Star Wars - The Force Awakens (2015)

Director: J.J. Abrams

Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow

Praise be to the most dedicated of “Star Wars” fans whose love for the franchise has never wavered in spite of its many recent wrong turns, nonetheleast of which was the pretty, yet creatively bankrupt prequel trilogy. Those who squealed with glee at the very first images of the trailer for “The Force Awakens” have seen their undying faith rewarded. The seventh entry into the long-running film series, and first chapter in an all-new trilogy, does more than restore “Star Wars” to its former glory. It may well have provided it with one of its greatest chapters yet.

Almost entirely ignoring the prequels, “The Force Awakens” picks things up in a post-“Return of the Jedi” universe essentially in real time (i.e. approximately thirty years later). Although the Empire was defeated back then, they were not completely eliminated. In their place is the First Order. Also not extinguished is the Dark Side of the Force. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) found this out the hard way when his Jedi-in-training were slaughtered by the one Dark Side-leaning pupil among them. Feeling responsible, our favorite Jedi has chosen exile. Even his closest friends and family are uncertain of his whereabouts, and it is the search for Luke which drives the plot of “The Force Awakens.”

Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Luke’s student gone bad, is among those who would like to learn the location of his former master, albeit only to destroy him. To this end, the leader of the Knights of Ren tracks the movements of a droid named BB-8 to the desert planet of Jakku (a dead ringer for Luke’s former home of Tatooine). BB-8 is carrying one half of a map to Luke’s supposed location There, the droid is aided by a Stormtrooper gone AWOL named Finn (John Boyega) and a spirited young girl named Rey (Daisy Ridley). The pair find the Millennium Falcon… a ship known to both of them through tales of the war between the Rebellion and the Empire from a generation ago… and flee the planet. It isn’t long before Rey and Finn run into the Falcon’s former pilots, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who join and assist the new generation of heroes on their journey.

In one of the film’s more heavily criticized moves, the villains once again have an ultimate weapon,  a planet-sized monstrosity that dwarfs either of the two Death Stars. Its main firing mechanism is powered by draining the energy from a nearby star, hence its name: “Starkiller.” Also, as with both Death Stars, the Starkiller conveniently has an overlooked weak spot for the good guys to exploit. This is only a problem if you get too nitpicky about the similarities between the original “Star Wars” and this movie. I didn’t mind so much because my attention was focused more on the new characters of “The Force Awakens,” in particular Rey and Kylo Ren.

Kylo Ren, being a follower of the Dark Side, is a Darth Vader worshiper. Alone in his quarters, he sometimes seeks counsel from Vader. As Vader did, Kylo Ren faces inner conflict. But, while Vader was a good man seduced by the Dark Side, Kylo Ren is an evil soul struggling with the temptations of Light. He is very much like his idol in one respect: Kylo Ren is in the hearts and minds of all the other characters even when he is not present. His betrayal of Luke had a ripple effect, ending the marriage of Han and Leia (Carrie Fisher) and sending the former back into a life of piracy.

Although we find Rey on a world similar to where we found Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, Rey appears to have been leading a life of greater hardship. Whereas Luke grew up with an aunt and an uncle, no such family structure appears evident for Rey. She’s got it so bad that she scrounges through the wreckage of old Empire starships just to have enough to exchange for food rations. You’d think she’d jump at the first chance to get off that rock but, in her naivety, Rey is waiting for whomever originally left her there. While we exit “The Force Awakens” having gleaned a bit of Kylo Ren’s history, there’s a lot about Rey’s story which… while strongly implied… has been left up in the air for Episodes VIII and IX to expand upon, and that’s how it should be. One thing we do know is that, as Vader once said of Luke: “The Force is strong with this one!”

When this movie was first announced, my lack of faith was disturbing. My attitude had been affected by the disappointment I’d felt (and still feel) as a result of the prequels, and a complete indifference towards all other “Star Wars”-related material released in the last ten years. But, the more I was seeing and hearing about this movie, the more it reached out to that part of me that still remembers the excitement of seeing the original three films for the first time. “The Force Awakens” is the “Star Wars” movie I wished I had gotten in my late teens. At the risk of being accused of a knee-jerk reaction, I’m calling it my second favorite “Star Wars” film behind only the flawless “Empire Strikes Back.”  If I can find anything to gripe about, it’s the lack of memorable new tracks in the John Williams score (something that “Empire” had in spades). So what if the plot is a little derivative? It captures the essence of “Star Wars” in ways which the prequels never could. It has awakened in me a new hope for the future of the franchise.

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