‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ from its prequel slumber (A spoiler-free review)
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Issac, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o
“Laugh it up, Fuzzball.”
In “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), Han Solo (Harrison Ford) throws this memorable, hilariously-timed barb at Chewbacca. With all the dazzling special effects and Shakespearean themes in the series, moments like the aforementioned line remind us that the original three Star Wars movies – at their core - are swashbuckling and fun.
While the Star Wars prequels – Episodes I, II and III (1999 – 2005) - served a noble purpose in telling Darth Vader’s backstory, they certainly lacked the wondrous joy of Episodes IV, V and VI (1977 – 1983). In fact, except for Yoda’s impromptu lightsabering moment in “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones” (2002), the three prequels - arguably - feel downright grim, like one unhappy eight-hour death march to a conclusion we already know.
Now, with director J.J. Abrams at the helm – thirty-eight years after the first film - I am more than pleased to report that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” returns to the exciting and enjoyable formulas of the original movies. The end result is Abrams delivers a highly entertaining experience for old and new fans, alike, and yes, Star Wars is now awake from its prequel slumber. This story takes place 30 years or so after the events of “Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi” (1983) and introduces a new group of heroes and villains. The space baddies are descendants of the Empire called The First Order, and they persist in trying to destroy the Republic and its freedom fighters, the Resistance. Although three decades have passed, this is an unchanged bad vs. good / Dark Side vs. Light Side fight we have seen in previous Star Wars movies, but the players own different names and faces.
The main protagonists are: an enterprising, young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and a “very recent addition” to the Resistance named Finn (John Boyega). With a playfully-written script and instant on-screen rapport, our two young heroes immediately gel with one another and also with some old friends from the first three movies. Many of this film’s seminal moments are with these old friends – Star Wars characters from Generation X’s childhood – and at times, their screen presence literally takes your breath away, but make no mistake, Ridley and Boyega shine in their starring roles as well.
They both carry heaps of cinematic charisma, and by starring in this franchise and giving abundantly effective performances, Ridley and Boyega are already ordained as science fiction superstars for the rest of their natural lives. Hundreds of millions of kids will rightfully want to be Rey and Finn in the same fashion as previous generations pretended to be Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. Those same children will also feel the opposite towards the film’s main antagonists from The First Order: a masked villain named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a mysterious puppet master played by Andy Serkis and a by-the-book lackey with a mean streak called General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Yes, I know Gleeson playing a bad guy does feel a bit strange, but in every other case, the casting is spot-on and also includes Oscar Issac, Max von Sydow and Lupita Nyong’o. An awfully cute droid named BB 8 also finds itself in the mix as well. Together, this concoction of characters blend into the Star Wars universe, and the movie wonderfully and organically feels familiar and authentic to us, the audience.
This is no accident.
For instance, the script was written by Lawrence Kasdan who also penned Episode V and VI, and this movie contains many similar (and welcomed) "Laugh it up, Fuzzball" interactions. From a filming perspective, Abrams recently mentioned in an interview with Fox 5 in Washington D.C. that in some cases, they filmed using the same exact camera lenses from the first three films. From a broader perspective, Abrams added that they utilized puppeteers to work with the droids – just like the first three films - instead of heavy reliance on CGI. This, in turn, increases the authenticity of what we watch on screen, as the actors interact with droids on set rather than working with green screen.
The genuineness is important to Abrams, because he also stated that they filmed on location in Abu Dhabi, Wales and Iceland on enormous outdoor sets so the movie would feel authentic, instead of feeling like it was – again - shot in a vacuum of green screen.
The movie does feel authentic, honest and familiar. Even better, with its serious lightsaber duels, X-wing vs. TIE Fighter dogfights, conversations about the Force, Stormtrooper gunplay, and hilarious quips and one-liners, this nostalgic trip really is the Star Wars movie that fans have wanted for 32 years.
I’ll surely plunk down my $10 a couple more times to see this movie again and again.
Laugh it up, Star Wars fans? No. Lap it up. (3.5/4 stars)