The Ultimate Star Wars Holiday Special (12/20/2015)
by Andrew Saladino
'Star Wars: The Force Awakens': guys.... GUYS.... Star Wars is back.
So rarely am I angry that a film ends. 'The Force Awakens', technically Episode VII, could've gone on for another hour and I'd have been perfectly content. Like every other twentysomething in modern-day America, I spent way too many after-school hours and summer days frolicking around in George Lucas's universe with Lego sets and now-dusty action figures, the six films (yes, six) constantly being rewound and played on my old six-inch television set. And now, it all returns after ten years (or thirty, depending on how you're counting) in a massive blitz of pomp and circumstance and overwhelming hype.
Now, it would be one thing if 'The Force Awakens' was simply a dollop of nostalgia- not unlike seeing Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd dressed in full costume this past October for the 'Back to the Future Part II' festivities. But it's an entirely other thing if the film is even a pinch exhilarating, joyful, wondrous, frightening, or at all breathtaking. And it's much more than a pinch. J.J. Abrams and co.'s 'The Force Awakens' is a magical trip down blockbuster lane that zapped me back into that four-year old totally and utterly ensnared and enthralled by the '77 original.
I'll say nothing of the plot. The less you know, the better. I will say that our new compatriots are each dynamite in their own particular way. John Boyega brings a youthful urgency that the series has never known- and is almost completely responsible for the film's laughs- of which there are many, Oscar Isaac just about instantly becomes the coolest son of a gun since Han Solo (I'll come back to that), Adam Driver brings pain and anger, the likes of which the prequels never touched, but it's Daisy Ridley who not only succeeds at carrying the entire emotional weight of the film, but who gifts us with a refreshingly dynamic, bold, and honest performance. In a year marked by Furiosa, Katniss, and Bryce Dallas Howard's high-heels, Ms. Ridley is the perfect full-stop conclusion. Give her the Oscar now- she and her Rey are for the ages.
A considerable amount of the film's joy is in its returning components, both character and story. Much has been made of the parallels or echos between 'Awakens' and 'A New Hope' (or whatever you insist on calling it). With the exception of the rushed and unmenacing Starkiller Base, I thoroughly enjoyed the callbacks or riff-erential storytelling. This is what Lucas meant when he said he wanted the stories to flow like poetry, to rhyme. Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, responsible for the latter two original films, have honored that sentiment and fulfilled it in a compelling and non-fan service way. The other element, of course, is the return of our original heroes. If there is one person on this earth that doesn't find an ear-to-ear cheesy grin spreading across their face the moment Harrison Ford's Han Solo saunters onto screen, then there's really no hope for them. Ford is the best he's been in years, gruff and wise, and yet still a complete scoundrel- every moment he's present is wonderful. Mark Hamill's presence, as with all of the film's marketing, is minimal, though he excels at what he's given, but unfortunately, Carrie Fisher is somewhat stiff and a tad rusty compared to those around her. Hers was the performance I was most nervous for, and although it's nowhere near the red-alert-Hayden-Christensen-woodshed, it's not quite the Princess Leia of yonder.
Much has been made of the film's return to practical effects and 35mm cinematography. And boy, does it make a difference. One of the many reasons those original classics worked and continue to work so very well is because they are utterly believable, first frame to last. 'The Force Awakens' hearkens back to that sentiment. I've no idea where Episodes VIII and IX will go or how they'll play out, but for now we've got one hell of a roller coaster ride on our hands. Good lord, you forget movies can be this fun... Thanks for the reminder, J.J.
**** (four out of four stars)
'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow. Rated PG-13 (gleeful lightsabers and X-wings galore)