Tuesday, December 22, 2015

"Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens" Review

This past Sunday, I had a special outing with my entire immediate family, our significant others & kids, and my parents, to see "Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens". My sister-in-law ordered us a block of tickets to see the movie in reclining chairs. We all loved the movie & really enjoyed it.

In this review, I'll give my brief opinion without any spoilers, and with some spoilers afterwards.

• First, here's my spoiler-free review:

It was awesome & had the best of everything that someone can appreciate about the richly detailed fictional Star Wars universe. So, if you haven't seen it, stop reading this & go see it- NOW!!!

• Ok, now there may be **SPOILERS** from here on:

First of all, I was born around the release of the first Star Wars, now known as "Episode IV: A New Hope". That singular movie has expanded into a much larger story that has captured the cultural imagination for decades. The Star Wars saga has always entertained & deeply inspired me. I loved the original trilogy as a kid, & even as an adult I'm continually amazed by the creative forces that could form such epic artistic creations. Most importantly, the spiritual elements communicated in the movie are unlike anything that someone in the Western world otherwise encounters through pop culture.

"The Force Awakens" successfully carries on this tradition of entertaining storytelling, coupled with deep insight into the nature of the human soul and it's relation to the world. It is a movie with everything good about the Star Wars movies, and very little of the negative.

First of all, the cast is solid in this movie. To me, the most important thing for this movie has been the inclusion of the characters from the original trilogy. The fact that Leia, Han, Chewbacca, and the droids appear in the movie give a true sense of continuity to the overall story.

Although we don't get to see much of the legendary Jedi master Luke Skywalker in this episode, his appearance is powerful enough to satisfy me for now, until his larger role in the next movie. In the beginning of the movie, both the heroes & the villains in this film are searching for Luke, who has gone missing after a tragedy surrounding his attempts to establish a new Jedi order. They are all trying to connect pieces of star map that will lead to an ancient Jedi temple where Luke is believed to have exiled himself.

As great as it was to see the existing characters again, the new characters really shined in this movie. FN-2187, who is later called Finn, is a stormtrooper who does not fit into the mindless mode of death and terror that his training requires. The transformation of the faceless soldier into a friendly, personable hero was an interesting and effective transition. His authentic demeanor & sense of humor made him an extremely likable character, who thankfully survived to see future adventures. The rolling droid BB-8 is a fun & personable robotic character who is just as expressive as the older R2-D2, who is in power-down mode until there is a sign that the galaxy is ready to find his master.

Kylo Ren is the masked Dark Side villain, who is one of the leaders of the First Order. After the rise of the new Republic, this powerful organization has continued the pursuit for galactic military domination, begun by Palpatine's Empire. Kylo has a rank outside the normal military chain of command, similar to Darth Vader's unique position of authority in the Imperial Fleet. Kylo is portrayed as a deeply conflicted and emotionally unstable maniac, with an uncontrollable temper that leads to some frightening & disturbing confrontations. Early in the movie, it is revealed that Kylo Ren is actually Ben Solo, the Force-sensitive son of Han & Leia. This means his grandfather was Anakin Skywalker, aka Darth Vader. On his ship, Kylo tries to commune with the spirit of his ancestral Sith Lord through Vader's iconic helmet, which is now just a charred relic. Although he apparently trained under Luke Skywalker with a new Jedi order, Ben was turned to the Dark Side & into Kylo Ren by a enigmatic figure called Supreme Leader Snoke.

Snoke is the seemingly disfigured Dark Side master, who is pulling the strings behind the scenes. His appearance was one of the surprising visual aspects of the story. He is shown as a seated 25ft tall giant, a towering figure looming over Kylo Ren & General Hux, the military leader of the First Order forces. His voice echoes throughout the dark, cavernous chamber in which he communicates with his minions. However, it is revealed that this enormous image is just a holographic projection. The Emperor appeared holographically in the same larger-than-life way to Darth Vader in "The Empire Strikes Back". Therefore, it seems reasonable to think that the huge projection of Snoke is not his actual size. In fact, I'd guess he appears physically small and frail in person. However, that does not mean that he does not have tremendous power from The Dark Side. After all, "Size matters not," as a diminutive (yet powerful) character once said.

All of these characters were compelling and in their own right. The dynamics of their stories set up an arc with tremendous potential for an interesting narrative covering the next 2 movies.

The main protagonist of this new series, who is pivotal to the story and experiences drastic changes over the course of the film, is a girl named Rey. Abandoned at a young age on the desert planet of Jakku, Rey is a lonely and struggling scavenger. She visits the wrecks of Imperial & Rebel Alliance ships that were scattered throughout the sands after a battle that happened on Jakku decades ago. She is forced to survive by trading in mechanical parts she finds in the ruins for small rations of food. Rey literally comes from nothing, but by the end of the movie she has the potential to be one of the greatest Force users in the Star Wars galaxy.

Throughout the events of the movie, Rey unlocks latent powers that allow her to survive impossible circumstances and directly challenge the dark power of Kylo Ren. During the course of her adventures with Finn, BB-8, Han Solo, & Chewy, she comes into contact with the lightsaber of Anakin Skywalker from his time as a Jedi. After he turned into Darth Vader and was defeated by his master Obi-Wan Kenobi, this weapon was held by Obi-wan. He watched over Anakin's son, Luke until he was old enough to receive his father's weapon. Luke used this lightsaber until it was lost at Cloud City, when his hand was sliced off by Darth Vader before revealing their true connection.

Somehow this lightsaber ended up in the hands of Maz Kanata, a millennium-old alien who lives in a palace that's a bar & a hangout for space pirates. Maz is visited by the group of heroes traveling aboard the Millennium Falcon. Rey is eventually attracted to a basement area, which holds the Skywalker lightsaber in a small chest. Contact with this lightsaber triggers a hallucinatory vision in Rey. The sequence went by so fast & had so much going on, that it was hard to perceive everything that was happening. It seemed to be a flashback showing the history of the users' experiences while in possession of the lightsaber, mixed in with Rey's own buried memories. I'm sure these visions will be expanded upon in the story to come. Like many heroes, she first refuses the call of her journey when she refuses to take the lightsaber from Maz.

After this initial trigger from finding the lightsaber, Rey's Force powers begin to grow quickly. When she was captured by Kylo Ren and interrogated, Rey not only resists his mind probe to find the rest of the Skywalker map, but she actually begins to mentally fight back & pull information from Kylo's thoughts instead. She taunts him with what she had sensed in his mind- that he is plagued by doubts about whether he will be able to become as powerful as his icon, Darth Vader.

Although Finn goes into combat with the lightsaber against an injured Kylo Ren to defend Rey, he is quickly taken out. After being incapacitated during this battle, she eventually emerges to take possession of the lightsaber to fight Kylo. Drawing on her natural abilities & what little she has been taught about the nature of The Force at this point, Rey puts up a considerable fight with the unmasked Kylo. She becomes mentally still & focused in the face of a raging Kylo Ren, drawing on The Force to overcome her antagonist as he attempted to lure her onto his side. It was a great contrast in the different aspects of The Force, as well as their relative power & effectiveness. They are separated by their surrounding environment crumbling around them before a clear victor can be determined, ensuring a future confrontation.

Although Kylo Ren was badly injured, Rey's ability to harness The Force, wield the lightsaber, and hold her own against a more experience opponent is an indication of the potential she possesses. After her ordeal with Kylo, she finally is able to track down Luke Skywalker on an isolated island in a remote star system, where she presented him with the weapon of his father in a powerful, silent ending to an amazing movie.

Considering that the entire Star Wars saga has been the story of the Skywalker family, it's hard for me to think that Rey is not Luke's daughter. My brother said he saw what looked like a gravestone at Luke's dwelling. Perhaps Luke fell in love, but ended up losing the mother of his child. This combined with his failure at reviving the Jedi was enough to make him regretfully withdraw to his current location. Even though Kylo/Ben is the only definite descendant of Anakin Skywalker we know of, I can't see him becoming the focus of the hero's journey that defines the Star Wars stories. This leads me to believe that Rey will be the new Jedi, who perhaps brings further balance to The Force. As many people have noticed, her use of a long staff in fighting aggressors on Jakku could eventually lead to a fighting style that uses a double-bladed lightsaber, similar to Darth Maul's, which would be pretty awesome.

Obviously, I enjoyed the characters, old & new, in "The Force Awakens". I have read many criticisms about the plot of the movie being a rehash of "Episode IV: A New Hope". I'm not going to repeat all the similarities, and although I see many familiar aspects of the original, this movie was so good that it doesn't really bother me. Instead of a Death Star, the First Order builds Starkilller Base, an entire planet that is weaponized by somehow drawing energy from a star to blast away planetary systems. This is completely unimaginable technology, but, hey, this is science fiction.

I went into the movie trying to avoid as many spoilers as possible. I tried not to get my expectations too high, but "The Force Awakens" exceeded them in every way! I thoroughly enjoyed it the whole way through, with no cringe-worthy moments- such as Jar-Jar's character or Darth Vader's "NOooooooo!!!" at the end of "Revenge of the Sith". Usually I pick movies apart, even ones like Star Wars, of which I am a fan. However, this movie brought back all the best things that the Star Wars series had to offer. My family spent hours discussing it afterward, and everyone enjoyed it as much as I did.

This is the movie every Star Wars fan has wished for, and was an incredible lead-in to the new trilogy. The Star Wars story is a mythology for the modern age, and I am deeply inspired to be able to continue experiencing such a wonderful work of storytelling and visual creativity.

The Official Monkey Buddha Rating: 9+ out of 10!

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