Friday, January 8, 2016

Review: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

I have a pretty heavy history with Star Wars.  I wasn't old enough to see the original trilogy in theaters, but I distinctively remember my family having a copy of Return of the Jedi on a VHS tape that I don't know if it was a copy of another VHS tape or what, but I remember watching that over and over again growing up.  When I finally watched the other two, I consumed them just as quickly and fell deep in love with the universe that George Lucas created.

I played the West End Games version of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game so much I had multiple sourcebooks memorized.  I have a collection of action figures never taken out of their packaging in a box somewhere.  I own the R2-D2 phone.  It sits on a shelf at my office.  Without batteries, of course, or it would be going off all the time from people just wanting to see it "one more time."

But I was one of the many burned by the prequels to the point where I didn't see Revenge of the Sith until the early 2010s.   It wasn't my Star Wars any more, it was meant for a new generation who loved it just as much as I loved the originals.  I was okay with that.  I was ready to pass on the torch and move on.

Then they announced Episode VII, and I was torn.  I was hurt before, but could the series bring me back?  Would it be like when I was young and wanted to be Luke Skywalker?

Yes, I know all the "cool" kids wanted to be Han, but I wanted to be Luke.  He got a lightsaber, you guys.  And a robot hand!  Robot hands are awesome!

I managed to distance myself from most of the build-up and hype.  I watched the first teaser, but that was it.  No other trailers, no news reports, no pictures from the filming, I wanted everything to be a surprise.  I didn't want much knowledge about characters, actors, or sets.

I was exposed to the cuteness of BB-8 through a commercial for a remote control toy (I want one), but that was about it.

So, I recently sat down in a theater, got settled in, and prepared to see if I would once again be a fan or if I was going to be disappointed again.

I'll freely admit, my chest tightened when this came up on the screen:

For a brief moment, I was a child sitting in my parents' house watching the originals on a VHS tape on a tiny TV screen.  I was also that teenager waiting anxiously to see if Episode 1 would keep the thrills alive.

Then the music kicked in, and I found myself saying under my breath, "keep it together, Erik.  Keep it together.  Be objective.  Be a reviewer."

That all went out the window pretty quickly.

Folks, I liked it.  It wasn't ground-breakingly amazing like Dark City or the first Star Wars movie, and it wasn't awful.  It was good.  It was pretty darn good, in fact.

It's hard to discuss the movie without spoiling anything, so I'm going to try to keep to grand, sweeping descriptions without saying anything about the story itself.

J. J. Abrams clearly loves Star Wars, considering how often he pulls from the series to make his own movies (his reboot of Star Trek was more Star Wars than anything remotely close to the original series or movies), and he lets his love of the original movies show here, even as he works to both recreate scenes that homage the original while still finding ways to flip them or make them feel fresh.  To his credit, he really does manage to replicate many of the scenes from the original films (and even some of the "not so bad" scenes from the prequels), whether it's a menagerie of aliens in a crowd evoking the Mos Eisley cantina or Jabba's palace, a desolate planet oddly reminiscent of Tattoine, or just small flavors like characters uttering classic lines again ("I've got a bad feeling about this...").

Now, there are some I know who complain that the movie is one massive love letter to the first few movies, doing few original things and playing it "safe."  They complain that one of the leads is "too perfect," though I wonder if they were watching the same movie I was considering the personal and emotional hang-ups I saw the character carrying around in plain view of everybody.

To be fair, George Lucas did the same thing with the prequels.  There are so many instances of the universe appearing to be caught in a recursive loop through the series that you'd be convinced to think that history was a record, skipping its way along as it tried to get the rhythm right or waiting for the right person to come along and bump it so it can get back to laying out the future.  Even the villain shows a lot of signs of being similar to Anakin Skywalker during his more "tumultuous" years in episodes 2 and 3.

Does the movie have problems?  Sure.  I'm enough of an adult now that when I saw the primary weapon of the Empire being used, I was wishing Neil Degrasse Tyson was sitting nearby so I could ask him how it could possibly work.  Some of the acting was a little off at times, and there were a few big plot twists that I saw coming the moment characters said certain phrases.

Am I going to immediately go see it again in the theater?  Probably not.  It's been over a week since I saw it, allowing myself time to take in everything I saw and absorb it, consider it, and make conclusions based on it.  Will I buy it when it's on DVD?  Certainly.  And almost immediately watch it.

If I had to summarize my viewing experience in a few sentences, I'd say that I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, as it managed to evoke a familiarity that the prequels was missing.  Many of the characters were new, but there was enough "old" mixed in to make it really feel like I was watching a continuation of the story I enjoyed so much in my youth.  There were times I was thoroughly entranced by what I was seeing, forgetting all about being "objective" for a while as I once again became that child sitting with my face inches from the screen watching lightsabers twirl around in elaborate sword maneuvers and star fighters filling the screen as they dogfighted (dogfought?) each other.

So yeah, go see it.  It's fun.

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