Isaac), gets a good lead on where Luke is, but Ren’s Stormtroopers find him. Ren hides the information in his droid and tries to send him back to the home base.

While ravaging the village where Ren found Poe, one of the Stormtroopers, Finn (Boyega), has a change of heart and tries to help him escape. While running from the bad guys, Finn meets a young woman, Rey (Ridley), who has found the droid. Rey steals a vehicle, which turns out to be the Millennium Falcon. She proves to be a formidable pilot, especially when Han and Chewy show up to reclaim their property.

Most of the movie is spent with everyone trying either to find Luke or blow up the planet where the resistance is based. The bad guys have built a “Starkiller” which dwarfs the two Death Stars and uses the harnessed power of a sun to annihilate not just planets, but entire star systems.

There are plenty of twists and turns, and the relationships of the new characters with the old are extremely interesting. Both Ren and Rey are learning to use the power of the Force, which culminates in an epic battle.

Of course, Abrams leaves the door wide open for additional movies. I’d honestly be surprised if part of the next movie hasn’t been shot already. It should be able to pick up right where this one leaves off.

That’s not to say that this isn’t a complete, stand-alone movie, because it is. But we all know that there will be more.


The following will contain some spoilers.

I guess it had to be done. Ren kills off one of the beloved original characters, but unfortunately, most everyone in the theater saw it coming.

Ren is the son of Han and Leia, grandson of Anakin/Vader. Although it’s never revealed, we’re led to believe that Rey is Luke’s daughter, based on the way she can use the Force and the way he reacts when he sees her.

Fans of Mark Hamill should look quick – he’s there for the last minute or so of the movie and he doesn’t have any lines. I kept expecting him to pop up and save the day, but that didn’t happen.

Ren and Rey have an epic light saber battle at the end of the movie with Rey getting the better of him. For a while, I thought I was watching a remake of the scene with the black knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Rey kept scoring hits on Ren, but somehow, he kept fighting. She has no idea who her parents are/were, and she has no training with the Force or the light saber, yet she manages to hold her own against someone like Ren.

I left the theater completely satisfied with a smile on my face. That’s why I go to movies. This one met and surpassed all my expectations.

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