Mark Clark reviews Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is here, and Mark Clark has seen it!  You can read his review below and learn more than you ever imagined about the Star Wars franchise in his book, Star Wars FAQ: Everything Left to know About the Trilogy that Changed the Movies


At last.

The wait is over – not just for the start of a new cycle of Star Wars films, but for a Star Wars movie as satisfying as the 1977 original film (retroactively subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope) and its exemplary sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, which officially opens today on screens across the U.S., is not only far superior to the misbegotten Prequel Trilogy (1999-2005). In many ways, it’s the picture that Return of the Jedi (1983) might have been.

00122914As I recount in Chapter 19 of my book Star Wars FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Trilogy That Changed the Movies, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, during contentious story conferences for Return of the Jedi, repeatedly pushed for a darker, more mature story – essentially, a continuation of brooding yet lyrical approach he and George Lucas had taken to Empire Strikes Back. Among other things, Kasdan wanted the story to feature the death of a major character, and to climax with a planetary assault (on the imperial homeworld – then known as Had Abbadon, later renamed Coruscant). He was rebuffed at every turn by Lucas, who was adamant that Jedi be a lighter, more kid-friendly, and provide a fairy tale happy ending to his space saga.

Kasdan, who co-wrote The Force Awakens with director J.J. Abrams, resurrects many of the ideas Lucas rejected for Jedi, and grafts them onto a thinly disguised remake of the original Star Wars. Not only does the plot of The Force Awakens – which I won’t recount in detail here – mirror that of A New Hope, but the story hits all the same emotional beats of the original film, in roughly the same order.

None of this should suggest that the new movie is a simple rehash of the original. In fact, the most impressive thing about The Force Awakens is that it focuses almost exclusively on a clutch of new characters – ex-stromtrooper Finn (John Boyega), mysterious scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and aspiring Sith Lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) – all of whom are well-sketched and convincingly brought to life. With the exceptions of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), the major cast members of the Original Trilogy (even, surprisingly, C-3PO and R2-D2) are restricted to cameo appearances. The story does not revisit any of the familiar environs of the previous Star Wars films. Yet, the rugged, frontier aesthetic of the Original Trilogy returns. In fact, the Star Wars galaxy seems to be an even more ramshackle and unruly place than ever before. Plus, Abrams goes out of his way to make this look and move like a Star Wars movie, rather than a J.J. Abrams film (sorry, lens flare aficionados).

These were, for me, the two things that The Force Awakens needed to accomplish to be successful: Give us engaging new characters, and return to the proper look and feel of the Star Wars pictures (the Prequels missed on both counts). I took for granted that Abrams and Kasdan would deliver top-quality visual effects and stirring action scenes – space battles, light saber duels, etc. – and they do. Those sequences are brilliantly designed and executed, and deliver the thrills audiences expect. Overall, this is the best-written and best-performed Star Wars film since Empire. Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac make an appealing triumvirate, and worthy successors to Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher. Composer John Williams delivers another rousing score, one that leans heavily on his cues for the Original Trilogy but incorporates some major new themes which figure to recur through this Sequel Trilogy.

The Force Awakens has its limitations. There are lapses in story logic, but (as I cover in Chapter 24 of Star Wars FAQ), these have dogged every film in the series. At times the story hews perhaps too close to the original movie (Kasdan and Abrams seem to recognize this, and try to mitigate it by having Solo crack inside jokes). In general The Force Awakens spends a great deal of time establishing characters and plot lines that clearly won’t be resolved in this movie. It feels, a bit too overtly, like the opening chapter of a longer story and that’s a minor letdown, even if everyone on the planet knows Episodes VIII and IX are in the works. Also, be warned that this movie is rated PG-13, rather than PG, for a reason. Some content is unusually strong for a Star Wars film, and may be too intense for younger viewers. (I regret taking my son, who just turned 7, to see it.)

Bottom line: If Star Wars was never your thing, The Force Awakens isn’t going to convert you. But if like me (and millions of other people) you love Star Wars, The Force Awakens is the movie you’ve been hoping for, and a promising restart for the franchise.

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About HLPAPG

Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group, the trade book division of Hal Leonard Corporations, publishes books on the performing arts under the imprints Hal Leonard Books, Backbeat Books, Amadeus Press, and Applause Theatre and Cinema Books.

Posted on December 18, 2015, in Film & TV, Pop Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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