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More than 30 years after the fall of the Empire, a runaway stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) and a Force-sensitive desert scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) find themselves caught up in a galactic war when they come across a plucky spherical droid named BB-8, who possesses a map that tracks the whereabouts of a missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). After joining forces with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew/Joonas Suotamo), they embark on an epic adventure that brings them face-to-face with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and a new evil regime called the First Order.

 Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The long-awaited return to the Star Wars of our childhood (and by us, I mean people in their 30s and 40s, because there is a whole generation of adults that saw the prequel trilogy as children) hit theaters last winter, absolutely obliterated all box office records and expectations (not accounting for inflation), and was well-received by fans, critics, and mainstream audiences alike. In the short and safe version of this review, I’d like to offer the millions of people that enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens my warmest regards and personally thank the filmmakers for making a massive studio blockbuster with a woman and a black man in the leading roles. A longer version follows, but the folks that enjoyed it might want to skip ahead to the video section.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is very obviously a consumer product, contrived and tweaked by a team of savvy writers, directors, and producers under the supervision of the most successful entertainment company of the modern era. Pleasant, made-to-order crowd-pleasers are not inherently evil or unworthy commodities. My affection for other Disney products, like Marvel and Pixar movies, is enough to prove the contrary. Those movies, just like The Force Awakens, aim just above the middle of the road and appeal to the masses without insulting our intelligence. However, over the last decade-plus, I’ve come to appreciate Star Wars creator George Lucas’ increasingly idiosyncratic approach to those condemned artefacts of the franchise’s recent past – the Prequel Trilogy. I had initially tried to defend them as regular movies (one of my earliest articles for this site was a defense that I wrote in jest before discovering that I was not a funny writer), but finally realized that the entertainment value of the prequels, specifically Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005), were found in their unique failures as much as their underreported successes.

 Star Wars: The Force Awakens
There is a distressing habit in fan and critical communities to label certain movies as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and lock the door on any further discussion. There’s rarely a good reason to break from lauding genuinely underappreciated and artistically valid films, but the relevance of The Force Awakens offers the chance to revisit the failure of the prequels in a new context – one divorced from the disappointment of their initial releases. When comparing Lucas’ independently financed and creator-guided films to Abrams’ Disney-branded Star Wars, the lack of experimentation is suddenly very apparent. The prequels exhibit a creative purity beyond even the objectively better Original Trilogy. A New Hope (1977) reflects a young Lucas compromising his vision, due to a lack of studio interest and self trust. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) reflects a newly distinguished Lucas retreating to a production capacity and leaving narrative and artistic choices to more confident individuals. Return of the Jedi (1983) reflects an emotionally dilapidated Lucas going through the motions with the help of others in order to finish the story, despite a lack of motivation. With sixteen years off to steer an unruly company (Lucasfilm) from fledgling startup into an studio empire, the prequels represent Lucas: The Artist at his most obsessive. All three movies are a palpable struggles to unite technical advancements, artistic ambitions, mythological concepts, and personal interests into a coherent whole. As a result, they are more interesting to me as a viewer than the even-handed, committee-guided consistency of The Force Awakens.

But, again, my strange preference for personable mistakes over corporate successes is not a make-or-break issue when it comes to a Disney-financed Star Wars movie. The bigger problem is my aversion to Abrams’ die-hard brand of nostalgia bait. ‘Bait’ might not be the best qualifier, because it implies that I think the director is luring audiences by cynically tickling their fondest childhoodd memories. I believe that he is sincere in his sentimentality. If he wasn’t, he would’ve stopped revisiting early ‘80s pop culture when Super 8 (2011) and Star Trek into Darkness (2013) failed to set the box office ablaze. Retelling these stories satisfies his creative drive in the same way that neurotic New York romances and violent, rock ‘n roll crime fables satisfy Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese.

 Star Wars: The Force Awakens
By deferring to this impulse, Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan (word has it that Michael Arndt’s early script was largely ignored, but did act as a basic skeleton for the final film) have purposefully made The Force Awakens essentially into a broad stroke remake of A New Hope. I’d love to say that I was overtaken with nostalgia myself at the sight of my favourite characters, but they’re all trapped by the mechanics of the New Hope narrative, wandering aimlessly from callback to callback and wasting the vast potential of this newly-expanded universe. For the first time since Return of the Jedi, a Star Wars movie was not going to have its plot confined by the preordained scenarios of older movies. But, instead of moving beyond the confines of familiarity, Abrams digs in his heels with a new totalitarian government, a new mysterious emperor figure, a new rebellion, a new desert planet, new Skywalkers, and a new and bigger Death Star that meets the same end as the first two. Retelling one of the most familiar stories in pop-culture history* shows an extraordinary lack of imagination and stifles the momentum time and time again, as the story is paused for a cantina sequence, a Death Star-like genocide, a raid on that Death Star-like base, and so on.

In some ways, the nostalgic impulse is even more frustrating than it was in Star Trek: Into Darkness. That movie was painfully devoted to Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), but had the benefit of being a reboot. The events of Meyer’s film were being appropriated for a different timeline. The Force Awakens takes place in the same continuity as the original films and, by returning everything to the status quo, Abrams has negated the achievements of the characters he claims to love so dearly. The Galaxy Far, Far Away has become a nightmare universe where no one can escape the battle they’ve been engaged in for the better part of four decades. Han, Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, and the droids are trapped like action figures in JJ’s sandbox, destined to repeat the same adventures for all eternity.

 Star Wars: The Force Awakens
While Abrams certainly loads The Force Awakens with his worst impulses – the forced nostalgia, the recycled plot points/set pieces, multiple MacGuffins (BB-8, Skywalker’s lightsaber, Skywalker himself), and contrived conveniences – he also brings his many innate talents to the table. There is plenty to like about this movie, specifically where the new characters are concerned. Casting and characters have always been Abrams’ strongest asset. Rey may not have broken out of the Luke Skywalker model just yet, but Daisy Ridley’s sheer charisma ensures that her screentime is never wasted (I love that she rescues herself, too). Finn and Kylo Ren, on the other hand, are immediately compelling. As Ren, Adam Driver quickly achieves everything that Hayden Christensen struggled to convey over two movies. In better hands, Anakin Skywalker’s petulance and whining had the potential to reframe Darth Vader as a victim out of his depth and a misunderstood pawn in a greater scheme. While I personally think the thread came together well in the operatic tragedy of Revenge of the Sith (the one prequel I’m willing to defend beyond its idiosyncratic choices), I can also admit that Ren is a vastly more human and sympathetic version of that character. Out of all his perfunctory attempts to right Lucas’ wrongs, Ren is Abrams’ greatest ‘correction.’ I also really like the idea of a dark Jedi being seduced by the light side of the Force.

Finn, however, is a more complicated proposition, because, despite being the film’s most endearing addition to Star Wars lore, his character falls victim to Abrams’ worst storytelling instincts. Despite a compelling back-story (which I’m sure the next movie will delve into), he spends most of the movie wasted as an audience (or perhaps J.J. Abrams) surrogate. His jokes are funny and his jubilant presence is infectious, but his function in the story is tenuous at best. Outside of assisting Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in his escape from Ren’s clutches (something that actually leads to the largest and most awkward plot hole in the entire movie), he is more of a gleeful and supportive C3-PO to BB-8’s R2-D2. Technically, Poe’s jacket serves almost as significant of a plot function, because it is how BB-8 recognizes him as a person-of-interest. Abrams and Kasdan are smart to keep him out of the way of Rey’s greater arc, but there’s something wrong when a film’s best character – one who may get more screentime than any other lead – could be deleted from the story without really changing the course of the plot.

 Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Lucas, like Abrams, had initially hindered himself by awkwardly trying tie every one of the audience’s favourite character into the narrative of the prequels (and, later, the Clone Wars animated series). The curse of inevitability always weighed over those movies. But the certainty of Anakin’s downfall and Palpatine’s coup d'etat also fed Lucas’ penchant for political intrigue and subverted expectations. The Phantom Menace does lose itself in bland intergalactic politics and wastes time by trying to fulfill the audience’s expectations for the pre-Empire Republic as a sci-fi utopia, but Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are built upon a backdrop of convoluted machinations, as well as ongoing hints that the Republic and Jedi weren’t as idealistic as we were led to believe. It’s an interesting concept that alters the context of the original movies. Abrams and company had the potential to alter it further, but they preferred to return things to the status quo.

The saddest thing is that Abrams and Lucas’s strengths and weaknesses actually complement each other perfectly. With Abrams’ eye for young talent, penchant for emotionally relatable characters, and deft sense of humour, the prequels could’ve strengthened their sense of drama and otherwise laughable romantic subplots. On the other hand, Lucas’ proclivity for plot and structure could’ve saved The Force Awakens from lopsided scene-to-scene momentum, underdeveloped political scenarios, and tedious mystery box nonsense. The ill-defined and shockingly undramatic New Republic/Resistance/First Order dynamic is perhaps the most worrisome aspect of these movies as they progress into the second and third episodes. Lucas did a lot of things wrong, but I always understood the stakes of the big events in the prequels. I’ve seen The Force Awakens twice now and still have no idea what exactly the First Order achieved by blowing up three planets (besides killing unknown characters on at least one of them), because Luke’s whereabouts are so much more important to every character in the movie, including members of the Resistance and the First Order. I suspect that the astonishingly genocidal sequence is just a Chekov’s Starkiller moment that exists, a) to establish the firepower of the base and b) because something similar happens in A New Hope.

* For the record, The Phantom Menace’s biggest weakness isn’t Jar Jar Binks, bad casting choices, or even wince-inducingly stiff dialogue, but its adherence to the bones of A New Hope’s plot. In addition, many of the extended universe novels and comics (which are no longer canon, apparently) were also criticized for revisiting the themes of the original movies. It’s incredible to me that Abrams somehow got away with the same mistake in the court of public opinion.

 Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Video


George Lucas was a pioneer of D-cinema and shot both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith using early digital HD rigs. As part of his ‘Let’s pretend the prequels didn’t happen’ initiative, Abrams chose to shoot Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens on film. However, unlike A New Hope, The Force Awakens was filmed using both 35mm and IMAX stock. In IMAX theaters, the large format scenes were framed at the expanded 1.43:1, but all other showings, including this 1080p Blu-ray, were displayed in the franchise-friendly 2.40:1 aspect ratio (the film was also post-converted into 3D for some theatrical projections). The texture of film grain is certainly present throughout this transfer, though it’s difficult to immediately discern the differences between the 35mm and IMAX shots. Details are tight and the contrast levels are dynamic, which is important when it comes to those really dark First Order base sequences. Abrams and frequent cinematographic collaborator dial back on the lens-flares and shaky-cam this time around, but don’t entirely escape the overly clean and graded look of those Star Trek movies.

 Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Audio


I have my problems with this movie, but Abrams and company did a fantastic job recapturing the aural wonder of the Star Wars series. Their efforts included hiring original sound designer Ben Burtt, prequel series sound designer/mixer Gary Rydstrom, and, of course, original composer John Williams. This Blu-ray comes fitted with a big and bold DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack – one that will probably be a go-to demo disc for many viewers. Funny story, when I saw The Force Awakens in theaters, the sound was irreparably mangled in a way I’ve never heard before. The entire 8.1 field was shifted two speakers to the right, so that the dialogue/center channel effects were coming out of the middle right speaker, the left stereo channel was coming out of the right stereo channel, et cetera. It was a nightmare. On disc, I’m now able to appreciate the explosive impacts of the big action spectacles as well as the finer intricacies of the environmental effects. Kylo Ren’s vocal effects still sound off-balance to my ears and a couple of the dialogue-heavy scenes are shockingly stark, but there’s more to appreciate when you’re listening to it with the correct surround field in tact. Williams’ soundtrack is not one of his best Star Wars efforts on the whole. It doesn’t have an original cue on par with “The Imperial March,” “Duel of Fates,” or even “Anakin's Betrayal.” Still, the scope and structure of the score is spectacular enough to make me think that the faulty sound may have hampered its impact even more than I assumed. If anything, the music is the loudest element on this disc, which says something about Abrams’ commitment to Williams.

 Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Extras


  • Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey (1:10:10, HD) – A fou- part behind-the-scenes documentary that traces the production from its early planning through the filming process. There’s a lot of information here, including Lucas handing off the reins of Lucasfilm to Kathleen Kennedy and Disney, assembling a design and conceptual team very early in the process, hiring J.J. Abrams and Larry Kasdan (Michael Arndt’s early script is barely mentioned), bringing other key OT and PT cast & crew members onto the project, recreating the look of the OT, practical effects/creature design (including BB-8), the concept of the Force, characters, casting (including audition tapes), location and soundstage shooting, set construction, physical training, stunts, Lupita Nyong'o’s and Andy Serkis’ mo-cap processes, and final thoughts on the experience. The doc’s structure is immaculate, but the tone of the interviews veer dangerously close to fluffy EPK material. Everyone is so focused on selling the film, which they clearly don’t need to at this point.
  • The Story Awakens: The Table Read (4:00, HD)  – A quick exploration of the first table-read, where the old and new cast met for the first time and worked through the script, which Hamill narrated (since he has no lines in the movie).
  • Crafting Creatures (9:30, HD) – A more in-depth look at the creature and droid design, construction, and performances. The performers beneath the costumes, make-up, and digital paint, including fan favourites Warwick Davis and Simon Pegg.
  • Building BB-8 (6:00, HD) – Concerning the design, construction, and the unique puppetry and animatronics of the cute, scene stealing robot.
  • Blueprint of a Battle: The Snow Fight (7:00, HD) – Behind-the-scenes of the stunt choreography and conceptualization of the clever and beautiful climactic lightsaber battle.
  • ILM: The Visual Magic of The Force (8:00, HD) – More on the film’s model work and extensive CG, including a number of before and after comparison images.
  • John Williams: The Seventh Symphony (6:50, HD) – The composer, who has written the soundtracks to every single film in the series, discusses his latest compositions, while the filmmakers praise his contributions.
  • Six deleted scenes (4:20, HD) – Don’t get your hopes too much for vital story info here, but there is an additional (and earlier) Princess Leia appearance.
  • Force For Change (3:20, HD) – A promo for the charitable organization/initiative.


 Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Overall


Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens isn’t a bad movie and, despite not being exactly what I wanted from the franchise, it has definitely reinvigorated public interest in all things Star Wars. The good news is that it seems to have served a purpose. Perhaps the public need for familiarity has been sated and the series can now move on to more interesting pastures. The new characters are genuinely great and it should be a pleasure following them forward into the rest of this new trilogy, the next of which is under the direction of a vastly more interesting (though also suspiciously nostalgia-driven) filmmaker. I am hopeful that Rian Johnson can avoid turning Episode VIII into Empire Strikes Back 2.0. Those of you that were fully won-over by the film’s many and varied charms have a demo-worthy Blu-ray to look forward to. The special features occasionally come across like extended commercials, but there’s so much information here that occasional tonal missteps are excusable. The only bummer is the lack of content in those deleted scenes.

 Star Wars: The Force Awakens
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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