Saturday, December 19, 2015

Spoiler-Free Film Review: Star Wars Episode VII - The Force Awakens

There is a reason there has been such a strong embargo on spoilers: the delight in this movie is in discovery.

In an age where most trailers give away the entire plot, The Force Awakens has been unique in that you got a feel for the movie without any major story points being leaked.  Most of the people who have seen the movie entered it with the thrill of the unexpected.  And in respect to you who have not yet seen it, I will not rob you of that joy.

This makes the task of reviewing much more difficult.  I do not want to give away even the opening crawl, which had me riveted to the story from the very first sentence.  But I shall also attempt to do what the marketing of this movie has done: give you a feel for the movie without giving out the story.

The bottom line is that the movie is excellent.

For detractors of the Prequels who derided the acting and loathed the lack of chemistry between the leads: have no fear.  The cast is fantastic and their interaction is wonderful.

I think people will be very surprised by these newcomers.  John Boyega as Finn is, innocent, overwhelmed, and incredibly likeable.  Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron was more charming than I was prepared for, bringing a confidence, humor, and swagger to the part that was delightful.  I am not a fan of Adam Driver, but I must give credit to his performance as Kylo Ren.  He does many wonderful things with his voice and body language that give that character the right amount of menace.  Even the droid BB-8 is endearing and charismatic.  And finally, Daisy Ridley as Rey is a star.  She shines in the role and is absolutely the heart of the movie.

I cannot say much about the original cast without giving much away.  But I will say that Harrison Ford may have done the best acting as Han Solo that he has ever done in any Star Wars film.  You can see the age on him; he doesn't run with as much vigor and he has a crankiness that fits his years.  But he is clearly Han Solo and not a generic Harrison Ford saying Han Solo lines.  Some of my most memorable Han Solo moments from this movie were not his lines but his looks.  For told us more with his eyes than his words.  I would not be surprised if For got an Oscar nomination for this movie.

The acting is probably the greatest quality that director JJ Abrams has brought to the franchise.  George Lucas is famous for giving his actors only two directions: "Faster.  More intense."  It is clear that Abrams has taken each of the actors on an emotional journey and in that arc he pushes them to use all of their skills to bring this world to life.

I am going to have to skip over most of the plot and theme in this review.  Sometime later I will have to explore these because these are the places that will draw the most discussion from people who has seen the movie.  But I will say this: the movie appears to center on a major theme of the original series but with new twist.  And I think this theme is exactly what is needed for this current age.  Especially as a Catholic there is much to which I can relate.

But returning to Abrams, this is clearly his movie.  Just as his Star Trek movies look and feel different than all the other Star Trek exploits from before, the same is true of Star Wars.  If you did not like how he directed Star Trek, then you are probably going to have the same problem with The Force Awakens.  It has the same feel and the same pacing.

Say what you will about George Lucas and his directing style, but all of the previous Star Wars movies had operatic style of filming.  Lucas once said that the Star Wars series was essentially a saga of silent films.  That meant that the visuals were the key and that the story, the art, the emotion, and all of that would be poured into the visuals.  If you watch all of the previous six movies (including the ones directed by Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand), they all feel like they are a part of a style that is timeless because it is a melding of old-time silent movie method with cutting edge special effects technology.  Even The Phantom Menace, the worst of the series, feels like it belongs in that same unique style of films.

The biggest detriment to The Force Awakens is the break that Abrams makes from this cinematic tradition.  I do not necessarily blame him for this.  He has to execute his vision.  And I'm sure there are people who will appreciate the fresh visual take on the Saga.  But I found it a bit jarring.  For example, Lucas was a master of integrating the music with the visuals.  Part of the reason John Williams' score is legendary is not only because of the composers genius but it was also the way in which Lucas used the score to make such memorable moments.  Critics of the Prequels must admit that "Duel of the Fates," "Across the Stars," and "Battle of the Heroes" are bold and memorable epic pieces of cinematic music.

But I cannot think of single memorable piece of original music from The Force Awakens.  All of the most memorable musical cues are from the Original Trilogy score.  And the music helps the Star Wars Saga soar to magical heights.

Yet this Star Wars feels less like space opera and more like space action.  There are, however, a few magical moments that bring me back to the original Saga.

The closest thing I will get to a spoiler in this review is this: the structure of this new trilogy is much closer to Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings than to George Lucas' Star Wars.  What I mean by that is that each of the first six Star Wars films had definitive conclusions, even the ones that ended on cliffhangers.  The Lord of the Rings end pointing directly the action that is about to take place in the next film where instead of a grand finale we have an ellipses.  And that is how JJ Abrams' Star Wars behaves.  While the last scene gave me chills, it feels cut off.  Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but the difference is jarring for me.

Perhaps I just need to see the movie a few more times to get used to the changes.

Again, my critique here may be just my idiosyncratic taste.

JJ Abrams and his entire team deserve a lot of credit.  The special effects are creative and fantastic.  The action is exciting and engaging.  The humor is natural and genuine.  In fact, I think I laughed more during this Star Wars film than any other.  There is so much to admire but I cannot profess my admiration in this review without ruining the movie experience for those who haven't seen it.

So go and see this movie and we be able to discuss all of the major story and thematic elements that make this movie so good.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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