The Force Awakens Review: A Star Wars for the old generation and the new

J.J. Abrams has a knack for this franchise-resurrecting thing.

That’s the first thing one with knowledge of Abrams’ resume will think once the credits for Star Wars: The Force Awakens rolls, after what feels like a slightly longer time in the theater than the running time suggests.

Rarely is that ever a good thing. It is here, for the most part. This is no trap; this is the rehabilitation of a franchise that is finally getting the modern treatment it deserves.

In regards to Abrams’ entries in the Mission: Impossible and Star Trek properties – which feel minuscule compared to the behemoth that is The Force Awakens – he certainly has learned from his past success, and puts it all together in the newest entry for one of the planet’s most universally recognizable entertainment properties.

Oh, yeah, Abrams knew what he was doing at the helm of this film. And it shows in nearly every facet, from the sense of adventure and heavy stakes and levity to enchanting characters old and new, and a universe you don’t have to be in IMAX or watch in 3D to feel like you are very much in it.

Finally, after the forgettable prequels, we know what our parents felt like watching Star Wars for the first time in 1977. It’s because Abrams directed The Force Awakens with a passion that was so painfully and obviously absent in Episodes I through III.

He simultaneously gives an ode to the original trilogy – sometimes in ways that are a little too obvious, like a love letter to moments and details now engrained in pop culture – while working intimately and delicately to set a new one. New characters Finn, Rey and Poe Dameron (just to name a few) are part of a cast that is so large it would have been easy to forget about some characters; except satisfying and appropriate story arcs and screen time is lent to most everyone.

How The Force Awakens handles Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher is both essential and very well done, for the sake of the plot as well as the audience. They never steal the spotlight, and the plot rarely hinges on them entirely; rather, their roles feel natural, as if the film didn’t need them, yet we welcome them back with open arms. They don’t need grand entrances. Why would they? We grew up with them.

Meanwhile, it cannot be understated how much fresh energy and life newcomers Daisy Ridley (Lifesaver, Scrawl), John Boyega (Attack the Block), Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, Inside Llewyn Davis) and Adam Driver (Girls, This Is Where I Leave You) lend to the flow and sheer power of the film. The chemistry between any pair of these actors is utterly believable. Ridley, in particular, is remarkable, exhibiting an incredibly broad range of emotion for a character that – OK, MILD SPOILER HERE – should only get more so in future installme…er…episodes.

Abrams gives a certain humanity to every actor - whether droid or human - that is something to be admired.

Abrams gives a certain humanity to every actor – whether droid or human – that is something to be admired.

Driver, as well, is impeccable as Kylo Ren, a role that is ostensibly more complex than perhaps any Star Wars villain that has come before him. Indeed, his is a new, and potentially far more dangerous, iteration of sinister.

Not only does the script intelligently work with the vast cast at hand, but under Abrams’ direction, The Force Awakens – especially in its delightfully engrossing first hour alone – simply captures the essence of the franchise in a bottle. It starts fast and furious, wasting not much time for setup, before eventually meandering down into a (much) more slower paced middle act which hold mysteries that ultimately still make the wait very much worth it.

Much has been made about Abrams’ devotion to practical effects over CGI in the film, and it shows – you are thrust back in to the galaxy far, far away. The settings feel real, because they are. There are no green screens to be had. The practical aliens, environments, sounds, sights…it all is just so authentic, like lowering a needle on a vinyl record that you didn’t know you missed the sound of, and which is much more satisfying than the highly digitized, distorted sound of the modern age, leading to distorted results.

It’s something that is immediately apparent from the first sequence; a sense of authenticity that legitimately has the power to influence the way future movies create visual effects…just like A New Hope did.

Yes, The Force Awakens is different from most movies coming out these days – in terms of hype – for obvious reasons, but make no mistake: this is an entry that can stand entirely on its own, and it does. The classic Star Wars themes of interfamily drama and hope against seemingly insurmountable odds are there, as is the sense that this could be simply the most complete film in the franchise to date.

J.J. Abrams' flair for the visually arresting is everywhere in The Force Awakens.

J.J. Abrams’ flair for the visually arresting is everywhere in The Force Awakens.

And while that is something the new generation of Star Wars fans are excited to hear, it does come with some fine print: the nostalgia factor. While part of The Force Awakens’ appeal is in its continuation of the saga – rather than dealing with events we knew would unfold, a la Anakin becoming Darth Vader – the more the film goes on, the more it feels like a reboot instead of such a sequel.

That is, some sequences, while they are breathtaking and gorgeous, thanks to incredible cinematography, feel more and more recycled. We don’t yet know if it’s a good or bad thing yet, as The Force Awakens ends on some notes that ring of plot tropes we’ve seen exhausted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example. Not all questions are answered, and new ones arise upon the first viewing. 

But answering those questions is something to worry about at a later time. For now, we can relax and watch The Force Awakens knowing that it has righted so many wrongs of the prequels; from getting the more humorous and serious tones balanced just right, to placing very real and present weight and consequences on its characters, to being utterly unpredictable, no matter how many times we might think to ourselves we just saw something right out of Hope, Empire, or Return.

Because in reality, The Force Awakens is a testament to those three movies that captured the hearts and imaginations of millions almost 40 years ago…and Abrams has achieved the same feat. Under some of the heaviest pressure ever placed upon a filmmaker – weren’t we saying that when he helmed Star Trek’s return? – he has returned us gracefully and righteously to the universe we craved, free from political-based plots we don’t care about, meandering dialogue we can’t unhear for all wrong reasons, and spastic shifts in tone that make us wonder when George Lucas lost his touch.

A universe for the old generation, and the new.

In a Nutshell

Abrams has a Best Director Oscar nomination locked down for the work he has done on The Force Awakens. Although some sequences in the latter acts feel like a shinier version of what we’ve seen before, it’s nonetheless a universe we know we’ve wanted to return to, and we should be glad we did. May the Force be with directors of future installments. Set high, the bar is.

9.2 / 10

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac

Directed by J.J. Abrams

2015

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Captivating performances and a soaring script elevates Ex Machina above the grandeur of modern blockbusters

What if what we think is the right thing actually isn’t so? How far are we willing to go for a love we’re aren’t sure is real? Who do we place our faith in: a mysterious creator or the ostensibly naïve created?

These are the kinds of questions set forth by Ex Machina, an intimate yet intense thriller that combines all the elements of classic science fiction to craft a two-hour cinematic metaphor about the occasionally faulty outputs of human nature.

Writer-director Alex Garland, known for penning Danny Boyle’s zombie classic 28 Days Later, doesn’t leave a stone unturned as he creates a wholly original and memorable movie that is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.

Domhnall Gleeson (Unbroken, Frank, Harry Potter) plays Caleb, a programmer for the world’s most powerful search engine, Bluebook (sorry, Google). He wins a contest to spend a week with one of the leading thinkers of Bluebook, Nathan, and examining the tortured genius’ newest project – Ava, the world’s first artificial intelligence.

But as these tales always go, there is more than meets the eye with almost every party involved, and the film consistently has an air of mystery and dread to it that fills every scene with tension.

Much of that is attributed to Oscar Isaac’s (Drive, Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year) performance of Nathan, suspicious and intriguing from the moment we meet him. Isaac adds another illustrious performance to an otherwise colorful yet overlooked career, but that should change with the forthcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He is as intellectually sound as he is drunkenly enigmatic, perfectly conveying Nathan’s sense of gaudy superiority.

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Gleeson also puts in a fantastically believable turn as Caleb, with whom the audience can relate almost all the way through, with every untrustworthy conversation with Nathan and the more intimate experiences with Ava.

But she is undoubtedly the star of the show, played by the Swedish Alicia Vikander (The Fifth Estate, Anna Karenina). Surrounded by an aura just as mysterious and threatening as her creator, the audience is put through the same test as Caleb is to ensure that Ava can make us believe she is human, and she does. Vikander perfects a curious naiveté while seemingly knowing all there is to know about being human that we forget she is until we hear the mechanical whirring of her being when she makes even the slightest move.

From her slightest of smiles that always turn a moment too soon, to the craving in her eyes to know about the world outside Nathan’s lab, Vikander is simply incredible, overpowering and overbearing just in the way she speaks.

Like every great entry in the science fiction genre, Ex Machina has a certain self-awareness about it where the audience never feels cheated. Every piece of dialogue, every plot point is carefully constructed to form a bigger picture that is slowly revealed, and there is almost never a slow point precisely because Garland keeps us so engaged in what is happening on-screen.

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In addition, he takes us on such a deep journey through each character so as to make us feel it is reality and not just science-fiction, as if we have to question their motives for our own sake. Deep philosophical questions are at play, some which are admittedly too grand to get a grasp of in a first viewing, but the film is predominantly about the struggle to differentiate between what we think we know and what we are led to believe.

It’s easy to focus on those themes, too, because the plot is so straightforward and delicate. Isolation is another key theme in Ex Machina, of both the literal and figurative kind. At times you feel like you’re peeking into a conversation or an action that you shouldn’t be, and that is a testament to Garland’s direction and the actors’ performances.

All good sci-fi also has a haunting soundtrack, and Ex Machina’s is blistering and preeminent at times, like the most macabre parts of a David Fincher movie.

The strength in Ex Machina, and what makes is so wholly original, is that it’s impossible to know what forces are really at play. Motivations are foggy and Garland is so cunning a writer that there is a never-ending stream of twists and turns conjured up, and you never see them coming because you’re so drawn in to what you think you know.

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Garland is out to tear apart what preconceptions are formed in an hour and a half in the final twenty minutes, every moment of which is thrilling, poignant, and cinematically gorgeous. You never see the ultimate villain coming, and, indeed, might not even be sure who the bad guy really is, leaving it as a topic of debate in the audience’s head long after the credits have rolled.

And he does it without explosions, without warning, without conviction. Just a careful deconstruction of what we’ve seen, thinking at first that it makes no sense, only for it to come full circle once we do what the movie asks us to do: examine ourselves and our faulty superiority.

 

In a Nutshell

Most science fiction is content with offering up a distorted view of the world and saying it’s a metaphor for reality. But when it comes to questioning our own lives in an intimate and profound way while building up to an ending that is entirely uncommon and satisfying, Ex Machina reigns supreme.

 

9.5 / 10

 

 

 

Ex Machina is rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac

Directed by Alex Garland

2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David Lynch likes to talk about and write about movies, sports, and important happenings around the world. He can be reached at alex.695@hotmail.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.