Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review (SPOILERS)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens triumphantly graced theaters this weekend in the most grand and glorious way. Everyone knew this was going to be big. But we all wondered how big it would be. Well, the official answer is that it earned $247.9 million. In three days. Out of nearly 150 movies this year that have been released in at least 500 theaters, only six of them have earned more than that total in their entire theatrical run. The previous opening weekend record was Jurassic World with $208.8 million earlier this year. But that was in the Summer when people are known for rushing out to see a movie on opening weekend. That doesn't usually happen in December, which makes this opening for The Force Awakens even more impressive. Movies in December are known for opening smaller and holding really well throughout the holidays. Before this weekend, no December release had even opened higher than $100 million and there's been some pretty big movies that have been released in December. Like all the Lord of the Rings movies and all the Hobbit movies. This means that Avatar's all-time domestic total of $760.5 million is in deep trouble.

Why do I spend that whole first paragraph talking about only money? The first reason is that I personally find it fascinating. The second reason is that wanted to buy myself a bit of space. This is a SPOILER review. I will be ruining this movie for anyone who hasn't seen it. As such, I didn't want people who didn't read the full title of this post to accidentally come across information that they didn't want to see. Normally when I do a spoiler review, I first write a spoiler-free version. I didn't do that this time around. The marketing for this movie had done such a good job with this movie that I knew almost nothing about the movie going in. To complete this experience, I even avoided the internet as much as I could for most of last week leading up to this. I personally think that this is how this movie should be viewed. I don't even think people should read any reviews before seeing this, so I didn't write one. Plus, anything I would've said in this instance would've been at least a minor spoiler, so I just decided to wait things out a bit. But now that the opening weekend is behind us, it's time for me to pour out my soul regarding this film. If you read beyond this point, it's your own fault that you got this movie spoiled.

 Shortly before this movie was released, the YouTube channel Screen Junkies released a fascinating video called "What if Force Awakens Isn't Good?" I have it linked there for you to watch it if you haven't. In the video, Hal Rudnick had Kristian Harloff (The Schmoes Know) and Michael Barryte (Belated Media) on to talk about how they would react if The Force Awakens didn't live up to the hype. Also, YouTube reviewer Chris Stuckmann also released a video at the end of November that he titled "On Fanboying" where him and John Flickinger discuss the dangers of fanboying. Both of these videos combine to tell a message that I think is very important. I don't think it's good to praise a movie just because it is a part of a franchise that you love. If you're a Marvel fan, it's okay to admit that Iron Man 2 wasn't that good or that The Incredible Hulk is now irrelevant. If you are a DC fan, you better admit that Batman and Robin sucks and it's even fine if you point out that The Dark Knight Rises has a ton of plot holes that not even "Because I'm Batman!" is a good enough answer to. Don't praise a movie just because it's part of a franchise that you love. Yes, I was very excited for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but at the same time I went in with my critic hat on very tight. I wasn't just going to accept this movie into my heart because it was Star Wars. It needed to earn a place in my heart.

"But Adam, why don't you just go enjoy the movie? Stop being so critical!" No. I'm not going to stop being critical. I'm not going to just go enjoy a movie. Why do I say this? Because I've learned that when you are critical like this, when a movie comes around that actually earns your respect, that movie going experience is so much better. You search and search and search and you finally find that one movie that hits you in all the right places and it's such a beautiful moment. The other part of this is that it's okay for a movie to just be good. No black and white needed. There was so much hype with this movie that it would've been really tragic if people had started hating on it if it was simply good, not great. This movie didn't need to be on the same level as The Empire Strikes Back or A New Hope. There's been a lot of movies this year that have been just good. And I'm fine with. I say all of this just so you know that I'm not going to praise this movie just because it's Star Wars. There is such thing as a very bad Star Wars movie. There is such thing as an average Star Wars movie. There is also such thing as a great Star Wars movie. I just spent the last six weeks going into very great detail about all of this when I reviewed all six previous Star Wars movies. Go back and re-read those if you want. I'll even put links at the bottom of this review for each one. With all of that said, I'm here to tell you that Star Wars: The Force Awakens IS a great Star Wars movie. And now I'm going to tell you why.

Yes, if you couldn't tell, this is going to be a very long review. I do feel that introduction was very important and thus I wanted to take time with it. That said, since we are already on paragraph five and I haven't even started to talk about specifics, we're going to cut to the chase because I don't want this review to be 30 paragraphs long. In essence, what I spent six Star Wars reviews detailing and explaining was that the best Star Wars movies were ones that had two to three great characters that we dive really deep into with a lot of great side characters that make for a well-rounded movie. Yes, the action is fun and the space battles are great, but it's the character arcs and relationships that make for a great Star Wars movie. It's best if those character arcs span multiple movies and the relationships are deep and complex, because that is where we learn the most. The tricky thing about The Force Awakens is that I don't yet know the full picture. Unfortunately you won't be getting my review of Episode VIII next week or Episode IX the week after. But I do believe that we have the beginning of something great here. The Force Awakens has done EXACTLY what I wanted it to do. I wish I could spend a lot of time on the action and the side-characters, but instead I'm going to mainly focus this review around the two characters that completely stole the show for me. The Skywalker cousins.

What do I mean by the Skywalker cousins? One of them doesn't even have the last name Skywalker and the other isn't even officially confirmed as a Skywalker. But you know who I'm talking about. I'm talking about Kylo Ren and Rey. The grandchildren of Anakin Skywalker. Thus the Skywalker cousins as they both belong to the lineage of Anakin Skywalker. After watching the trailers, I immediately came to the conclusion that these two were siblings. My first thought was that they were Han and Leia's kids. But then analyzing things further I concluded that they were Luke's kids. I'm not going to dive deep into my reasons behind each theory, but needless to say things were pointing both ways. Turns out both ways were being pointed because Kylo Ren is in fact Ben Solo, the son of Han and Leia, while Rey is the daughter of Luke Skywalker. Technically the latter hasn't been confirmed, but there are almost literally a thousand things in this movie that point to the fact that Rey is Luke's daughter. I'm not going to spend much time on those specifics. That's a conversation for another day, but with what they've given us, if they throw a huge curveball and reveal that she's NOT Luke's daughter, I actually might be upset.

Let's first talk about Kylo Ren. You know I love myself a great villain. In my review of The Empire Strikes Back, I dove deeply into what makes a great villain because Darth Vader is just that. He's a great villain. And do you know what, so is Kylo Ren. In fact, I'm going to be super bold and say that at this point I think Kylo Ren is a deeper, more fascinating villain than Darth Vader. Obviously the jury is still out because we haven't seen how his story arc finishes and we don't know too much about his past yet. But right now I absolutely love his character. He's so deep. He's so complex. He's very broken. Yet he's human. He's someone we can relate to and feel bad for. When push comes to shove, that's the most important aspect of a great villain. The humanity in the villain. Looking evil and acting evil is important, but if you don't add humanity to the villain, the highest a villain can get in my eyes is good. Marvel has had a lot of good villains in their cinematic universe. But their biggest problem is that they've only had one great villain. Loki. You may not always like or agree with what Loki does, but you feel bad for him. He's got one heck of an emotional backstory that gives him great motivation for what he does. He didn't just wake up one day and decide he wanted to kill all the good people. He has very fleshed out reasons for what he does that make perfect sense. He's truly a great villain.

Thus is the case with Kylo Ren. We don't know all the backstory for him and that's going to be very important moving forward, but we know that bad things happened. Luke actually listened to the instructions that Yoda gave in his dying breath to pass on the ways of the Jedi and as a part of that, he took it upon himself to train Ben Solo, the son of Luke's sister and Luke's best friend. But something went wrong and we know it has to do with a man that for now we are calling Supreme Leader Snoke. Snoke seduced Ben somehow and something happened that was so bad that not only did it cause Han and Leia to separate, but the great Luke Skywalker, who had come so far when we left off in Return of the Jedi, completely gives up on everything and goes into hiding. Wow! I'm excited to learn more about what happened there, but as of now, we are immediately introduced to a man that is dark, mean, and ruthless. He's also very powerful with the dark side of the Force and skilled with his super awesome light saber. The opening scene in this movie on Jakku is pretty crazy. Kylo Ren, as he has called himself, is dead set on finding where Luke is hiding. The goal is to exterminate the Jedi for good. In doing so, he takes captive the super cool new rebel pilot named Poe Dameron, played by Oscar Isaac, and gives the order to kill everyone else in that village.

The first that that really impressed me at the beginning of this movie was that this First Order is possibly the most terrifying group of villains in all of Star Wars. They don't mess around. They kill people when they are given the command. They burn villages to the ground. The Stormtroopers are actually super dangerous and hit targets. In fact, to create the army of Stormtroopers, the First Order kidnaps young children from their families and brainwashes them into being killing machines. In doing this, they just humanized all the Stormtroopers, who before were just random soldiers in awesome suits. From this we get the character of Fin, who decides that after going into battle for the first time, he doesn't want to do this and he escapes. The fact the we have a Stormtrooper who escapes the First Order and joins the good side is fascinating. We were only like 10 minutes into this movie and already I was sold. Then after we set the stage like this, we start to dive deeper into Kylo Ren and quickly we learn that he is a very broken man who is far from being fully trained as this big, bad villain like Darth Vader was. He doesn't have control. He throws tissy-fits in private when things down go his way. He's not as powerful as Vader. In fact, his biggest fear is that he will never be as powerful as Darth Vader. When he gets into what is probably his first light saber battle in a long time, he is really rusty.

Most interesting of all, he is being pulled in by the light side of the force. We learn rather quickly that he is the grandson of Darth Vader and the son of Han Solo. This is the aspect of his character that elevates him from a good villain to a great villain. Knowing that he his being pulled to the light side, he goes to his master, Supreme Leader Snoke, and is very open and honest. He doesn't want to go to the light, so he asks Snoke for his help to get him through this. What was it that turned Vader to the light side again? Family. We don't know if Luke told Kylo Ren the truth about Darth Vader's death, but nevertheless this family influence is affecting him. Specifically, his father is around. This leads to easily the most emotionally powerful scene in the movie. Leia has told Han to go bring their son back. So when Han goes to the enemy base with Fin and Chewie to rescue Rey, he takes a slight detour to confront his son, calling him by his actual name: Ben. The two meet and Ben takes off his helmet and pours out his soul to his father. What he told his father really hit me emotionally. Despite what happens next, I saw a human being at that moment. A human being that was troubled and broken. A human being that wanted someone to help him. But because he's so broken, he thinks that killing his father is what is going to end his troubled mind. So he does. Han Solo is no more. But yet he goes out in the most emotional way possible as he strokes the cheek of his son right before he falls.

All of this really hit me very hard. Yes, it was sad to see Han go, but I've accepted this as necessary. Not only is the movie a little too crowded with characters, but the death of Han Solo at the hands of his own son gives the rest of the trilogy the emotional impact to carry forward. This takes this beyond the basic story of we need to stop this evil villain, it makes it personal. Leia's lost the man she loved. Rey and Fin have lost their mentor. Chewie has lost his best friend. Luke has lost his best friend. We as an audience have lost a character who has been near and dear to our hearts for nearly 40 years for some people. For me it's been at least 20 years of emotional connection to Han. Is Kylo Ren redeemable? Star Wars has always been about the fight between good versus evil and the struggles we all have with the dark side of humanity. Many will say that human kind is inherently good. But yet we all get tempted and swayed by the forces of evil. Some of us hold strong. Others sadly give in. Ben Solo gave in and became Kylo Ren. But he obviously still has some good in him. Can he be rescued? If he's going to be rescued, our heroes are going to need to exercise some powerful forgiveness. Can they do it? Should they do it? Can we as an audience forgive this man who has killed someone we've all loved for a long time? Should we? Or are we justified in wanting this man to be die a horrible, painful death?

See what I mean? This is what Star Wars is all about and I'm so excited to see where they take this. I want to put in the DVD for Episode VIII next week, but since that is not an option, I will instead take advantage of this opportunity to ponder on these deep, powerful questions over the next year and a half. And it's for these very reasons that I will be upset if Rey is not Luke's daughter. She has to be. She has seen this man kill her friend right in front of her. Once she trains up to become a powerful Jedi, if she has no connection to this man, she will have no problem striking him down and the emotion will be gone. But once Luke tells her that he is her father and she makes the connection that this is her cousin, this will make her troubled as to what she needs to do. Because it will be her facing him. After all, she is our main character. There are two strong moments in this movie that have already started to build up to this emotional confrontation. The first is when he first captures her. She is accusing him of being this faceless monster hiding behind a mask when out of nowhere he just takes his mask off. He's a man. He's an ordinary man. That takes her by surprise and I think will effect her in the future. Then when the battle at the end, he gives the offer that he could train her. Personally I think at this point he knows who she is and that she's his cousin. Darth Vader felt this family connection at the end of The Empire Strikes Back and gave Luke a similar offer. Join me. And for the record, she's not Han and Leia's daughter. That was obvious to me. There were also so many parallels to her and Luke. I'm not going to go into them, but they're there.

Hollywood is always on the search for strong female characters and, as I've said in my reviews of the original trilogy, they had one in Leia starting back in 1977. Well these Skywalker girls are quite the breed because Rey is so much like her aunt Leia that it's pretty awesome. Her grandma Padme also had some similar qualities if you examine the ideas behind the character of Padme that weren't fully taken advantage of with the poor writing and direction by Lucas. But still, it's the principle that counts. These Skywalker girls are boss and while Kylo Ren is my favorite character from this movie, I really, really love Rey. Personally I think she's been abandoned by her father Luke because Kylo Ren killed Luke's wife and Rey's mother. Such an event would not only take a toll on Luke because he has failed training the boy, but he's lost someone he loved and he doesn't feel he could be a good enough father. But we shall see what actually was the case. I hope it's something good like that. But either way, Rey has been left on this desert planet and has learned to fend for herself, defend herself, and even fly whatever ship is in front of her. And it's all very believable. Major kudos to Daisy Ridley for pulling off this character. Daisy is truly what I'd call a revelation. Adam Driver, who plays Kylo Ren, is someone who I already knew and loved as an actor, so I knew he could do this. But Daisy Ridley literally comes from nowhere. I don't know how they found her, but I'm glad they did.

When it comes to the character of Rey, of course I need to talk about her abilities with the Force because it's quite amazing. Up to this point, most characters have to be taught how to use the Force. At the beginning of this movie, she doesn't even know that the Force is real. It's all mythical and legendary in her mind. Yet she is kinda forced into this adventure after taking in the adorable robot BB8 and later running into the Stormtrooper fugitive that is Fin. Before she knows it, she is flying the Millennium Falcon like a boss, running into Han Solo, and being told that the Force and the Jedi are real. She's later told by this weird alien creature Maz Katana (who I really like) that she needs to embrace everything and move forward. This coming after she just touched her father's light saber and received a partial vision of what happened in the past that freaked her out. So she's introduced to it, but doesn't want to use it. Until she is captured by Kylo Ren. He tries to interrogate her with the Force like he did with Poe earlier, but it backfires on him. He leaves to talk to Snoke and in that Rey decides that she doesn't want to just sit there, so she experiments with her powers and convinces James Bond to release her. Yes, that Stormtrooper is played by Daniel Craig, which is awesome. Her figuring out the Force on her own I think is great. Then it all accumulates in the scene where Kylo has just injured Fin and is trying to take back the light saber when he's overpowered by Rey as Luke's light saber goes to her instead. Boss!

Yes, I loved this movie. And it's because of these two characters. When they fight for the first time at the end after Rey steals the light saber, that is fantastic. That's one of the best light saber fights in all of Star Wars. There's so much raw emotion with both characters and that shows. It's not a choreographed dance where they hit blades. It's a fight. Not only can Rey hold her own and is probably a decent fighter in the first place, but she is also fighting with double the emotion that not only did this man kill Han Solo, but he also just badly injured her good friend Fin. I'm excited to see where this goes. I look forward to Luke being on the other side of an "I am your father" speech. I'm fine with Luke barely being in this movie, by the way. That final shot with him and Rey was such a great look that told enough. When it comes to our old cast of characters, this is where Harrison Ford got his time to shine as he was given more depth in trying to turn his son back. Yet he was also as funny as heck. His banter with Chewie was amazing and so was his banter with Fin and Rey. But next movie will be Mark Hamill's movie. And by the way, if you ever need more confirmation that Mark Hamill can still act, go look up his episode of Criminal Minds and watch that. Then go look up his two episodes in CW's The Flash where he reprises his role as the trickster. He's still got it. And I really look forward to him and Rey in the next movie.

Like I said, this is a really long review. But all my Star Wars reviews have been. It's a franchise that means a lot to me and it wanted to do it justice and I can't do it justice in just five or six paragraphs. We've now equaled my longest review so far and yet there is still a whole ton that I want to say. But I'm not going to say it. In my opinion, this is a lot like my review of The Empire Strikes Back where I spent most of the time talking about Luke and Darth Vader. I feel comfortable with that. This movie was all about Kylo Ren and Rey and so I feel comfortable leaving it at that. But just let me quickly point out that this is a well-rounded movie. As I said earlier, the best Star Wars movies are the ones that dove deeply into two or three characters and still had a lot of great side characters and side stories to make it an overall success. That's what happens here. There is so much fun going on in this movie. I love Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron. I love John Boyega as Fin. I love BB8. I love how C-3PO, R2-D2, Leia, and Chewie are used. I wish I could spend a paragraph on all of them. And there's probably others I'm forgetting. I did like Domnhall Gleeson as General Hux, yet I was disappointed in Captain Phasma and Supreme Leader Snoke. However, I do realize we have two more movies to dive into them, so I hope we do. Can I quickly thrown in how cool it would be if Snoke was actually Darth Plagueis? The only thing I didn't like in this movie was Starkiller Base. Can we drop this whole Death Star storyline, Star Wars? Once was great. Twice was too much. Three times was ridiculous. But comparatively that's a small complaint. I still think Star Wars: The Force Awakens is well worth a 10/10.

As promised earlier, here are my reviews of the other six movies:
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith
Star Wars
The Empire Strikes Back
Return of the Jedi

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