Star Wars fans will be relieved that The Force Awakens is better than 1999’s The Phantom Menace, 2002’s Attack of the Clones and 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, but falls somewhere in-between those stories and 1983’s Return of the Jedi, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and, of course, 1977’s Star Wars.
2015 seems a lot longer than the decade from Sith vengeance to this reawakening, especially when 16 years came between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace.
Opening with extreme violence, The Force Awakens teases with dashes of the 1977 original epic spliced into the script along with new characters making their debut in the Star Wars universe. A new face like Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron makes the grade as does Billie Lourd – daughter of Carrie Fisher (herself the daughter of pop singer Eddie Fisher and his first wife, Debbie Reynolds) and Fisher’s ex-boyfriend, talent agent Bryan Lourd (who left Princess Leia Fisher for another man! Such scandal!!! that would spice up this Force Awakens, but I digress…) and perhaps the very best new edition, Lupita Nyong’o as Maz Kanata – a fun character that we hope returns in the next films. Oh, and lest we forget the BB-8 droid, also lots of fun.
So how does Abrams bring it all full circle thirty eight years after Star Wars first hit our collective consciousness?
How about Jesus from 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told who morphed into 007’s major enemy Blofeld from Sean Connery’s own Never Say Never Again(1983) ( as well as Dr. Paul Novotny in 1984’s underrated Dreamscape,) the brilliant Max Von Sydow bringing that Alec Guinness-styled wisdom and class to the film’s opening. A great move that J.J.Abrams failed to sustain throughout this chapter. What the director gives the people is what they want, the familiar exciting lightsabers and death rays.
Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, R2-D2, cp30 Chewbacca and Mark Hamill all make the most of their appearances. That they aren’t given a higher profile (except for Ford,) is to the film’s detriment.
Abrams decides to dig into the series he said he never got into, Star Trek, the safety net to merge audiences and get into science fiction lore (as if the Star Wars series actually needed such a stunt). See the May 22, 2015 TMRZoo Barry Silverman article: “also admitted to …not getting…” the original series growing up, as it was “too philosophical for me”.
Take some imagery from 1989’s Star Trek misfire The Final Frontier, lots and lots from 1984’s great The Search For Spock, the crash landing from 1994’s Star Trek: Generations and so much more from Search For Spock – from the beautiful red hues of planet Vulcan to Mark Hamill’s wardrobe that makes this – truly – more The Search for Luke than “the force awakens.” If you had any thought that J.J. Reboot, immersed in Gene Rodenberry and George Lucas, was going to go brand spanking new on us, those ideas will be cast aside as the film progresses from action scene to action scene, keeping the action ahead of the story so that it doesn’t get trapped into any “Clone of the Phantom Sith.”
With the immense hype and propaganda leading up to this event, even this long-time critic – my first reviews printed in 1969 – has jumped onto this new Star Wars bandwagon (it would be foolish not to,) the build up so intense that, well, it makes for a mighty bar for any film to reach. If you’re looking for the Star Wars Holy Grail, well… though there are many excellent moments and tremendous sets, it’s simply not here. What is here is a reuniting of old friends and beloved characters, coming back to your life in a precise exercise in making an entertaining two hour and fifteen minute return to the Star Wars realm. Certainly more satisfying that 1997’s Star Wars: Ewoks-The Haunted Village.
THE DARK FORCE AWAKENS
Andy Serkis gets to play so many cool characters – from Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as well as long-time Marvel Comics villain Klaw in Avengers: Age of Ultron and also the voice of Gollum in 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Here he plays a terrific evilmaniac with the worst name since Jar Jar Binks – Supreme Leader Snoke. Now had Jar Jar been voiced by Zsa Zsa Gabor …creating Jah Jah Binks – all would be right with the world, but I digress again. Here Snokes/Serkis has the luxury of some of the best science fiction sets in Sci-fi history. Abrams does embrace the wonderment of having a large, vast expanse (one of the highlights of the Tom Cruise flick Oblivion) and the breathtaking immensity of these wombs of the dark side are a huge plus for this film, bringing it more towards the first three, where it belongs, than the travesty that followed with that trio of Star Wars prequels from 1999-2005. Serkis doesn’t disappoint as the menacing new heir to the throne of dark Emperor Palpatine.
Given the importance to hundreds of millions – if not more than a billion people on this planet – of Star Wars fans, this long overdue “Chapter 7” – as stated – plays it safe, it is both a reboot of past achievements and a prologue to the new adventures. Hollywood being Hollywood, and the dollar being more important than new creative moments and intriguing advanced innovation, the pace of the awakening of The Force thrusts 1999’s The Phantom Menace back into the dark ages, as if it never existed. Thankfully.
Dangling so many goodies in front of the massive audience, this reboot is merely a prologue to what is yet to come. Disney must be on notice. With 42 year old Rian Johnson taking the director’s chair from the reboot master, JJ Abrams, 2017’s Episode VIII has the opportunity to be the place where the force truly awakens. This Chapter VII is merely the placeholder putting everything back into its “new order.”
This review will be broadcast on BostonFreeRadio.com at 1 PM on Wednesday, December 16, 2015 on the Joe Vig Pop Explosion.
Joe Viglione is the Chief Film Critic at TMRZoo.com. He has written thousands of reviews and biographies for AllMovie.com, Allmusic.com, Gatehouse Media, Al Aronowitz’s The Blacklisted Journal, and a variety of other media outlets. Joe also produces and hosts Visual Radio, a seventeen year old variety show on cable TV which has interviewed Jodie Foster, director/screenwriter David Koepp, Michael Moore, John Cena, comics/actors Margaret Cho, Gilbert Gottfried, Gallagher, musicians Mark Farner and Don Brewer of Grand Funk Railroad, Ian Hunter of Mott The Hoople, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals, political commentator Bill Press and hundreds of other personalities.