A long time ago (well for me, anyway) in a galaxy not far, far away (our Milky Way unless you’re an extraterrestrial somehow reading this) I sat spellbound though multiple viewings of the first “Star Wars” film in 1977 – in fact, my 11th birthday revolved around attending one such showing (thanks Mom and Dad!). Later that year I went trick-or-treating as Luke Skywalker on Halloween. Ah, those heady days when George Lucas‘ love for Saturday-morning film serials sprinkled with bits of mythology for good measure added up to some popcorn-munching fun at the movie theater and we didn’t have to concern ourselves with which roman numeral it was (that film is of course now officially known as “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” though that episode number and title was added later).
I’m certainly among those that felt the franchise lost its way with the overly-wrought Episodes I, II and III “prequels” (aka films four, five and six) a decade ago, though perhaps my reaction has as much to do with the annoying obsessiveness of some fans as with the choices Lucas made then. It’s like William Shatner in that famous 1986 Saturday Night Live sketch regarding the Trekkies that have long threatened to take all joy out of just watching “Star Trek” – “Get a life, will you people?” has crossed my mind many times when I’ve seen online invective hurled first at Lucas and now at director JJ Abrams because some folks apparently think these films are holy writ.
Disney bought Lucasfilm three years ago, and the release of the first of three new films, “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens,” is upon us. There’s been more hype and hysteria about this movie than any in recent memory; the fear that spoilers would leak before this week’s opening has been ratcheted up by the studio and fans – witness the outcry from some when a Mashable writer dared to quote the film’s supposed first line of dialogue on Twitter Monday night after the film’s world premiere in Los Angeles.
The embargo on reviews has lifted, and as with any film, I don’t want to greatly spoil the fun for those who will see it after me so I’ll be careful about what comes next (and I’ll certainly understand those who wish to avoid even a set-up of the plot leaving this page now). But let me make it clear – while Abrams may be doing it his way, this “Star Wars” returns to the basic good-versus-evil storytelling sprinkled with humor that made that first Saturday-morning serial-inspired 1977 film so entertaining. And while many will opt to see it in 3D, I watched it in good old 2D and didn’t feel left out at all.
The story opens 30 years after the events of “Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.” Trouble’s brewing in the galaxy in the shape of The First Order, successor to the dreaded Empire, and a good Jedi is, well, hard to find. On the planet Jakku we get a taste of the new baddies’ nastiness in search of some very vital information (as well as a brief poignant appearance by legendary Swedish actor Max von Sydow). But we also get introduced to some of the good side in the persons of Poe Dameron (“Inside Llewyn Davis” star Oscar Issac), Finn (“Attack the Block” British breakout John Boyega) and last but certainly not least Rey (Daisy Ridley, a Brit largely known for her TV work until now). We quickly realize the importance, if not all the implications, of these three getting together to battle the dark side of the force represented by such characters as General Hux (Brendan Gleeson‘s pride and joy Domhnall Gleeson), Captain Phasma (“Game of Thrones” player Gwendoline Christie) and Kylo Ren (“This Is Where I Leave You”‘s Adam Driver).
Along the way we get the pleasure of seeing some characters and actors that started the “Star Wars” journey with Lucas nearly 40 years ago – now-General Leia (Carrie Fisher), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2D2 (Kenny Baker). That’s not a complete list of returning favorites, but you’ll have to see the movie to finish it.
Abrams has cast the many “Star Wars” newcomers well (kudos for that too go to casting directors Nina Gold, April Webster and Alyssa Weisberg), and along with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt the script not only honors the spirit and vitality of the galaxy created by Lucas but adds appropriate modern touches (one welcome sign is this film’s ability to pass the Bechdel Test as noted on the Twittersphere Monday night). The growing importance of Ridley’s character is an encouraging sign that this very testosterone-fueled series might thankfully be a little less so moving forward. And there’s a contribution from the stellar Lupita Nyong’o that unsurprisingly adds some emotional depth while providing some plot points as well.
The director has said he wanted more reality and less computer enhancements in this reboot, and with the precise framing of cinematographer Dan Mindel (“Star Trek”) and sharp editing of Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey he’s got a film that looks as believable as any science fiction film could be (for me that’s a big plus). That doesn’t mean such elements as special effects (supervised by Chris Corbould with far too many folks to list here) and visual effects get short shrift; they’re in balance with others aspects like the overall production design (some beautifully intricate work by Rick Carter and Darren Gilford), David Acord‘s masterful sound design, costumes (some incredible variety from Michael Kaplan), Lee Sandales‘ excellent set decoration and the many talented hands that went into makeup and other disciplines to bring this mammoth project to fruition. Add the ever-stirring musical moments from John Williams and Abrams and company should be justifiably proud of their accomplishments.
Well, let Francis Ford Coppola “pity” Lucas for getting “lost” in “Star Wars” (anyone who ever watched Coppola’s dreadful “Godfather Part III” deserves more emotional consideration from him) and let some silly fans tediously debate whether Abrams is a devoted disciple or heretical betrayer – they will not spoil it for the rest of us. This new “Star Wars” awakens The Force as thrilling fun, and that should be more than enough for any movie lover.
“Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” opens in Nashville and across North America officially on Friday, though screenings will actually start Thursday night; the film is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America’s Classification and Rating Administration “for sci-fi action violence” and runs 136 minutes. Check for locations and showtimes on Fandango or MovieTickets.com.