The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Star Wars: The Force Awakens

No movie in history has ever made the same cultural impact that Star Wars has. Much more than a phenomenon, it could practically be considered a lifestyle. The logo and characters have been merchandised onto everything from toys to clothes to toasters. There's even an R2-D2 garbage can whose dome flips up when you step on the pedal. (Yes, I own one.) It has spawned books, comics, and videogames. George Lucas's creation is about more than physical products, though. People have a deep, abiding love for the world he envisioned, as well as for the people and creatures that inhabit it. There is genuine magic in Star Wars. For this reason, anticipation for Star Wars: The Force Awakens - the seventh chapter in the saga – has reached unprecedented proportions. Happily, the movie delivers in every conceivable way, on every imaginable level.

It begins with a little droid named BB-8, whose master, ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), hides a very important piece of information inside of him. BB-8 is discovered by a young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley). She understands that what's in the droid could help bring down the First Order, an evil organization formed from the ashes of the Galactic Empire. So does Finn (Attack the Block's John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who decides to abandon his post when he sees what the First Order and its masked leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are up to. Together, they work to get the information into the right hands. Fate delivers some good luck when they encounter Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who are more than happy to assist in the mission once they find out the implications of it.

The original Star Wars trilogy was, of course, followed up by three fairly divisive prequels. Love them or hate them, it's hard not to recognize that The Force Awakens understands something they didn't. Director J.J. Abrams has made the decision to abandon the overly digital look of the prequels in favor of recreating the visual style of the original trilogy. There's certainly some CGI here, but many things are achieved practically, especially in the early scenes. Actual physical locations are used rather than green screens. The droid is really there with the human actors. A lot of the creatures are made with prosthetics and masks rather than with bits and bytes. It makes all the difference in the world. The Force Awakens, unlike the prequels, has the feel of the original three Star Wars chapters.

That extends to other areas, as well. Much as Jurassic World did this past summer, The Force Awakens stays true to elements and plotting inherent in its source material, while putting just enough of a spin on those things to stay fresh. Finn and Rey are charismatic and engaging new characters who don't need excess flashiness to interest the viewer. Meeting them is like meeting Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia for the first time. (Boyega and Ridley are, not incidentally, fantastic in their roles.) BB-8 doesn't look like R2-D2, but he has the same sort of vibrant mechanical personality. Kylo Ren dresses in black, wears a head-covering mask, and speaks through an ominous voicebox, much as Darth Vader did, yet there's a completely different reason why. Thematically, the story – which was co-written by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt – approaches many of the series' most important ideas from a different angle. Good versus evil, lessons the young can learn from the old, and conflict within families are all part of the plot, and all are just as richly explored as they were previously.

The action scenes, meanwhile, have the same sort of speed and motion that were so revelatory when Star Wars debuted back in 1977. (Abrams is definitely of the “if it ain't broke, don't fix it” mindset.) When TIE fighters and X-wings battle in the sky, it's exhilarating. Light saber duels, particularly one in the big climax, feel as though they have consequences. While the story is 100% new, the adventure of The Force Awakens is reminiscent of the original trilogy the world fell in love with decades ago.

So many other pleasures can be found here. Harrison Ford hasn't seemed so alive on screen in a long time. Adam Driver makes Kylo Ren a truly complex and menacing villain. People and objects from previous installments are reintroduced in organic ways, rather than just as Pavlovian response generators. The humor in the movie is effective, as is the human drama. All of these things, and more, make this chapter one of the most vital in the series.

This film arrives with astronomically high expectations in many quarters. For that reason, it's astonishing how well it delivers. J.J. Abrams clearly understands, on a profound level, what makes Star Wars so fundamentally appealing to so many people. He could have coasted and just made a movie that pandered to the fans. Instead, he made one that challenges us, while simultaneously offering a look and feel that have the comfort of the intergalactic home we've embraced for so long.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a PhD. level course in Getting It Exactly Right. All sequels should be this good.

( out of four)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.

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