Fueled by fan interest and the resurgence of sequels/prequels/remakes/reboots, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (***, 138 mins., 2015, PG-13; Lucasfilm/Disney) smashed records in theaters around the world, making Disney’s $4 billion purchase of George Lucas’ company and all of its properties look like a bargain – especially when you factor in the millions its sequels and spin-offs (apparently coming at us on an annual basis now) are sure to generate.
As a film, “Episode VII: The Force Awakens” is a corporate product, no way around it – it’s content to recycle George Lucas’ own vision, and comes from a place borne not out of cinematic inspiration but rather the beginning of its new owner making good on its purchase of Lucasfilm. The good news – at least for Episode VII – is that Disney placed the film in the capable hands of producer Kathleen Kennedy, the new head of Lucasfilm (which will presumably be kept around as a brand name), who recruited writer Lawrence Kasdan to work with director J.J. Abrams in fashioning this first part of a new trilogy of “Star Wars” films.
The result is, at its best, an exhilarating adventure – a space fantasy that hits nearly all the right notes as it introduces audiences to a mostly-new set of characters on a journey that takes them on a virtual “Greatest Hits” parade of the first “Star Wars” (and, to a lesser extent, “The Empire Strikes Back”). Subsequently, while the overall bar has been lowered in terms of imagination, it’s no surprise audiences found this basic remake more accessible than Lucas’ often (unfairly) maligned, brooding prequels.
Abrams, Kasdan and Michael Arndt’s screenplay – of which I will provide just a basic outline – finds a young woman, Rey (Daisy Ridley), on a desert planet named Jakku scavenging out of the remnants of the Imperial Feet. Rey is waiting for her family to come back to retrieve her when she meets BB-8, a droid belonging to the Resistance, a Rebel-like alliance that’s out to stop the First Order – a veritable resurrection of the Empire, presided over by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a young villain with a Darth Vader complex and Force powers that he’s only beginning to control.
Rey’s adventure entails returning BB-8 to its rightful owners – who need the small robot’s information on the whereabouts of legendary Jedi master Luke Skywalker, who’s gone missing – with the help of a Stormtrooper (John Boyega) with a conscience who’s left the First Order and none other than Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca, who join their quest to restore balance to the galaxy.
If the plot for “The Force Awakens” sounds familiar, that’s because it is. More than familiar, in fact: much of the movie not only hits the same beats as Lucas’ original 1977 “Star Wars,” its plot structure is at times too “repackaged” for its own good – substituting characters here and there but placing them in the same, general vicinity of its predecessor’s narrative structure (so much that you wonder why Lucas didn’t receive a screenplay credit, never mind a “Based on Characters Created By” tag).
That said – and despite the feeling one might have afterwards about how “regurgitated” subsequent films will be – “The Force Awakens” is, on its own terms, a solid entertainment and a return to the upbeat escapism of the three films it immediately follows. It’s exciting, funny, visually spectacular and leaves the viewer wanting more.
Much of the reason for the picture’s success is because of its cast: Ridley is a compelling, welcome presence as Rey, even if the role seems a bit “overpowered” with the heroine having the solution to seemingly every predicament she finds herself in (contrast it to Luke’s journey in the original trilogy, where the young Skywalker certainly didn’t have all the answers). Boyega infuses sufficient energy into his underdog role and Oscar Isaac is a charismatic standout in his scenes as ace rebel fighter Poe Dameron. One wishes the screenplay offered enough room for the movie to breathe and give this triangle more time together (as Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher had), but it’s a good start at least, and all three of their enthusiastic performances strike the right note for the material. Certainly they can hold their own with the original cast members who do appear – some in a much larger capacity than others. Again, without revealing all of the film’s plot elements (which were clearly held back as a surprise), Ford is a delight as Han, though it’s interesting to see how tightly all of Carrie Fisher’s scenes are edited. Even conversations her now-General Leia has with other characters seem to have been massaged, significantly, in the editing room.
Adam Driver’s casting is an interesting experiment, though the fact he doesn’t physically resemble either of the cast members his Kylo Renn is related to is a bit of a shortcoming. Still, Renn’s evolving-persona is more interesting than one of the movie’s bigger letdowns: Snoke, an all-CGI bad guy articulated by Andy Serkis that looks like something out of the prequels (or “Lord of the Rings”) and isn’t particularly interesting from a visceral or story angle.
Technically, the film just clicks. Abrams is on his best behavior here, not just paying homage to Lucas but recreating the entire “lived in” universe that was first established in 1977. Far more than any of the prequels, “The Force Awakens” looks like the original trilogy of “Star Wars” films, utilizing real locations (Scotland, Iceland, Ireland, the UAE) as a basis for the film’s worlds and stressing physical production design over CGI whenever possible. Deserts filled with the remnants of the evil Empire, cantinas with a new assortment of oddball creatures (one of which is effectively performed, albeit in CGI form, by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o), lightsaber battles in a snowy forest – Abrams has absolutely tapped into what made viewers fall in love with “Star Wars” to begin with. Along with Abrams, cinematographer Dan Mindel and production designers Rick Carter and Darren Gilford should be commended for their artistry, which results in a sumptuous looking picture.
There does come a point in “The Force Awakens” when the film’s constantly-moving motion – along with some clunky storytelling – weighs the film down just a bit. This frenetic pacing ends up being a thorn in the side of John Williams’ score, which doesn’t measure up to his prior works in the saga. While it’s always welcome to hear Williams’ original, legendary themes again, there is a dearth of distinctive thematic material here, and the fact that Abrams gives Williams – and the viewer – so little chance to catch their breath does wear one down. The movie’s cross-cutting climax, meanwhile, lacks the editorial spark that Lucas was always adept at, with an X-wing assault having none of the punch of the Death Star attack of Episode IV.
Yet the disappointments are minimal compared to the overriding pleasures the movie provides. In a neverending stream of recycled material Hollywood is content to provide to the masses nowadays, “The Force Awakens” is unmistakably another example – something a second viewing minus a large audience makes even clearer – but at least it’s working from a classic property and understands what made it click. So long as Disney has quality writers and directors involved with the countless franchise installments they have lined up – and they move away from merely rehashing the past – The Force will hopefully be with them for some time to come.
Making its Blu-Ray debut next week, the 1080p (2.39) AVC encoded transfer and 7.1 DTS MA soundtrack are both reference-quality, as you’d anticipate. The wide variety of colors is a welcome sight to see today, and details are all impressive, as is the elaborately engineered sound design (a digital HD copy is also included).
Extra features are somewhat lightweight – making you wonder what’s going to be in the forthcoming 3D Blu-Ray release (or another Special Edition down the line). The 70-minute Making Of from Laurent Bouzereau is extremely fluffy in nature, offering a general look at the production with lots of back-patting and self-congratulation on the part of all involved. Bouzereau’s docs, especially of the retrospective kind, typically have more bite to them than this, but I would suspect fans will gobble up the promo-flavored interviews and “historical” scenes of the cast reading the script for the first time regardless.
A series of shorter featurettes touch upon the music (six minutes devoted to Williams’ score), ILM effects, and creature work, but none are all that substantial. Neither are four total minutes of disposable deleted scenes, including a snowspeeder chase in mock-up FX form, though a brief excised scene from the film’s end does resolve the fate of one character left dangling in the air.
Though sure to be the year’s bestselling Blu-Ray, the lack of trailers and commentaries may force some Jedis to hold off for a deluxe package that’s not a long, long time away.
BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (**½): After reading over some of the bad reviews from the same critics who thought last year’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was actually a good movie, Warner Bros.’ big super-hero gambit doesn’t seem nearly as horrendous as the brickbats hurled at it would indicate.
Yes, this overstuffed epic is dour and depressing for its first half, which plays out like the sequel “Man of Steel 2″ would have been if its studio decided not to add Batman to the party and use the film as a springboard for a franchise of “Justice League” films – something Zack Snyder’s movie rather clumsily functions as, with certain heroes from the DC universe being introduced on-screen for the first time…via a series of emails being opened (so much for drama!).
Most of the movie does play like a follow-up to 2013’s “Man of Steel,” with Superman (Henry Cavill, looking less comfortable here, having lost first billing to Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne) being questioned for the human fallout that accompanied his Metropolis battle with General Zod (Michael Shannon, returning here as a corpse). While the world ponders whether we need Superman and Snyder ramps up the Christ imagery – elements curiously reprised from Bryan Singer’s ill-fated “Superman Returns” – the Mark Zuckerberg-like “Alexander” Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) hasn‘t only found Kryptonite but also a way to resurrect a Kryptonian monster that will bring death and destruction down on Kal-El. He’s also figured out who all the “meta-humans” are in the world, though how Luthor has been able to accomplish any of this must have been left on the cutting room floor.
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne remains as irritated by Superman’s unchecked brand of justice as Supes is with Batman’s vigilante tactics, leading to a confrontation that’s violent and well-handled by director Snyder, though the journey in getting there is an uneven ride. Snyder and writer David S. Goyer are far less effective injecting “realism” into the movie’s plot than they are juggling the pure comic-book material, creating a strange mix of 9/11 like imagery at the movie’s outset before switching over to outlandish action in its second half. As a result, the film improves as it eventually gets going, and ends with a rousing confrontation between Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman (the good looking but rather bland Gal Godot) and Doomsday, Luthor’s Kryptonian beast, whose appearance drew some scattered applause from the geeks sitting behind us.
As with any Zack Snyder movie, you have to take the good with the bad, and there are equal elements of both in “Batman V Superman.” A couple of Batman dream-sequences drew laughs amongst audience members at my screening, and it’s strange to see Superman relegated to playing second fiddle to Batman in a veritable sequel to his own film. Tellingly, after all is said and done, there didn’t seem to be much reason for Batman to be in this movie in the first place, as it’s hard to remember any memorable moment in the film Bruce Wayne carries (that scene when he reads his email? That other scene where Bruce looks at Wonder Woman photos?).
Still, although he mostly mopes around searching for clues about Luthor’s plan and the identity of Diana Prince (Godot), Affleck is fine as Bruce Wayne and Jeremy Irons gets the movie’s biggest laugh (and one of its only moments of levity) when Alfred the Butler is asked to explain what’s going on following Doomsday’s introduction – his reaction cleverly bridges the gap between the quasi-realism of the Nolan Batman films and the increasingly fantastic direction Snyder’s vision is headed, and the picture could have used more of those moments.
The Superman cast, meanwhile, is also solid when called upon, especially Amy Adams’ plucky Lois Lane and Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White – so much that you’re left wondering, stripped of the Bat- element and thin Justice League material, if “Man of Steel 2″ wouldn’t have been an improvement on its predecessor.
In the end, the results are essentially the same, though the bombastic film score credited to Hans Zimmer (who reportedly wrote mostly Superman’s material) and Junkie XL is a cacophony of noise that’s often dreadful, especially in its “themes” (more like pounding piano tinkering) for Lex Luthor and the unintentionally hilarious, drumline accompaniment for Wonder Woman. We’ve heard plenty of Media Ventures scores that have added nothing to the films they’ve been written for, but this soundtrack is a mind-numbing disaster in every facet, with its only effective dramatic beats coming through reprises of Zimmer’s “Man of Steel” theme. (Snyder might want to release a re-scored — never mind an R-rated — longer cut of the film on video. Even one tracked with Hoyt Curtin’s “Superfriends” music would be preferable!).
If you can get past the musical and narrative noise, there is entertainment to be had in “Batman V Superman,” with its best moments surpassing anything on-display in last year’s mediocre “Avengers” sequel. For comic book die-hards, “Dawn of Justice” may not be the dream DC film they’ve been waiting for, but it’s also not the disaster some are claiming. Call it a draw of super-heroic proportions. (153 mins., PG-13)