[Screen It]


(2015) (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega) (PG-13)

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Sci-Fi: A young woman and man find themselves in a battle with sinister and militaristic forces in this continuation of the "Star Wars" saga.
Long after the events of "Return of the Jedi" in a galaxy a long time ago and far away, the formerly defeated Empire has become the First Order, a force run by Supreme Leader Snoke (ANDY SERKIS). He desires to destroy the Republic and the resistance fighters they support, and not only uses the Empire's stormtroopers and militarized ships and fighters to do his bidding, but also Kylo Ren (ADAM DRIVER). He's a young man who Snoke has taught in the ways of the dark side of the force, and he's using that in hopes of finding a secretive map that supposedly will point them in the direction of the last Jedi master standing, Luke Skywalker.

He's been missing for a long time, and thus his sister and former princess, General Leia (CARRIE FISHER), has sent her best pilot, Poe Dameron (OSCAR ISAAC), to the desert-covered planet of Jakku in hopes of finding that map and thus Luke as well. He gets his hands on that and puts it into his small droid, BB8, for safekeeping when Ren's forces attack. Among them is a stormtrooper, Finn (JOHN BOYEGA), who's on his first mission and has had his conscience override his training. When Ren takes Poe back aboard his spaceship for questioning, Finn helps him escape, but not before they get shot down and crash-land back on Jakku.

Unbeknownst to them, a young adult scavenger by the name of Rey (DAISY RIDLEY) has come across BB8, unaware of the secret map inside him. When others come after that droid, Rey easily fends them off, and then ends up going on the run with Finn who's just stumbled into their desert encampment. The two end up escaping in a spaceship they don't realize is the Millennium Falcon, a point they learn when they're captured by none other than Han Solo (HARRISON FORD) and his hairy companion, Chewbacca (PETER MAYHEW), who've been looking for their beloved ship for years.

When they learn of what the two youngsters have stumbled across, and that it might lead to Luke, Han agrees to help them. As they proceed, they, the Republic and the resistance fighters must contend not only with Ren and his forces, but also a giant, planet killing weapon the First Order intends to use on Leia's planet.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Back in 1977, I was a 13-year-old kid who loved sci-fi and grew up watching "Lost in Space" and "Star Trek" on TV, but had yet to see "2001: A Space Odyssey" (for all you youngsters out there, streaming video services and even VHS were still years away). Thus, when a little film called "Star Wars" came out, it literally blew me away.

Of course, back then, not many outside of the entertainment industry knew what was coming (my dad, a WWII buff, thought it was a standard war flick). Yet, I somehow got wind of the paperback novelization and devoured that -- and its few color photo inserts that fascinated and thrilled me -- before the film came out.

Even so, back when multiplexes were rare, it opened on the smallest screen of our four theater complex. Despite Steven Spielberg having ushered in the modern day blockbuster two years earlier with "Jaws," few saw the enormity of "Star Wars" coming.

Nearly forty years later, it's unlikely many don't know Episode 7 is on its way, what with the carpet bombing of product placement with a myriad of promotional partners. And for the first time, George Lucas isn't behind the wheel, what with having sold the franchise to Disney in 2012. For those who cringed at the technically impressive but ultimately hollow and dramatically stilted follow-up trilogy in the "Star Wars" world, that's probably welcome news, especially upon hearing that J.J. Abrams has been given the keys.

After all, he brought "Star Trek" back to life in the amazingly entertaining 2009 film (that mixed homage, sci-fi, action and comedy in an uber-satisfying way). But he's also the director who stumbled a bit by essentially aping and remaking the original "Wrath of Khan" into the 2013 sequel, "Star Trek Into Darkness." I bring that up because both sides of the director are present in this ultimately satisfying offering that's at times brilliant, but also a bit too beholden to stirring homage and copycat tendencies together into the mix.

Granted, Abrams, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, had the tough job of blending the old with the new, as various characters from the original trilogy are back and a new set are introduced, thus necessitating the old passing of the torch handoff.

In that regard, I do think the series is in good hands simply because Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are terrific as the main characters who, like Luke long before them, find themselves in a strange and sometimes overwhelming world. Considering how pre-adolescent and young teen girls like to watch films with strong heroines over and over again, having Ridley's Rey as the main character is brilliant from a "let's sit back and count the money as it pours in" standpoint.

Thankfully, the protagonist is a strongly written character and I look forward to seeing what Ridley does with her in the upcoming installments. The same holds true for Boyega's Finn, a green stormtrooper whose conscience overrides his training. A scene where he escapes with a resistance pilot (the always terrific Oscar Isaac) in a TIE fighter is nothing short of giddily thrilling. As is a similar sequence when Finn and Rey escape in none other than the Millennium Falcon, a moment that took me back to my childhood in watching Luke and Han do battle with TIE fighters back in '77.

Accordingly, those in my age bracket are likely going to love such a trip down memory lane, while younger viewers will simply groove on the action, special effects (many of which were done practically, rather than with computers and thus look more realistic) and engaging characters.

My only gripe, and it's not a major one, is that the story is essentially a revamped version of the original "Star Wars" (Episode IV). There's a young person on a desert planet who comes across a droid with something important hidden within and discovers the universe has grander plans for her. There's an uber-villain dressed in black with a modified voice behind the mask who has telekinetic powers (the force). There's a cantina scene with odd-looking characters, while a Wookie and his roguish captain (yes, that would be Harrison Ford) help the resistance battle an evil empire (this time called The First Order) and its white-armored stormtroopers.

And there's a big planet killing machine that must be destroyed, including by the use of X-wing fighters strafing it and doing bombing runs. Throw in other standalone scenes (such as Rey flying the Millennium Falcon through the inside of an increasingly narrow superstructure) and one may start to experience the old "been there, seen it before" sensation, just as occurred when watching Abrams redo "Khan" in his second "Trek" flick.

Thankfully, it's not as much of a problem here as it was there, mainly because it's been a long time since we've had this much fun in the "Star Wars" universe. Still, and while I understand the need for homage, honoring the past and passing the baton, I wish the overall film was collectively as thrilling as its best individual moments and that things felt a bit more original.

Even so, there's plenty to enjoy here, whether you're a casual fan or someone who was blown away a long time ago, in a theater far, far away and now gets to relive some of that all these years later. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 15, 2015 / Posted December 18, 2015

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