My introduction to “Star Wars” occurred at the Alamo theater in my then thought of as rural home town of Newnan, Georgia. It was an old movie house located on the town’s court square that once relegated African Americans to the balcony. But in 1977 when Luke, Leia, and Han graced the screen for the first time, the balcony had been long since closed and members of the community, of all races, were brought together for a unique experience that changed the way we watched movies. It was a grand awakening.
As I sat in the dark beside my great grandmother who was then in her 80s, I fell in love with the universe that George Lucas birthed. And while my interest waned as I grew older and discovered arguably more sophisticated forms of narrative cinema, it would be dishonest to say that “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” didn’t move me. The old feelings stirred like the resurgence of the Force in the movie. And I suspect that I will not be alone as hearts warm to this latest franchise entry that fits perfectly into the original trilogy.
Due to a power-outage at the first press screening, I actually saw the movie (almost all of it) twice. And for fans, I suspect, twice will not be enough.
Admitted fanboy and gifted filmmaker J.J. Abrams strikes back with “The Force Awakens,” one of the franchise’s warmest, funniest, and most human episodes.
Picking up 30 years after “Return of the Jedi,” a new evil in the form of something called The First Order threatens the galaxy. The action opens as the resistance led by now General Leia (Carrie Fisher) attempts to grapple with the growing menace. On a desert planet, loner Rey (Daisy Ridley) has grown up an orphan holding out hope to one day be reunited with her family. Without giving any more away, there will be a cute, new droid introduced along with a conflicted youngster named Finn (John Boyega). And a Darth Vader type called Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) stalks about making use of the Dark Side for his master’s bidding.
“The Force Awakens” makes you forget the prequels. The tone is exactly right with rich pathos and natural humor. Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew, reprising their iconic roles of Han Solo and Chewbacca, are flat out terrific delivering one-liners, slap-stick comedy, and heart, which transcends mere nostalgia. Forget about trying to make the universe or the technology logical, this is a true space opera that causes you to remember why you fell in love with the series back in 1977.
Under the skilled direction of J.J. Abrams, who effectively rebooted “Star Trek,” the entire production has been elevated. Dialogue, a sore point associated with the much maligned prequels, is much improved. And the upgraded scripting is clearly related to the involvement of Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote what most regard as the best film in the franchise, “The Empire Strikes Back.”
But aside from the story elements that are in-keeping with the original trilogy, the look of “The Force Awakens” is remarkably similar to what viewers saw back in 1977. Sure, you can see “The Force Awakens” in IMAX 3D, but Abrams, working with cinematographer Daniel Mindel (who shot the new “Star Trek” and its sequel), made the choice to shoot “The Force Awakens” on 35mm film. Compare the process used by George Lucas in shooting the prequels, which involved both film and high definition video, which was cutting edge in 1999. By going back to a pure film format, both 35mm and 65mm versions, the image and feel of the film is exactly right including the classic wipe transitions and editing techniques. It is clear that Abrams is committed to making a “Star Wars” sequel that pays homage to the source material while also making way for a rewarding future series of films.
Many generations will see “The Force Awakens” over this holiday season. And unlike my early 1977 experience, the story may have a different meaning for today’s children, including my own, who now inhabit a world in which religion is perverted and exploited to radicalize seemingly good, normal people, who wreak terror. In this era, perhaps more than ever before, the Dark Side of “Star Wars” is with us, and we desperately need a new hope to find the Light.