(Originally posted on on December 17th, 2015)

Director: J.J. Abrams

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Domnhall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, Anthony Daniels and Mark Hamill

Studio: Disney/Lucasfilms

Rated: PG

Running Time: 2 Hrs, 15 Mins

Ever since Return of the Jedi ended it’s theatrical run in 1983, Star Wars fans have been desperate to return to the galaxy that was far, far away in a time long ago. There was no shortage of novels, comic books, video games and toys but it just wasn’t the same. George Lucas gave the world hope when he unleashed the infamously bad Prequels in 1999 but quickly stole it back again when we wiped the nostalgia from our eyes and saw those movies for the hideous dreck they were. But cautious hope sprang eternal again when Disney bought the Star Wars franchise from Lucas in 2012, setting off a wave of growing hysteria that has lead to this weekend’s release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Watching the new Star Wars movie is like slipping into a warm comfortable sweater; it goes out of its way to duplicate the winning formula of the original Star Wars (which we all loved) but it would have been nicer to see it stretch it’s own legs a little more.

Years after the events of Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker has vanished and the fanatical, fascist First Order has risen from the ruins of the Empire (the First Order consider free will and democracy chaos). A resistance movement supported by the galactic Republic opposes the expansion of the Order while General Leia (Carrie Fisher) searches desperately for her lost brother, believing he is the key to returning peace to a once again war torn galaxy (the Order, lead by its mysterious Supreme Leader, is also searching for Skywalker so it can prevent the rise of any new Jedi Knights to oppose them). On the planet Jakku, Leia’s agent and legendary Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is captured during his investigation, setting off a chain of events that results in the gathering of unlikely heroes thrust into unimaginable battles facing impossible odds with the fates of entire worlds hanging in the balance.

Strong willed and tough as nails scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) soon finds herself in the middle of a battle beyond her imagination (or comprehension) while a Storm trooper who will come to be named Finn (Jon Boyega) rediscovers his humanity when he decides first to flee the Order and then when he decides to stop running and take a stand (Storm troopers are no longer clones, but are children taken from their parents at young ages and psychologically programmed by the Order to be perfectly obedient and ruthless soldiers). Along the way legends Leia Organa, Han Solo and Chewbacca (Fisher, Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew respectively) all return, two generations of heroes fighting (sometimes reluctantly) alongside one another. Even C3-P0 (Anthony Daniels) makes an appearance. It’s a buffet of nostalgia with a few new items on the menu.

Above all else, Awakens is a cinematic time machine. From the moment the storytelling scrawl begins climbing up the screen, you’re eight years old again, watching an epic battle of good versus evil unfold on the silver screen. The inclusion of original characters is a brilliant touch, both for fans of the original movies but also to pass the torch to a new generation. Nowhere is this decision (and its success) reflected more then the adoption of BB-8 as the movie’s new mascot, replacing the classic R2-D2. And there is no shortage of Easter eggs thrown in to pay respect to the original movies (yet thankfully ignoring the Prequels-which should never be discussed ever again).

Director J.J. Abrams not only embraces the themes of the original Star Wars, but heavily recycles its plot as well. Awakens is pretty formulaic and mirrors A New Hope almost exactly in its narrative. Pivotal characters are thrown together through seeming chance, are soon immersed in a galactic battle of wills and wind up trying to destroy a doomsday weapon that can end the Resistance (the new Rebel Alliance) and force the entire galaxy to its knees (the new Starkiller makes the Death Star look like a Roomba vacuum cleaner). The only new things about Awakens is a few new characters and the fresh coat of paint on some old favourites (like the classic X-Wing and TIE fighters). It would have been nice to see a few new tricks and we can only hope that Disney kept them up their sleeve for future films.

The initial disappointment was the movie’s primary villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is no Darth Vader. Vader was a terrifying presence, an imposing force of nature and even the bravest soul withered in his shadow. Ren is conflicted, uncertain, occasionally petty and he falls well short of being the heartless monster that epic movies require for their heroes. But Awakens appears as if it’s not only introducing new heroes at their moment of origin (as Hope did with Luke Skywalker), but possibly the villain as well and it looks like Ren will become a far more evil instrument of destruction for the rest of the trilogy, his further descent into darkness mirrored by the rise of a new force for good. While the original trilogy was essentially all about the redemption of Anakin Skywalker, this one could well be about the final battle between good and evil, with destruction being the outcome instead of salvation. If that is the case, we can only hope that Driver brings the imposing venom needed to bring the part live.

As for any Star Wars movie, the effects are excellent and the filmmaker’s decision to return to a mixture of visual effects and actual set pieces and physical props makes this the best-looking Star Wars film by far. The franchise looks to be in good acting hands with the casting of virtual unknowns Boyega and Ridley. Boyega brings a few moments of genuine levity to the film while the strong willed Ridley takes her place alongside an impressive crop of female action stars this year.

Awakens should please long time fans, making their favourite toys brighter and shinier while giving them a whole new sandbox to play in. It may also reel in some new fans as well, but the question is was it worth all the hype? Disney’s well oiled promotion machine spent the better part of the last year generating unprecedented buzz and the House of the Mouse broke all kinds of records for advance ticket sales (Canadian theatres fell over themselves to make room on additional screens and adding new showings to meet demand). Make no mistake, Awakens had it’s fair share of moments (a scene where a squadron of X-Wing fighters race to the rescue over a mist covered lake will give you goose bumps) but it often seemed pre-occupied with copying what the original movies did to be successful instead of exploring it’s own potential. It is the movie equivalent of the child full of promise who decides to go into the family business instead of following their own hopes and talents. By all means a perfectly valid, acceptable decision but also one that’s a little disappointing.

Hopefully Abrams and Disney used Force Awakens to get the homage out of their system and they may have already planted seeds to move this trilogy in it’s own direction, a fate it deserves (it would be a shame to see it chained by the original movies). It serves as a decent spring board into the rest of the trilogy, welcoming us back into the Star Wars house, giving us a chance to say hi to some old friends while shaking hands with some new ones. And now that that’s out of the way, let’s hope the kiddie wheels come off and we see where they can really take this franchise.

Shayne Kempton

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