Sunday, April 3, 2016

Video review: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

For the record, I’ve adored all the Star Wars movies -- even the much-maligned “prequel” trilogy. So when I say that I liked Episode VII, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” about as much as I did “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” is not the intended insult most people think.

I would put both near the bottom of any ranking of the franchise. Which is to say I think they’re still very good science fiction/fantasy films. But their flaws are more glaring than the others. I won’t belabor those of “Phantom Menace,” as they’re well-known -- kooky trade war plot, Jar Jar buffoonery, etc.

The biggest problem with “TFA” is that it’s not terribly original. It’s essentially a reboot of the first film: a nobody on a desert planet rises to glory through the mystical Force; bad guy in a black mask; cantina of bizarre aliens; roguish smuggler Han Solo sets aside cynicism to join the rebels; world-destroying space station threatens the galaxy; plans for its destruction are embedded in a perky little robot.

Director J.J. Abrams, who co-wrote the script with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, seemed more intent on making a greatest hits compilation for the fans than a logical and satisfying extension of the Star Wars saga.

Like: how is it that 30 years after its defeat, the Empire has reconstituted itself into the First Order, complete with Stormtrooper armies and a new Death Star (er, Starkiller Base). What were Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the Galactic Senate doing all this time?

The setup is that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was training a new generation of Jedi Knights when he was betrayed by his chief pupil, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who was seduced to the dark side despite his good parentage. (Which I’ll not reveal here, for the 0.2% of readers who didn’t see the movie in theaters and are still innocent of the Internet.)

The plans for Starkiller Base come into the possession of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a mysterious scavenger living the quiet life on barren Jakku, and Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who betrayed his dark conditioning. They meet up with Han Solo (Harrison Ford), searching for his long-lost ship the Millennium Falcon, as everyone scrambles to get the plans before First Order wipes out the resistance.

It’s a delightful space adventure, with plenty of dogfights, scary critters and lightsaber duels. Kylo Ren is a new iteration of villain – self-aware, unbalanced, petulant. Rey remains an enigma, including to herself, but there are hints of great destiny ahead. The weakest character is Finn, who transforms overnight from emotionless soldier to hootin’ rebel cheerleader without even the barest of emotional journeys. (Boyega’s often over-the-top performance doesn’t help, either.)

But it’s easy to overlook the failings in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” because they don’t detract from the immediacy of the thrills. I’m just hoping future films in the series will harbor a little more ambition.

Bonus features are pretty good, mostly represented in seven featurettes that touch on special effects, John Williams’ musical score, building BB-8, etc. There’s also a lengthy making-of documentary, “Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey,” plus several deleted scenes.



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