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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

Star Wars: Episode VII
The Force Awakens
3½ Stars
Directed by J.J. Abrams.
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Domhnall Gleeson, Peter Mayhew, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Max Von Sydow, Gwendoline Christie, Maisie Richardson-Sellers, Greg Grunberg, Billie Lourd, Tim Rose, Ken Leung, Christina Chong, Jessica Henwick, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Mark Hamill.
2015 – 136 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, December 16, 2015.
When it comes to a project as feverishly adored and, for many, particularly meaningful as "Star Wars," high expectations in regard to any sort of continuation can be a curse. This is the fate which befell 1999's wooden, frequently pandering "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace"—the first and least of George Lucas' controversial prequels—and one which could have easily encompassed the franchise's rapturously anticipated latest trilogy opener. This time, however, audiences need not worry. In the reverent hands of writer-director J.J. Abrams (2013's "Star Trek Into Darkness") and co-scribes Lawrence Kasdan (2012's "Darling Companion") and Michael Arndt (2013's "Oblivion"), "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" is everything fans could want in a 32-years-in-the-making sequel to 1983's "Return of the Jedi"—and maybe, for that matter, a little more. Abrams' love, respect and unmistakable nostalgia for the series shines through at every turn of his enticingly crafted narrative, but the filmmaker never loses sight of his own artistic eye and sensibilities.

When Jedi knight Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) vanishes, twin sister General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) enlists ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) for a secret mission to find him. A map to Skywalker's whereabouts Poe hides inside his droid BB-8 becomes the most coveted possession for not only Leia's Resistance, but also the nefarious First Order, a second rising of the Galactic Empire lorded over by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and masked apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Caught in a new fight to save the Republic from takeover are Stormtrooper-with-a-conscience Finn (John Boyega); savvy Jakku scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), whom BB-8 latches onto when she finds him in the desert; and smugglers-turned-heroes Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), the former holding a personal stake in locating not only Luke, but also Kylo Ren.

"Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" fires on all cylinders just about all of the time. The pressure must have been intense bordering on terrifying for J.J. Abrams when he was hired for the daunting task of kick-starting a brand-new trilogy within the "Star Wars" cinematic canon, but one would never know it based on the level of dazzling confidence and control dripping from the screen. The battle between good and evil, light and dark remains largely the same, but Abrams' handling of these themes is riveting and vital. He makes certain to not merely repeat what has already been done, but to see the story through to its natural next phase. This achievement extends to the film's tonal grace, a balance of levity and humor with pathos and existentialism.

Whereas George Lucas' screenplays were the central failing of his prequels—the romantic interludes between Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala in 2002's "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones" would make a writer of daytime soaps cringe—there are no such issues with "The Force Awakens." Dialogue frequently buzzes with the stamina and flair of David Mamet and Alexander Payne's work, while the camaraderie of its spirited ensemble shines throughout. Thirty-plus years may have passed since "Return of the Jedi," but the returning actors—most notably Harrison Ford (2013's "Ender's Game") and Carrie Fisher (2009's "Sorority Row") and Han and Leia—seamlessly pick up where they left off, the intervening decades giving them and their relationship the added benefits of history and wisdom.

Meanwhile, the newcomers to the epic sci-fi space saga are so dynamically imagined and share such immediate chemistry it is as if they have been around since the beginning. Daisy Ridley is a tremendous find as Rey, fierce and ingratiating, while John Boyega (2011's "Attack the Block") is instantly sympathetic and engaging as fellow lead protagonist Finn. Doing an about-face from their adversarial work in 2015's "Ex Machina," Oscar Isaac emanates warmth and proficiency as talented pilot Poe and Domhnall Gleeson is chilling as General Hux, shades of Hitler invading his intense, vein-popping portrayal. As the out-of-control Kylo Ren, Adam Driver (2014's "This Is Where I Leave You") digs deeply to find the agony of his internal conflict, the light within him dimmed but not yet entirely snuffed out by the Dark Side's seduction. Invaluable contributions from Peter Mayhew as Han Solo's furry sidekick Chewie, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker as sparring robot pals C-3P0 and R2-D2, and the unforced adorableness of droid BB-8 round out the central players.

If the original "Star Wars" trilogy of 1977-'83 had imagination to spare but could not always flawlessly pull off its every fantastical setting and special effect, and the extravagant prequels of 1999-'05 were so reliant on era-specific CGI and greenscreen they often felt labored and artificial, 2015's "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" has been made at precisely the right time where advancements in technology have finally caught up to the series' full conceptual ambitions. Using visual effects as a coherent aid rather than a gaudy crutch, director J.J. Abrams has made a movie as joyous and warm as it is startling and edgy. John Williams' (2011's "War Horse") music displays the same mesmeric scope as cinematographer Dan Mindel's (2014's "The Amazing Spider-Man 2") rapturous images, taking viewers from the arid sand dunes of Jakku to the forbidden snowy forests of Starkiller Base to the boundless reaches of outer space itself.

An aesthetic gift though the picture is, it is the humanity of the characters—not just the heroes, but also the troubled, fearful villains, the good-hearted androids and a trusty Wookiee named Chewbacca—which gives this series its lasting appeal and unsuspecting poignancy. In a world where the notion of happily-ever-after is neither guaranteed nor fixed, these people are struggling to find their way—to discover their destinies, to cling to the ones they love, in another tragic instance to pull away from the ones who so dearly love them. "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" is a special kind of blockbuster, wondrous and thrilling and not in the least hampered by cynicism. Don't be surprised, adults, if watching it makes you feel like a kid again.
© 2015 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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