Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Gwendoline Christie, Peter Mayhew, Lupita Nyong’o, Anthony Daniels and Mark Hamill
Running time: 136 Minutes
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Year of release: 2015
Most movie lovers can point out the onscreen moments that define their bliss. Sometimes, they’re brief scenes or sequences. Often, they’re just tiny shots, instants captured on camera. In rare and wonderful circumstances, they’re entire movies. But whether long or short, those moments are what we live for. We trudge through the bad films in hopes of catching glimpses of them, and we celebrate the great ones for making them look so easy. Judy Garland in a barnyard. Gene Kelly in the rain. Harrison Ford outrunning a giant rock. Whatever it is and whichever form it appears in, it makes the whole exercise of going to the movies worthwhile.
If we look deeply at the Star Wars saga, we can admit to ourselves that they were never flawless films. Even A New Hope and Empire carried the cracks and fissures of visions imperfectly realized. But those moments were always there, in copious amounts. Even the much reviled prequels had their share: harder to find and often buried beneath embarrassing problems, but present nonetheless. A wizened goblin pulling a ship out of a bog. A horned figure in black standing indomitably before a pair of Jedi. A frustrated farmboy watching two suns set on his dusty little home. We love Star Wars because of the way they speak to us, and for their habit of quietly popping up when we need a little comfort in our own lives.
The Force Awakens has the good sense to close with a moment like that, an image that still haunts me months after first seeing it, and which I suspect lingers in the minds of a lot of other fans as well. A figure turns and lowers his hood, revealing the ravaged, grief-stricken face of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). We remember the boy he was, saw the losses he suffered as he became a man, and now watch him old and weary and beaten down by the mistakes he feels have undone him. But in front of him stands a young woman with burdens of her own to carry, holding out a piece of his past and maybe – just maybe – the key to a better future.
If that doesn’t give you chills, then you need to find something else to do with your time.
The Force Awakens succeeds simply because it understands the Star Wars universe – and its appeal – so well. Whereas most people maintain that creator George Lucas thoroughly lost his way with the prequels, director J.J. Abrams zeroes in on the things we loved so much about the saga to begin with. The characters brim with nostalgia, and yet they occupy something new; they bounce off of each other with wonderful chemistry and with ILM’s canny combination of practical and computer-generated effects, the mayhem they go through feels of a kind with A New Hope, instead of the soulless near-animation we see in most special effects today.
As a result, yes, it does come too close to A New Hope for comfort sometimes: featuring a Totally Not a Death Star that’s kind of exactly precisely like a Death Star (just bigger and with a forest attached), another group of rebels fighting against a suspiciously familiar evil empire, and a potential savior left forgotten and frustrated on a Planet That Is Most Definitely Not Tatooine. To that, you can add the kind of complaints that have always dogged Star Wars: a shallow-draft storyline, excessive reliance on stock characters, and a certain self-regard that comes from sitting at the top of the pop culture heap for darn near forty years now. None of those flaws are unexpected, and they periodically send The Force Awakens into a bad case of nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake.
But just like its hallowed predecessors, not of that matters one little bit when things get going. The swashbuckling joy at this outer-space adventure – the flash of mischief in Ford’s crooked grin as he boards the Millennium Falcon for the first time in three decades – render all complaints null and void upon arrival. Indeed, the Blu-ray confirms a richness of depth that lets you notice new details and walk away with new ideas just like the original trilogy did. And it does that while still remaining resolutely fun: putting new characters and old alike through a new set of adventures that lose none of their charm upon multiple viewings.
In fact, that helps it pull off a few tricks of its own that help set it apart from previous Star Wars films. To balance the throwback stuff, Abrams wisely focuses most of his attention on the three newcomers. Junkyard scrounger of destiny Rey (Daisy Ridley), ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and X-wing pilot just because Poe (Oscar Isaac) have the same kind of winning chemistry that Ford, Hamill and Carrie Fisher possessed, and the gradual arrival of the first generation fits their vibe perfectly. In one fell swoop, they integrate this story into the larger saga, while allowing their elders to gracefully concede the floor. Nowhere is that more apparent than BB-8, on the surface an R2-D2 clone who managed to turn that droid’s beloved pairing with C-3P0 into a trio without so much as pausing.
I’d also like to say a few words about Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who I dismissed upon first viewing, but who looks better and better the more I see of him. Abrams clearly wanted to get away from the tall, dark and scary model because, let’s face it, there’s no topping the previous movies in this department. Driver’s Ren, all emo entitlement and enfant terrible rage, feels like a breath of fresh air in contrast, and given his tangled familial relations (another Star Wars staple), he holds enough inherent drama by his mere presence to make the gambit work. The Internet’s warm response to him, topped by those clever Calvin and Hobbes riffs, speaks to how well he’s gone over.
And with the unprecedented success of the film’s theatrical release behind us, the Blu-ray lets us know that The Force Awakens is ready for the long haul. Abrams found the key to making it all hum, something Lucas himself always struggled with, and while I hope that Episodes VIII and IX get a little bolder with new material, this bridge feels like an ideal mix of the past and the future.
It all comes back to Luke, of course, with the fate of the galaxy in his hands again and all those fears and doubts creeping to the forefront. But there’s this kid… this really cool kid… with a scruffy gang of buddies and some chips in the game if he can just help her find them. It sounds absurdly simple, but there’s something powerful beneath that equation, something that 40 long years of imitators have never quite been able to match. The Force Awakens opens up possibilities that we thought were gone forever: flawed and imperfect, like its protagonists, but with a conviction and persuasiveness that few can deny. Its arrival on Blu-ray needs no trumpeting, but it’s going to get plenty anyway. It’s Star Wars – right down to its bones — and that’s always worth celebrating.
As you’d expect, the Blu-ray is terrific. Beautiful sound and visuals capture a welcome natural palette, getting away from the CGI excess of the prequels in favor of something closer to A New Hope. (A DVD and digital copy of the film are along for the ride as well.) The supplemental stuff comes on a second Blu-ray, topped by an hour-long documentary delving into the entire production of the film. In addition, we get six shorter featurettes, ranging from 4 to 9 minutes long, covering various aspects of production and drenched in nostalgia just like the rest of the set. (The shorts worthwhile just to hear the likes of John Williams, Simon Pegg and Warwick Davis talk about their contributions.) Deleted scenes and a short piece on the film’s associated charities close the set. It’s a strong collection, though missing a few key pieces. (The film’s marvelous trailers are nowhere to be seen and you get the sense that plenty of material is being held back for the inevitable double-dipping that will follow this release like winter follows fall.) That said, nothing here strikes a wrong note, and with the Blu-ray selling for an eminently reasonable $20 on Amazon, you’ll get your money’s worth and then some.