There are sequels, then there’s “Star Wars.” A film property that has spanned generations, and leaving the 20th century for the 21st century, I suspect no other film property is as highly scrutinized as this space opera. Inspired by “Flash Gordon” serials from the 1930s, the films of Akira Kurosawa (particularly “The Hidden Fortress”) and westerns like John Huston’s “The Searchers,” George Lucas’s little movie that no one wanted to back, save Alan Ladd Jr., the former 20th Century Fox executive who greenlit the 1977 film changed Hollywood, for better or worse. “Star Wars” drew critical raves and was an unstoppable force in theaters as crowds wrapped around blocks waiting to see a movie involving a princess, an all-Galaxian farm boy, a cocksure, scruffy-looking space pirate and his walking carpet of a co-pilot, and clearly the most menacing and iconic villain to grace the screen.
Where are we now?
The last time we saw Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Chewbacca they were dishing high-fivesies with those Ewok creatures back in 1983, in “Return of the Jedi,” celebrating the defeat of the Empire and cashing in on Lucas’s blockbuster stratagem. With great marketing and merchandising comes lots of moola.
Now, minus those little fuzzballs, George Lucas, or the backing of 20th Century Fox (Disney bought Lucasfilm, a production outfit founded by Lucas that includes the lucrative “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” properties among other holdings, back in 2012 for a cool four billion), the old – literally – gang is back with some new blood to help bridge the past to the future. Yes, even in a galaxy far, far away from a long time ago.
For launching the seventh “Star Wars” in a year that also gave us a seventh “Fast & Furious” and a seventh “Rocky” (with the spin-off “Creed”), “The Force Awakens” succeeds in reestablishing a brand with characters fans love while introducing new ones that new and old fans will grow to enjoy.
J.J. Abrams, a director of some repute if judging only by his previous efforts which fall into the mostly good range and includes two “Star Trek”s, a “Mission: Impossible” and “Super 8,” got the Steven Spielberg seal of approval to be the one to take us back to the world of “Star Wars” and its expansive galaxy of planets, alien beings and sinister forces. Abrams, who also shares co-writing duties with Michael Arndt (“Toy Story 3”) and one of the original writers of the Holy Trilogy – well, Episodes V and VI – Lawrence Kasdan, takes command and delivers a solid entry that is nostalgic but something that clings to its serial roots: leaving audiences wanting more.
Young eyes will marvel at the whiz-bang effects that are comparatively subdued to what Lucas presented with those prequel installments where everything looked like a special effect. Even the old wizened one, Yoda, wasn’t immune to digital trick-, treach- ery. Lightsabers glow blue and red, but the red one has some added flair this time around. The amount of detail on fighter jets, space cruisers and that bucket of bolts the Millennium Falcon is amazing. For kids, they will be baited by new rolling droid BB-8 and asking their parents, “Can I have one of those?”
The biggest compliment to “The Force Awakens” and the reason why the “Star Wars” franchise has maintained a strong legacy is its characters. The original trilogy maintained a nice balance of characters, story and for its time state-of-the-art special effects. The prequels, which came sixteen years after “Jedi,” were effects-driven with wooden acting and poor story competing for primary impediment. Here we get the best of both. Opening with that legendary line, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” adults get to be kids again, giddy with excitement as John Williams’ rousing score kicks in as the title crawl catches us up to speed to what has transpired in the thirty years after the fall of the Empire. The First Order has arisen and Luke Skywalker, the last remaining Jedi, has vanished. A secret mission will whisk one pilot and his trusty droid to the desert planet Jakku where we will encounter key players.
The character MVP is Rey (Daisy Ridley). She collects scrap pieces that weren’t burned to smithereens when the rebellion blew up the Death Star many moons ago. Rey ends up with BB-8 who contains something coveted by the First Order, led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his secondary, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Turning to the bright side is Finn, a Stormtooper (John Boyega), that develops a conscience, and the best fighter pilot in the resistance, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).
Of the three, Poe has the most combat experience, is direct and flies by the seat of his pants. He’s like “Top Gun”’s Maverick minus a Jakku beach volleyball scene. Finn shows potential but needs some seasoning. As for Rey, she is the biggest surprise and impresses Han with the way she pilots the Millennium Falcon. She is strong and independent; a character that will make girls put down their tiaras and look to the stars.
Unfortunately, these added characters are saddled with a familiar story which involves an even bigger Death Star that appears to draw its power from the sun. I am at a loss if this means it is good or bad for intergalactic warming.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” gets off to a rollicking start until someone engages autopilot on the Falcon. The narrative meanders a bit but is of great importance, particularly for the legacy characters. Abrams and company plays it safe so that there isn’t much disturbance in “The Force Awakens.”
What is surely going to be one of the big movers on home video for 2016, the “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” Blu-ray comes equipped with a stellar video transfer with colors that pop off the screen (the yellow scrolling preface; sandy Jakku; lightsabers; BB-8). The audio is nearly equally great with engaging surround sound as part of a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack.
Moving to the supplemental package, all extras can be found on the second Blu-ray disc. The first-run home video release also comes with a DVD copy and a Disney digital copy voucher. The crown jewel bonus feature is Laurent Bouzerau’s Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey, a four-part making-of feature that runs 69 minutes and covers the franchise’s transition to Disney and the film’s development; principal shooting and development of characters; new settings and familiar faces (R2-D2, C-3PO and Carrie Fisher); and finally approaching a key scene and its aftermath, both for the film and the direction the franchise may take.
Beyond the documentary are a series of individual featurettes that are pretty self explanatory (The Story Awakens: The Table Read, Crafting Creatures, Building BB-8, Blueprint of a Battle: The Snow Fight, ILM: The Visual Magic of the Force, and John Williams: The Seventh Symphony). Rounding out the extras are six, short deleted scenes and a quick look at how “The Force Awakens” has spurred a charity movement.
Everything old is new again with “The Force Awakens,” where a reunion of old friends begets a passing of the torch to new characters. While some of the story seems like a rehash of “A New Hope,” J.J. Abrams’ latest is both fan service to the original trilogy but takes old concepts and moves them in a new direction. The Blu-ray is worthy of your collection with an outstanding video presentation with audio that is nearly equally impressive. The supplements are good but it wouldn’t surprise me if some stuff was saved for an eventual special edition once episodes VIII and IX are released.