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Front Page - Friday, December 25, 2015

The Force was with them, sort of

The Critic's Corner movie review

David Laprad

Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was likely the most anticipated movie of  all time. More than 30 years after the premiere of “Return of the Jedi,” the world was finally going to get a true sequel. The prequels had left a bad taste in nearly everyone’s mouth, and hardcore fans were eager to see the new film.

I count myself among those fans. Seeing the original “Star Wars” as a wide-eyed 13-year old was a life-changing experience. My intense interest in movies was stirred as I sat in a darkened theater and watched Luke Skywalker destroy the Death Star. Years later, my heart would sink as I stared in disbelief at “The Phantom Menace,” but my love of the series persisted, and as the release of “The Force Awakens” grew near, I could feel the 13-year-old in me growing excited.

And, well, it’s good. But man, does it have issues.

The story picks up three decades after “Return of the Jedi.” The First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire to exact even harsher control over the galaxy, and the rebellion has reformed as The Resistance. Through circumstance, a storm trooper known as Finn and a female scavenger named Rey become swept up in the struggle. Along the way, they meet a few old friends.

What works? I like the new central characters. Their back stories make them immediately interesting and likable, especially Finn’s as a disillusioned storm trooper. I like how characters from the original trilogy were worked into the story, even if screenwriters J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” giving him lifelong geek cred) rely heavily on coincidence to make those things happen. And I like the action, which is frequent and intense.

I found the overall tone appealing as well. There’s a constant tug-of-war in the script between the light-hearted, adventurous tone of the first “Star Wars” and the darker, more foreboding textures of “The Empire Strikes” back. One could knock the film for being inconsistent, but I thought the struggle between the two halves of “Star Wars” made for an engaging experience.

But ... When Abrams and Kasdan sat down to write “The Force Awakens,” the almost universal condemnation of the prequel trilogy loomed over them. One of the chief criticisms of those films is that they didn’t feel like “Star Wars.” Abrams and Kasdan must have been so afraid of committing the same sin that they all but remade the first movie. “The Force Awakens” so closely mirrors “A New Hope,” you can almost check off plot points one by one, right down to the attack on another Death Star-like weapon.

I’ll never forget the tension I felt while watching the original “Star Wars” for the first time and wondering if Luke was going to be able to blow up the Death Star before the Empire blew up his friends. In the “Force Awakens,” I felt no suspense because I knew what was going to happen.

There are other issues. The film introduces too many characters, many without context or back-story, key scenes are rushed, and there’s a curious lack of chemistry between Solo and Leia. Gone is the spark that added humor and romance to the original trilogy, and in its place, we get perfunctory dialogue and clunky acting.

But the film’s greatest shortcoming or perhaps irony is that for all of the work Abrams and Kasdan put into making a movie that feels like “Star Wars,” they wound up with a very well made but generic sci-fi action movie.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to like. And even some to love. Abrams, who also directed “The Force Awakens,” does slow things down for a couple of crucial scenes, including one that involves a shocking death and another that features a rough-and-tumble light saber battle between Rey and a new character who personifies evil, much like Vader did in the previous films. It also has an ending that already has me looking forward to the release of “Episode VIII.” I just wish Abrams and Kasdan had realized they had access to a galaxy full of stories, and had attempted to tell a new one.

Three stars out of four. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.

David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at dlaprad@hamiltoncountyherald.com.