Sci-Film Film Review 2015: "The Force Awakens" (Written-Directed by Abrams, Kasdan, W/Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, et. al)
"There's been an awakening. Have you felt it?", that line delivered by this episode's CGI big bad Supreme Leader Snoke, voiced demonically by motion-capture stalwart Andy Serkis. It is a phrase that permeates the whole, spirited length of writer-director-producer JJ Abrams's startlingly cinematic and poetic reboot of the franchise. When we last left it, it was D.O.A. in the hands of original creator George Lucas whose subsequent stab at the series between 1999 and 2005 elicited vengeful condemnation, a flurry of death threats, and an attempt to exorcise the damage done by creating an EU (Expanded Universe). Lucas, unbelievably, completely forgot what made the magical inner workings of his movies tick. From the egregious, gob-smackingly boring Senate meeting scenes to the horrifically scripted romance between Queen turned Senator Amidala and youthful Vader-to-be Anakin Skywalker, a whole new batch of ingredients were forcefully made to work but definitely never gelled. It was time for an abrupt about-face and with Disney's huge haul of an acquisition - $4 billion to be exact - new LucasFilm CEO Kathleen Kennedy pined for a way to recapture the missing magic and usher Star Wars in to the new generation. And so, the search for a creative team was on - much like the primary plot of this film has to do with locating the legendary cerulean blue lightsaber wielded by both Anakin and his son Luke and returning it to its rightful owner - JJ Abrams enthusiastically took the job and with him the hopes and dreams of multiple generations who waited, for years, with bated breath. It was up to him to incinerate the haunting visions of the prequel trilogy. Did he succeed? The answer is resoundingly yes, but not without its flaws.
Abrams, merely 11 at the time of 1977's "A New Hope", is no stranger to groundbreaking sci-fi stories and rehabbing obliterated franchises. His 2009 "Star Trek" reboot, featuring alternate/parallel universe versions of our favorite intergalactic New Frontier adventurers set one of the precedents to forging a smart, accessible blockbuster that blisters with maddening energy while winking and nodding just enough at what came before in order to carve out its own identity. Trekkies may not be as truly fanatical as Star Wars fans, but he knew there was a gigantic base of them he needed to satiate while putting his own stamp on it to win over later generation converts. From A+ casting - his film spurned the careers of several of that film's actors - Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana most notably - while bringing back longtime career geek performers Simon Pegg and "Lord of the Rings" franchise actor Karl Urban (the mystic elf Eomir) while fashioning an action-adventure romp in the vein of Indiana Jones and Steven Spielberg's greatest sci-fi achievements. With Episode VII, he sought out to do the same by upending the notion that blockbusters lack heart and soul (*cough Michael Bay, Zack Snyder* cough cough) and imbued his film with a gut-punch of deep characterizations, dynamic interplay between this sequel trilogy's fresh-faced leads, and populating each and every scene with inventiveness. It's the little things that matter to Abrams and his collaborators and critics and fans alike indubitably took notice.
In the realm of TV, where Abrams first got his start, his series' "Alias", "Lost" , "Fringe" and, most recently, the canceled-to-soon Asimov-inspired "Almost Human" (starring Urban, no less), he displayed skills as an expert world builder whose fantastically but strangely grounded pseudo-scientific principles acted as brilliant linchpins for genuinely inspired plot arcs, emotionally hard-hitting and well drawn characters, and not always so optimistic possible futures whose outcomes felt tangible and possible.
So, just what is it that really makes this film sing? Well, for one, Abrams made sure his Christmas present to the world was geared around pleasing cinephiles, a segment of the population to which he counts as one. Switching between shooting on 35mm Panavision T-Series lenses (customized for this particular production) and 15 perf IMAX that featured 50mm and 80mm configurations, respectively. The sequences featuring the bravado of the Resistance swooping down to save the day in their X-wings were all shot using Retro C-series lenses that rendered them warmer and softer. By contrast, the stormtrooper scenes - marches, blaster shootouts, and the several Nuremberg-style battalion congregations featuring thousands of them were captured on Panavision Primo glass to render a harder, cooler and more intense look. The latter set of lenses were last used by "Dark Knight" trilogy cinematographer Wally Pfister who went on to helm his directorial debut "Transcendence" starring Johnny Depp using a similar set up. Making sure to populate his scenes with a lot of busy activity like a kid in a candy store, wizardry like the earlier scenes featuring Rey as she prepares food to eat on the Tattooine-like planet of Jakku as her bread automatically rises, for instance, further cemented that this would be a film for the ages.
The most significant issue that has come to mind upon intense rumination about the film isn't exactly a deal breaker, but leaves much to be desired. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy made absolutely sure that returning members of the creative team from both the production and action side made a reprise. "The Force Awakens", with its blissful visuals and snap, crackle and pop pace proved no match for an uninventive story. Judging from all the pre-release teasers and hush hush plot points that were made to be kept close to the vest, I was discouraged to find out that this film charted nearly the same territory as the first trilogy with a few exceptions. There's the subtle Oedipal relationships, requisite father-son family drama, a Death Star-like blow-up sequence and even a noteworthy death that was designed as a tear jerker all the way. Hell, even some of the planets seem to be point blank callbacks. Surely bringing in newbie Michael Arnt (screenwriter behind "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Toy Story 3") and legendary franchise helmer and frequent Spielberg collaborator Lawrence Kasdan would've yielded a totally original story. There's still much to appreciate, though. I am sure Rian Johnson ("Looper", "Breaking Bad", "The Brothers Bloom"), the confirmed writer-director for Episode VIII will fill this gaping void left by Abrams's foundation-setting stab at the franchise. That said, the acting was Oscar-worthy and Abrams has a demonstrable skill with a Midas-touch instinct for performances with the actors he casts.
So, can you enjoy this film even if you have little to no familiarity with the series? That's the beauty of this behemoth. You can go in, not knowing really anything (aside from character biographies at the minimum) and takeaway every instance, plot point, hint of chemistry and stake at hand and be able to effortlessly digest it. Gone is the tired, political sermonizing of the prequels and the cringe-worthy, totally unearned romance. If renewing one's interest in the franchise was Abrams's plan, much like it was for his top-to-bottom, more action-oriented revitalization of Roddenberry's 'Star Trek', than this fills its purpose with the prayers of two generations having been answered. Here's hoping the next year and a half flies by as Disney will make sure that "Star Wars'" will be a civilization unto itself and will outlive us all.