When Disney purchased the Star Wars franchise and Lucasfilm a couple years ago, it was immediately announced that the episodic Star Wars films would continue, as well as new anthology film entries and television programs. The expanded canon was also rebooted, so to speak, with all of the "expanded universe" tales thrown out to have all future novels and comic books going forward as be officially part of the Star Wars fictional history. The first film to be produced by Disney is the J.J. Abrams-directed Episode 7, The Force Awakens. Everything has been kept rather hush-hush about the production, so I'll do my best to review it here without spoiling much about the plot or film.
The Force Awakens takes place nearly in real-time since the end of the original film trilogy, taking place over thirty years later. Return of the Jedi hit screens in 1983 (while I was just a wee, wee lad), and brought the tale of Darth Vader and the Galactic Empire to a close when the heroic Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance united to defeat them. However, in the absence of the Empire, the First Order has risen into power, and much like the Emperor/Vader relationship, there is a new threat to the galaxy, and it brings back some familiar faces to the Star Wars cinematic universe.
But these new episodes, while they have been described as being centered around the Skywalker family, introduce some new faces too. Our new heroes include a rogue Storm Trooper named Finn and a scavenger from the planet Jakku named Rey. And the two find themselves as an unlikely pair who end up following BB-8, a droid that belongs to the Resistance, into direct entanglement with the First Order. As they escape Jakku, their only flight out gets destroyed, which means their only alternative is a hunk-a-junk that flew its way into fans' hearts almost 40 years ago... and it's glorious.
While the teasers and trailers for The Force Awakens got me pumped beyond belief, I wasn't sure yet what to make of Daisy Ridley as Rey or John Boyega as Finn, but they ended up turning in wonderful performances. Rey and Finn join the Star Wars world really nicely. Also, it's especially fun to see Han Solo back in action. At 72 around the time of filming, Harrison Ford--while certainly weathered and rustic in appearance--does a nice job recapturing what we came to love so much about his character. And, thankfully, Abrams & Co. have given him and Chewbacca a great amount of screen time together for us diehard fans. Adam Driver is also pretty solid as Kylo Ren. He's got a menacing temper--which Abrams utilizes wonderfully--and his ties to the characters are interesting and offer some depth. However, the villains aren't quite as well-written as the heroes (Captain Phasma is surprisingly massively wasted), which is somewhat masked by how well constructed most of the film is as a whole. But still, by the time the credits roll, the fate of several characters are shrouded in mystery, and we're almost left with that Empire Strikes Back kind of unresolved tension.
The visuals are absolutely stunning here. The space battles are exciting and Abrams offers up some dogfights Star Wars-style like we've never seen before. Also, BB-8 does turn out to be a true delight. I had been a bit concerned that perhaps he wouldn't quite live up to the hype he's been given, but the fact that he's a practical effect and not done with all CG is pretty impressive. Sadly, this also means that C-3PO and, especially, R2D2 take a significant backseat to the newest heroic astromech. But he's lovable and a scene-stealer for sure. And the return to more practical effects and visuals overall works wonders for the franchise. A few characters are still heavily CG-created (like Maz and Snoke)--and surprisingly not all that convincingly done--but it's forgivable. If you're curious how that plays out in the film, it feels a lot like the CG that was added to the original trilogy when Lucas re-released those films. It's unnecessary, but it's most likely done to appease fans of that style.
I'd say the content is kind of borderline between PG and PG-13 (as a Star Wars movie). It's got all the edginess of the original trilogy with some of the emotional weight and violence of the prequels. Nothing in Awakens is as brutal as the Obi-Wan vs. Anakin battle in Revenge of the Sith, but there is a scene where a character is killed with a lightsaber that's pretty intense. There's very little blood shown in the film. In fact, most of it (if not all of it), bookends the film. A dying character smears blood on Finn's helmet at the beginning and Poe has some blood on his face, while the climactic lightsaber battle gets pretty rough for a few characters. There isn't much language, about 1 "d*mmit" and 2 uses of "h*ll," but that's not much more than what's in the original 1977 film.
It's surreal to see a brand new Star Wars adventure on the big screen. Fans probably gave up hope that we'd ever see Han, Luke or Leia in action again, and thankfully Disney is starting to make it a reality. It may not be quite as glorious as it would have been had this movie been made 15 to 20 years ago, but it's still great to see Star Wars continuing the saga. There are some minor things to nitpick--like some unoriginality with the fact this story involves yet another Death Star or some of the plot developments feeling a bit more like deja vu and less like homage--but all in all, the Force is strong with Abrams' new Star Wars adventure. It may be flawed, but it's lightyears better than George Lucas's prequels and--without any pun intended--surely presents a new hope for fans far and wide that the future of Star Wars is looking rather bright. Where this film ranks in all of the Star Wars films thus far remains to be determined following repeat viewings... (By the way, contrary to some rumors, there is NO additional scene at the end of the credits.)
- John DiBiase (reviewed: 12/18/15)
Blu-Ray Special Features Review
Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrives on Blu-Ray in a DVD/Digital HD combo pack and through the usual digital providers (I can't seem to find a DVD-only listing anywhere). If you're looking for the 3D release of the film, you'll have to wait, unfortunately. The 3D release has been rumored for later this year (something Disney seems to occasionally do, like previously with Frozen).
I ended up seeing the film three times in the theater (something I just don't do anymore). One of those times was in IMAX 3D and I have to say it was pretty impressive. As far as how the film holds up with repeat viewings, it's truly a stunning achievement - from solid acting to impressive visuals to successfully capturing a classic Star Wars feel. However, those who complain it rehashes A New Hope (i.e. the original Star Wars film) have good reason to say so. You can draw comparisons to that film pretty much from the opening attack with simultaneously introduces the villain, to BB-8 carrying "plans" just like R2 did (and both ended up in the hands of a poor kid on a desert planet), on down to a Death Star rescue and X-wing battle. And the similarities don't stop there. It doesn't feel tired, though, but it's noticeable. Depending on how Episode VIII plays out (releasing at the end of next year), it might make these similarities feel more like a parallel to Luke's journey and less like a lazy copy of it.
The high definition transfer here is really really good. Abrams shot the movie on film--not digital, like the prequels--so there's a classic look and feel to the movie. There are 2 Blu-Ray discs in the set, one that is just the movie and another for just the bonus features. The feature film disc has a few language audio tracks, but no commentary. The special features on the bonus disc, which are pretty good, include the following:
Secrets of the Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey (1:09:14) - This is the sweet spot, folks. It's an emotional (well, at least I found it emotional) look into how the movie came to be. The making-of feature teases "secrets" of the filmmaking process, but there isn't a whole lot that's especially sensitive or secretive that's revealed here. The only real "secret" type stuff is getting to see some of the original table read and hearing from the actors - and Abrams - about their fears in taking on their respective roles. The feature is divided into four chapters with a Play All option. It opens with how the film began with the sale of Lucasfilm and producer Kathleen Kennedy taking over as president from George Lucas. JJ admits he was initially resistant to making a new Star Wars film, but was intrigued when he heard the idea of a girl who was learning about Luke for the first time, who had gone "missing." They then talk about starting conceptual art production, researching props and stuff from the very original films (which we get to see!), and the casting of the new characters. Daisy and John discuss their auditions, and we get to see clips from their original audition tapes (and we learn that John Boyega auditioned nine times!). The first segment ends with the epic table read, which featured Mark Hamill reading the narrative to the cast.
Part two opens with the first day of filming in Abu Dhabi, which served as the planet Jakku. Daisy and John were the first to film scenes for the film, and then we hear about how the the production team created and operated BB-8. Kathleen talks about returning the production to, and filming at, Pinewood Studios in London, before the feature shifts to talking about the designing of Captain Phasma and Kylo Ren. The second chapter ends with a reverent look at the rebuilding of the Falcon and Harrison Ford's return as Han Solo.
Chapter three talks about the new cantina scene and how JJ felt like the galaxy would have watering holes all over the place, and that he'd feel cheated if the movie didn't have a cantina scene. We're then taken to the underground Resistance base set and learn about how fans had made the new R2D2, as well as see the return of Carrie Fisher as Leia (who was very nervous about acting again after taking a break). As the third chapter closes, the topic shifts to the more serious as JJ admits that he never saw The Force Awakens as a movie about the original cast, but as a passing of the torch that had to have a cost...
Movie plot spoilers are present here in chapter four, so don't keep reading this part if you haven't seen the film yet. Here, Harrison Ford talks about how he enjoyed making the original Star Wars film and The Empire Strikes Back, but felt like Han didn't need to be in Return of the Jedi. It's been no secret that Ford wanted Han to perish in Return of the Jedi to lend weight and significance to the character. This all leads to some behind-the-scenes footage of Han's encounter with Kylo on the catwalk, the skeleton crew that they kept on set for that scene, and everyone's fear over doing it. JJ felt that it was necessary to the story since it is about the Force awakening in Rey and the Dark Side awakening in Kylo. This chapter ends with footage of Harrison's last day on set. Overall, this feature is excellent, and while I would have loved to have heard more insight into some of the plot development and similarities to the original, there's still quite a bit packed into this 70-minute behind-the-scenes documentary.
The Story Awakens: The Table Read (4:01) - Here we have a painfully short glimpse into that epic table read that reunited the original cast and introduced those who would inherit the franchise. Mark Hamill, who plays Luke Skywalker, read the narrative while the cast read their respective parts. We also hear from the cast themselves as they reflect on their roles and the reading session. It's an excellent little featurette.
Crafting Creatures (9:34) is dedicated to the making of the physical effects and creatures in the film. Abrams and the crew talk about being careful to remain respectful to the Star Wars universe. They also mention that 105 creatures were created for the film! And not only is Nien Nunb back from Return of the Jedi, but the actor who played him returned as well. Warwick Davis, who originally played an Ewok, returned too as another alien. We're shown all of the different means of making monsters--from puppets to make-up to digital effects... and remaking Chewie again as closely as they could to the original.
Building BB-8 (6:03) is about the design of the adorable astromech and the different versions that they went through to get to the final version -- and how his character was puppeteered in different ways. It's pretty comprehensive, but they never address the sound or voice of the character, oddly enough.
Blueprint of a Battle: The Snow Fight (7:02) is about the final fight between Rey and Kylo in the forest in the snow. We find here that they built the set at Pinewood Studios using 750 boxes of fake snow! And by doing it indoors, they had more control over lighting and the elements. It's a pretty impressive feat.
ILM: The Visual Magic of the Force (7:55) is all about the effects in the film, but most notably, the crew went back to the very original 1976 Millenium Falcon to capture all the minute details most people wouldn't even notice. They talk about how they kept pushing effects, but there aren't too many examples of problem solving or how they pushed them here. It's still a pretty great featurette though.
John Williams: The Seventh Symphony (6:51) - Here they talk about Williams returning for a seventh Star Wars score, and he discusses making new themes and revisiting old ones. And we're reminded just how much Star Wars wouldn't be Star Wars without his music.
Force for Change (3:22) is all about the charitable initiative to raising money for Unicef and other organizations by Star Wars fans.
Deleted Scenes (4:15) - *There are a few main plot point movie spoilers mentioned here, so don't read this if you have not seen the whole movie* There are only six short deleted scenes here, clocking in at just over four minutes of footage. There's reportedly a seventh deleted scene that's only available with the digital copy (which also comes with the Blu-Ray/DVD set), that involves Han Solo at Maz's temple when Stormtroopers arrive. However, we didn't have access to the scene at the time of review. "Finn and the Villager" is the first deleted scene. It takes place after his comrade dies and smears blood on his helmet. He encounters a woman who's terrified, but when she realizes he's just as scared as she is, she calms. "Jakku Message" is a cool scene that shows Leia at the Resistance base when she receives a msg about BB-8 having the map to Luke. "X-Wings Prepare for Lightspeed" is kind of a throwaway scene that shows them jump to lightspeed in space on the way to Starkiller base. "Kylo Searches the Falcon" is probably the best of the scenes here, where he enters the cockpit and senses that Han is there on the planet. "Snow Speeder Chase" involves Finn and Rey stealing a snowspeeder and being pursued by Stormtroopers. The effects aren't finished and I'm not even sure how it would have fit into the movie, but it's still pretty neat to have here (especially since it's an example of a scene fans knew existed but had been removed from the film. Toys of the speeder even exist!). Finally, "Finn Will Be Fine" takes place at the end right after they land and an unconscious and wounded Finn is brought into the base. A woman there just tells Rey that her "friend will be fine" (it's also a throwaway scene, since we get that message in the film). I would have loved to have seen more footage (maybe on the 3D release?), including the oft talked about deleted character of Constable Zuvio, which toys exist for but the character isn't even in the movie. Or the alternate scenes where Maz accompanies Han, Finn and Rey back to the Resistance base and she hands the saber to Leia (which is shown in the teaser). Still, it's cool to see what's been included here (even if they didn't finish the effects for any of these sequences).
- John DiBiase, (reviewed: 3/26/16)
Parental Guide: Brief Summary of Content
Vulgarity/Language: 2 "h*ll," 1 "d*mn"
Alcohol/Drugs: In a cantina scene, some characters might be drinking alcohol, but it's not focused on.
Blood/Gore: A Storm Trooper who has just been blasted smears blood on Finn's Storm Trooper helmet. We then see it dried on there later; Poe has some blood on his head after a battle and being captured; After a lightsaber battle, two men have a little bit of blood and bruising. One character has a burn or gash across their face, but it's not shown in detail; The tentacles of a beast are severed when a door closes on them. We see them flopping on the ground; A character with a wound on their clothed side hits it repeatedly and we see some blood dripping onto the ground next to them (the lighting is dark, so it's not very graphic)
Violence: Some spoilers ahead (Ye have been warned)... Stormtroopers shoot villagers and burn the village down. Kylo cuts down a man with his lightsaber; We see a man strapped to a torture table while Kylo uses the force on him. He screams in pain; TIE fighters attack Jakku and there's an explosion in a market; Rey fights off some attackers with a staff and by kicking/punching them; Two characters try to take off in a TIE fighter that's tethered to its docking station. They shoot their way out and take off; A ship crash-lands in the desert and we see it burning. We then see it sink into the sand; TIE fighters chase and shoot at the Millenium Falcon through the desert; A man is held at gunpoint and threatened on either side by two groups of criminals. Some large, tentacled monsters then chase and eat these men. One grabs Finn and drags him through the ship; Kylo slashes up a console with his saber in anger, then force-chokes a man into his grib and holds him by the throat; Stormtroopers are shot during many battles and blown up or thrown by explosions; Finn impales a Storm Trooper with his lightsaber; Han shoots multiple Storm Troopers; Chewie's bowcaster blows away many Storm Troopers; A beam comes from the Starkiller base and blows up multiple planets. One one of them, we see people screaming as they realize their planet's about to be destroyed; Kylo holds a lightsaber to a woman's neck and holds her in place with his force powers; A girl hears the cries of a child and is drawn to them in a cantina basement. She opens a box and finds an object inside. When she touches it, she sees memories from her past when she was abandoned as a child and then sees images of Kylo and his knights; Chewie blows up part of a base; There are a couple scenes involving dogfights between TIE fighters and X-Wings; A man is suddenly impaled by a lightsaber, killing him. He then falls off a platform into an abyss; A big planet is blown up; Two light saber battles get pretty violent with one person being beat up (and their shoulder is burned), while two more duel and one of them ends up with a bloody face; and other sci-fi action violence.
** Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's rating.