Yup. Star Wars.

Spoiler-free section:

Yeah, so Star Wars came out a little while ago, and I finally got around to seeing it.  Yes, it was only a week, with with all the hype and all the talk, it feels like I waited an eternity to see the thing.  Needless to say, this was a Very Big Deal.  But you knew that.

Frankly, that degree of hype is dangerous for anything, be it movie, television show, book, what have you.  The greater the hype, the harder it is to avoid crushing disappointment.  Even a good, or fantastic, or great movie can feel like a letdown if it doesn't reach the lofty goals expected of it.  A friend of mine experienced that with Dark City.  It didn't live up to what he was expecting, so we walked out of the theater with him feeling disappointed, even though it's an excellent movie.  It truly is.  You should go watch it, actually.  Get the Director's Cut if you can.  That doesn't have an opening voice-over full of titanic spoilers.

But, back on topic.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens (henceforth TFA) actually manages to live up to its hype.  And yes, I was hyped and looking forward to this.  I was six when Return of the Jedi came out, and I have vivid memories of seeing it in the theater.  Sure, it was the worst of the originals, but that's still going to have a huge impact to the mind and imagination of a six year old.  Unsurprisingly, I became a huge Star Wars fan, and have remained a fan, even as I've grown old, bitter, and curmudgeonly.

That magic hope was still there when I spent two hours standing in the middle of a line-turned-mob as we waited for the re-release of A New Hope in 1997.  That opening fanfare and text crawl sent a chill down my spine as I watched A New Hope on the big screen like it was meant to be.  Sadly, the Special Edition was mostly just a bunch of worthless trash added to clutter a perfectly fine movie, but you take the memories you can get.  It didn't quite reach the hype, but as a link to something I couldn't have witnessed, it was still magical.  Not magical enough to wait in line forever for the Empire or Return re-release, but I still saw them in the theater.

Skip ahead a bit more and we have Phantom Menace.  Again, my hopes were up.  How could they not be?  New Star Wars!  And the trailers looked great!  And... well... we know how that turned out.

So I waited a week for TFA.  Now I kind of wish I hadn't.  It was really that good.  From the opening text crawl to the end.  This is how you make a new Star Wars film, George.  This is everything the prequels should have been.  George Lucas may have invented Star Wars, but JJ Abrams clearly understands what it means to the fans more than Lucas does.


So, let's start with that text crawl, shall we?  Unlike Phantom Menace which talked about trade negotiations and geopolitics (or whatever its galactic analog is), this crawl was brief and to the point: the Empire is gone and the evil whackjobs have formed the First Order.  There's a new Republic and a Resistance against the Order.  Luke's gone AWOL and everyone wants to know where he is.  A hotshot pilot has a lead and is looking into it.

Boom.  Done.  There's your backstory.  There's the really important events of the past 30 years.  On with the story.

From there we... don't put the hammer down.  Don't get me wrong, the movie moves and doesn't waste (much) time, but it isn't all balls-to-the-wall.  It breathes when it needs to, and gives you character moments when it needs to in between the fantastic action set pieces. The movie does many, many things right.  I think it might be easier to focus on the characters than scenes.

Poe Dameron: Poe, played by Oscar Isaac, spends half the movie "dead", but easily steals every scene he's in.  He's the ace mentioned in the opening text crawl, and the movie doesn't leave it at that.  It actually shows him being an ace pilot.  He is clearly our replacement for Han Solo, and I think he's more than capable of filling that role.  The character is engaging enough, and Oscar has more than enough charisma to make it work.

Finn: The black Stormtrooper that everyone was supposedly freaking out about despite the lack of any actual freakouts outside of the stormfront corridor.  Anyway, he was played by John Boyega.  He filled a strange role in this movie.  In many ways, he was a minor character, despite being the central catalyst to every single thing in the movie.  It's kind of a weird duality.  All the Big Things are done by other people, but none of them could have happened without him.  He's an interesting character, and I'd like to see where they go with him.  He's one half of our new Luke-alike.  He's the Luke from early A New Hope: the largely clueless kid who kicks events into motion.  The other half of Luke, the force-using and proactive half is...

Rey: ...played by Daisy Ridley.  She's also our designated Reluctant Hero.  She's confident and capable without projecting an annoying degree of Sisters Doin' It For Themselves.  She's human, in other words.  She has concerns, worries, frustrations.  She feels like a realized character instead of just an archetype.  When she refuses to have anything to do with Luke's old lightsaber, I was actually surprised.  She wasn't supposed to be that reluctant.  And then, in the end, when she calls it to her in the fight against Kylo Ren, my breath caught in my throat.  Seeing her catching the saber got a cheer from the audience.  Hell, just writing about it now is giving me chills; it was that moving.

Han and Leia and Chewy: Hell, you know these three.  Seeing Han and Chewie again was fantastic.  Carrie Fisher, a little less so.  But then, she was never as good as Harrison Ford.  Still, it was nice to see them again and presumably their roles (especially Ford's, heh) will be much, much smaller in subsequent movies.  This worked as a passing of the torch to the new group.  Personally, I would like to see Leia becoming a sort of Mon Mothma-type role.

General Hux and Lord Snoke: Essentially, Grand Moff Tarkin (with shades of that bastard Vader force-choked) and the Emperor respectively, these two, played by Domhnall Gleeson and Andy "Freaking" Serkis, are our secondary villains.  Yes, it's yet another mirror to A New Hope (one of the film's primary flaws, frankly), but it still works.  Hux treats Rylo Ken like a subordinate; a dangerous and powerful subordinate, but a subordinate regardless.  Meanwhile, Snoke seems to all but encourage this red in tooth and claw method of leadership.  Snoke's clearly in charge, but he seems to quite enjoy his two secondaries being at each others throats.  Dark Side.  What'cha gonna do?

Maz Kanata: Yup, I'm going to mention the bug-eyed female replacement for Yoda.  She's played (voiced?) by Lupita Nyong'o, who did a fantastic job of playing the wise old woman who, while she doesn't have the Force, has been around long enough to have acquired enough wisdom to be nearly as powerful mentally, if not physically.  She's does, however, represent a bit of a plot hole; perhaps a plot dimple: Yoda was 960-some years old when he died, and was in pretty bad shape.  Furthermore, it was strongly implied that only his connection to the Force allowed him to live that long, and perhaps that the Force was keeping him alive to specifically train Luke.  Then along comes Maz who is quite sprightly despite having "lived for over a thousand years".  Perhaps Han's exaggerating, but this could also be a case of topping what has come before (see also: Starkiller Base).  Regardless, she was an enjoyable character and would like to see her come back for small (ahem) appearances in future movies.

Rylo Ken: Okay, finally this guy.  There's been some complaining about Adam Driver and how he's kind of an emo kid with daddy issues, but I think that's missing the point entirely.  I liked that he just looked like an angry twentysomething.  It made him more human, and far more scary than Hayden Christiansen as Anakin.  Revenge of the Sith Anakin had too much makeup making him look shadowed and dark.  After all, the scariest monsters are the ones that don't look like monsters, but look like normal people.  Also, his tantrums were nothing of the sort: they were a dramatic manifestation of the lack of control and flaring anger caused by the Dark Side of the force.  As far as I'm concerned, those tantrums highlight what someone given to the Dark Side would act like.  As the Emperor said in RotJ, "give in to your hate".  He's outrageously powerful (witness him stopping and holding a blaster bolt in mid air), but has very little control of himself.  Thus, when he's frustrated or angry, he lashes out and destroys whatever is around him because he can't do anything productive and is unable to master himself.  It's very, very well done.

Despite what I said earlier, there's a couple scenes towards the end of the movie that I want to highlight and mention.

I mentioned the lightsaber scene earlier.  It was one of the scenes that really moved me.  It was brief, but it was so well shot and well done.  Rylo reaching for his uncle's (and grandfather's) saber in the snow (shades of Empire), only to have it fly through the air, zoom past him and into Rey's hands.  That was such a triumphant scene, and you could imagine the look of betrayal on his face, under his mask.

There are three other scenes, all wordless, that are triumphs of directing and acting: Leia slowly sinking into her chair as she feels Han's death, Leia and Rey hugging while everyone gives them space, and Rey meeting Luke for the first time.  All three are done without any words being spoken, just letting the actors act; everything is done through facial expressions and body language.  When Rey offers Luke his lightsaber, it's almost heartbreaking; I actually teared up a little.  No wooden, inhuman dialog, no digital creatures, no unnecessary clutter.  It truly shows the difference between Abrams and Lucas.  Lucas may have been responsible for the seed, but Abrams made it flower.

One final thought, dealing with the end fight between Rylo, Finn and Rey.  Some of the things simply shown were impressive.  Rylo wasn't flipping around or doing crazy acrobatics: he was fighting efficiently and effectively.  And cruelly; the part where he used the crossbar to dig into Finn's shoulder was a good touch, as was his contemptuous slice along Finn's back.  Finn and Rey, for their part, held up better than they probably should have, but their fighting showed their utter lack of training, especially the lunging strikes they kept attempting.  They weren't fencing masters, let alone good with a lightsaber.  They were able to (mostly) hold their own, but their movements clearly demonstrated their lack of training compared to Rylo's.  I also appreciated that the choreographer incorporated glancing wounds.  When you're fighting with a laser sword, a glancing blow is still going to be quite painful and worrisome, as opposed to a nick from a steel blade.  Also, nobody got their arm lopped off.  Finally, that closing scene with the seriously wounded Rylo lying in the snow after his defeat, felt very much like Abrams using his film to show how the Anakin/Obi-wan fight in Revenge of the Sith should have gone.  Instead of a 20 minute CGI rollercoaster, this was close, personal, and meaningful.

In closing, what I'm saying was is this movie was everything the prequels should have been.  From personal acting, to a timeline that makes freaking sense (in 18 years, the Jedi went from the power behind the throne to ancient and forgotten... what?!), to dialog that feels natural despite the crazy in-universe lingo and jargon.

Perhaps it mirrored A New Hope a little too much, but I like to think that's because it was forming a bridge between the originals and this new series.  Needless to say, I'm looking forward to the future films, and I hope they rise to the high watermark left by this film.

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