Mark Reviews Movies

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: J.J. Abrams 

Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Peter Mayhew, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong'o, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow, Warwick Davis, Mark Hamill

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence)

Running Time: 2:15

Release Date: 12/18/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 17, 2015

The primary challenge for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is for it to successfully fuse the new and the old. At a certain point in the film's lengthy introductory section, one might start to wonder why the union is necessary. The screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt, and director J.J. Abrams has given this new entry in the series a collection of new characters who mirror the ones we already know but who also feel just a bit different.

There's a heroine with dreams of more for her life beyond the desert planet where she has lived for most of her life. There's a wise-cracking ace pilot, who stares the story's antagonist in the mask and asks him to repeat himself because it's difficult to understand what he's saying under the thing. The villain has gone to the dark side of the Force, despite the vast hopes of others who believed he could have been one of the great fighters for the side of light in the galaxy. Here, it's a son who has turned to evil, and it's a father who wonders if there is still good in the man. The shadow of a grandfather envelops all of this.

Then there's a stormtrooper for the First Order, an offshoot of the Empire that wants to do away with the newly formed Republic. He was captured, brainwashed, and given a number by the First Order, but during his first battle, he has a crisis of conscience. That sets in motion a daring escape, a series of chance meetings, and a good number of dogfights between spaceships, blaster shootouts, and lightsaber duels on a diverse assortment of planets. In other words, it's everything that we expect from a Star Wars film.

Is it enough? To an extent, it is. Is it more than enough? For a while, it almost seems that is going to be the case.

The new characters are clever spins on the archetypes of the old ones. We can sense a bit of the plucky-but-destined-for-greatness hero of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger on that desert planet who gathers pieces from scrapped starships from both sides of the war between the Empire and the Rebellion. We can see a lot of the carefree, sarcastic Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), an accomplished pilot who is charged with a mission to collect a map to Luke's current location.

The last of the Jedi has gone into hiding, and his sister Leia (Carrie Fisher), a general with the Resistance (A new Empire needs a new Rebellion), believes he is the only hope to stop the First Order's wicked plans. As for Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the good-turned-evil expert in the ways of the Force, he possesses the melted mask of his forebear, asking it for the strength to overcome his feelings toward the light.

Finn (John Boyega), the reformed stormtrooper, doesn't quite fit the mold of any character we have come to know in the saga, and that might be why he's the most intriguing at face value. Even he isn't entirely certain of the kind of person he is. He wants to fight the First Order, which took his life from him before he had a chance to know what that life could be, but he also needs to run from them. He, like the other new characters, is searching for the course of his story.

By the end, the film leaves the new characters searching, and in a way, we can feel the film itself seeking its own narrative foothold—not only trying to justify itself but also attempting to set up the pieces for future installments. It's also a film that re-introduces us to the heroes of the first trilogy, seeing how easily they have returned to their old ways after becoming a part of history and the subjects of myths. Han and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) have returned to smuggling and racking up unpayable debts. Leia has gone back to the fight. Luke is somewhere. His name is stated in hushed tones by those few who knew him and exclaimed by those who were convinced he was only a legend.

A battle between the film's own mythmaking and a desire for nostalgia erupts as soon as the established characters start to return. There's a fine balance between the two, as the new characters and the old ones help to define each other. Rey may be the untested adventurer, but she's also Han's match—or even better—when it comes to technical know-how (She doesn't need her hand held in high-pressure situations, either). Han knows a lot about Finn's desire to run from his problems, and maybe the advice he offers the new kid will come in handy when he's finally reunited with Leia, who laughs about the bad times but grows silent after remembering the good times.

If it's possible, mythmaking and nostalgia eventually lose to a greater combatant: routine. It's not just that we've already seen the film's central plot—about an ultimate weapon that must be destroyed—twice in this series. It's also that screenplay eventually sacrifices its characters for these high but typical stakes. The film's most impressive action sequence, a low-flying pursuit along the dunes of the desert planet (The effects, as one would expect, are generally outstanding), works as well as it does because the participants are inexperienced and giddy about their dumb-luck success.

The self-contained narrative of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens grows a little weary, but we can sense the film establishing itself as the backbone for a new narrative cycle. It's a promising start.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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