Monday, December 21, 2015

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS Sets The Stage For a Bold New Generation of Intergalactic Adventure


- We are all Star Wars. That's where we find ourselves in 2015. Growing up, Star Wars was a generation's gateway drug into a universe of sci-fi and fantasy. Before I'd even seen the movies, I knew the characters and the mythic storyline via books and toys and pop-culture pervasiveness. I was too young to have seen the original trilogy in theaters, but it didn't matter - the scope and scale and iconography of George Lucas' creation seeped into my impressionable young mind, as if pushed via Jedi mind-trick. Star Wars gets to you early on. When you're too young for headier sci-fi fare, the larger-than-life world of Star Wars still manages to grab you. And it wasn't even the movies themselves. When I think of my earliest Star Wars memories, I think of paging through childrens' books adapted from the movies. I think of staring at the iconic poster art painted by The Brothers Hildebrandt. I think about the Star Wars-themed episode of Reading Rainbow, about boarding Star Tours at Disney World and thinking it was the coolest thing ever. These experiences were all mostly had in isolation. I don't remember talking about Star Wars with other kids. It was something that spoke to me, but I never thought of it as something that could speak to everyone.

Then the lead-up to the prequels happened, and now, finally, we had *new* Star Wars movies to call our own. In retrospect, the prequels were ... weird. My brother and I went to see all of the special-edition re-releases of the original trilogy as they were released in theaters, and they got me more hyped for all things Star Wars than I'd ever been. Quibbles with Lucas' tinkering aside, seeing the original movies, finally, on the big screen gave me a whole new appreciation for the films - they now entered my teenage consciousness in a fully-formed way. I was chomping at the bit for the next chapters. I vaguely remember leaving Episode I on a total cinematic high. But despite all the build-up, finding a fellow Star Wars fan to geek out with in small-town CT suburbia was still pretty difficult. These still felt like a niche thing. These were movies for fans of the originals, they were movies for fans who held onto Lucas' vision and were willing to go wherever he took us. At the time, I was mostly just so excited for more Star Wars that I barely paused to think about the good and the bad of the actual movie. Caught up in a Duel of the Fates-induced euphoria, I was convinced that Episode I was the bomb-dot-com ... Jar Jar and all.

Enter the internet ... and the rise of fan-sites and the neverending daily conversation about movies and pop-culture - with Star Wars, of course, perpetually front and center. Suddenly, my eyes were open to a world of geek cinema fandom, and the endless cycle of anticipation and nerd-rage that came when a big movie disappointed. I began to read more and more about film. I began to see more movies. Eventually, I went to college and began to study film, and screenwriting, and met all kinds of film fans who could talk about these things intelligently. My enthusiasm for Episode I began to fade the more critically I thought about it, and seeing Episode II - and reacting to it (to a Star Wars movie!) with a resounding "meh" was a low point in my (and many others') relationship to Star Wars. Once, Star Wars was this mysterious, fascinating, tantalizing thing. By the time Episode II came out, it was emblematic of what can happen when a once-storied film franchise takes a turn for the worse. Episode III fared a little better. By the time it came to theaters, I had moved to LA, and found myself surrounded by film fans and Star Wars nerds - and routinely went to movies with packed crowds that cheered and clapped and stood in line for hours to see the next big thing. But by the time Episode III came out, Hollywood movie-making had irrevocably changed. All of that nerd-rage that was born of the prequels was channeled into a new culture of film fandom - one that demanded that blockbuster filmmaking be done with the fans top-of-mind. Internet bloggers and reviewers helped topple big films, and prevent big film franchises from ever even getting off the ground. JJ Abrams himself fell victim to this, when a leaked script of his planned Superman revival was met with such harsh internet criticism that the whole project was scrapped. The increasingly vocal fan community became increasingly influential, and the movies that came out began to reflect it. The embarrassingly bad blockbusters of the 90's gave way to the proudly geeky movies of the 00's and '10's. The lukewarm reaction to the Star Wars prequels was drowned out by the rapturous reaction to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Then came Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and then the Marvel movie empire. The prequel-driven nerd-wars of the 90's ended with the geeks victorious, living in a self-styled world in which nerd-culture was omnipresent. We find ourselves today in a world in which men, women, old, young, black, white - everyone is into this stuff. This is a world in which TV's biggest series no longer star doctors and lawyers, but dragons and zombies. This is a world in which Marvel is a box-office titan. It's a world where sci-fi icons have officially become our universal myths. People used to joke about Star Wars being a religion. It's no longer really a joke. A New Hope was a modern-day creation myth, and from it was spawned the quintessential tale of good and evil for our time. And into this time comes THE FORCE AWAKENS. Into a time when multiple generations have grown up with Star Wars as a way of life. It's a different world then the one I knew as a kid, where this stuff was the secret province of nerds and outcasts. As I said, now: we are all Star Wars.

With all of that said ... the weight of expectation is heavy on THE FORCE AWAKENS. The prequels had the advantage/disadvantage of telling a story whose ending we already knew. Meanwhile, we've been left wondering for years - decades - of what happened *after* the events of the original trilogy. That tantalizing mystery made the choice of the notoriously mystery-loving director JJ Abrams seem all the more appropriate. Abrams has always opposed revealing too much in the marketing of his movies. This has earned him a reputation as a guy who loves to utilize - sometimes to a fault - the proverbial "mystery box" method of storytelling. But it seemed right somehow to give the mystery box guy the keys to the ultimate cinematic mystery box - the box that would finally reveal to us just what the hell happened to Luke, Leia, Han, and the rest after Return of the Jedi.

The power of that mystery - and the thrill of finally seeing this story play out - gives an initial watch of THE FORCE AWAKENS a kinetic thrill the likes of which I've rarely ever felt at the movies before. After seeing the movie, I kept wondering - is this Episode I all over again? Was the thrill of seeing a new Star Wars - one where we had *no idea* what to expect in terms of story (in part thanks to savvy marketing) - so great that it overrode any capacity to properly judge the movie on its own merits?

My initial reaction, upon gathering my thoughts, is that THE FORCE AWAKENS is legit. This is JJ Abram's Star Wars movie through and through, for good and bad. But the good of that is such that it far outweighs the bad. The good is, in fact, the perfect counterbalance to the core problems with the prequels. The thing is: the prequels had a lot of cool stuff in them. They had some memorable action scenes, some fantastic imagery, and a story that - high-level - was a pretty epic tale about a would-be hero's tragic fall from grace. But in the prequels, the devil was in the details. The plotlines were horribly marred by wooden dialogue and characters that felt cut out of cardboard. The prequels were all myth-arc. We never really cared about the characters, because they felt like chess-pieces rather than human beings. But where THE FORCE AWAKENS powerfully pivots is that it's *all about the characters.* The characters in this film - old and new - are holy-crap awesome. And in many ways, that's enough. Is there some sketchiness to the plot? Sure. Are there some plot-points that are frustrating? Yes. But at the end of the day, all is forgiven because the characters take center stage and they are great and memorable and instantly set-up to be fan-favorites forever. If THE FORCE AWAKENS has any one thing going for it, it is this. Its characters are iconic, larger-than-life, but ultimately ... they are *human.* Whereas the prequels often felt cold and alien, THE FORCE AWAKENS bleeds with raw humanity.

In many ways, THE FORCE AWAKENS reminds me a lot of the project that, for me, first put JJ Abrams on the map - Lost. It's interesting, because Lost was one of the first big TV shows that a.) ushered in the age of high-concept, serialized, binge-able TV that we're in today, and b.) because the show, with its pulpy aesthetic and sci-fi mysteries, managed to achieve mass appeal by always keeping the focus on its eclectic and diverse cast of characters (also, much like Lost, THE FORCE AWAKENS is rife with characters who have daddy-issues). If Lost set the template for the modern day pop-cult sci-fi aesthetic, then THE FORCE AWAKENS very much follows suit. It's pop-y, it's full of mysteries, it's seemingly designed to send viewers rushing to the internet to debate its intricacies and attempt to solve its puzzle-box plot-points. In many ways, it feels like a really good and hook-y TV pilot. It's a stage-setter. It's a first chapter. It's a movie that will one day be binge-watched alongside its forthcoming sequels. It ends on exactly the kind of "OMG what-happens-next/what-does-it-all-mean?" cliffhanger that an episode of Lost might have ended on.

The good of this is that the movie propels forward with a nonstop energy. You can't help but hang on every moment, because everything feels new and exciting and not-quite-predictable. The movie darts from set piece to set piece, doling out clues to the bigger-picture storyline in a fashion that will send viewers rushing to Wikipedia post-movie. I mean, you know this is a JJ Abrams movie in the opening seconds. Traditional Star Wars opening crawls have been standard place-setting affairs. Not this one. No, here, there was an audible gasp in my theatrical audience as the first words of the text-crawl became visible onscreen. "Luke Skywalker has vanished." Oh damn. THE FORCE AWAKENS poses and leaves you with *a lot* of questions. If this were a TV show, we'd wait a week for answers. But this is a movie, and so the bad of all this is that we aren't quite sure what is being saved for Episodes 8 and 9 and what's just not there at all. We're not sure what vital info is to be found in the current and future tie-in books and comics and videogames and animated series, and what is just not there because JJ likes his mysteries, dammit. We can't be sure whether to call out some seemingly sloppy storytelling because we're not sure, exactly, what is actually sloppy and what's just being kept intentionally vague because all is yet to be revealed. I've already read a bunch of criticisms of certain coincidences and contrivances where my gut reaction is to say: "yeah, but that will probably be explained in the next movie." But, here's the thing: what if it isn't? And so, in many ways, THE FORCE AWAKENS is a movie that, like a TV series pilot, may only be able to be properly and fully judged in retrospect. And that is, in a way, frustrating. Should not a movie be a complete and closed story in and of itself? Or should we simply embrace the serialized aspect of it all - especially in a world where we are getting things like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter finales split into two movies - and just go with it? The original trilogy, after all, took many cues from old movie serials. And yet ... I've got to wait years for those ever-elusive "answers" (that post-Lost, we know may never even come)? Don't let us down, JJ (and/or Rian Johnson, to whom the Episode 8 reigns will be passed).

But again, all of this trepidation about getting satisfying plot resolution is mostly negated by the awesomeness of the character stuff. As I write this, I am reminded of my own instinctual cringing at the pleas of "it's all about the characters!" that were a perpetual, automatic reply from the Lost showrunners to fans who complained about plot holes and unanswered mysteries. But this is a much different beast, so I'll happily declare that THE FORCE AWAKENS nails its character beats, and nails all of the space-opera stuff in grand fashion. I mean, Star Wars is space opera, and so ultimately this is what matters most. So about those characters ...

Look, I sort of get where some people are coming from when they say that THE FORCE AWAKENS has a lot of echoes of A New Hope - maybe too many. But to me, that complaint is pretty much offset by how fresh its heroes and villains are - and how different they are from any we've seen before in the Star Wars movies. So let's get this out of the way now: Daisy Ridley and John Boyega completely kick ass in this film. They are the next generation of Star Wars heroes, and they are pure rock n' roll, baby. Going in, I was pre-excited about Boyega. He was so great as the lead in cult-favorite Attack the Block that I knew he would be great here. And he exceeds expectations. His character, Finn, is something totally new for Star Wars - he's a stormtrooper who turns against his indoctrination into evil and joins the side of the light. You see, it's been thirty years since the events of Return of the Jedi, and in that time a new incarnation of the evil Empire has arisen. The First Order is a growing threat, and its ranks are populated by a stormtrooper legion comprised of brainwashed soldiers who were kidnapped as children, stripped of free will and free thought, and trained for a single purpose and a life of unquestioning servitude. But Finn breaks free, and in a joyous moment of rebellion he breaks rank and decides that he doesn't want to be a murderer. Boyega expertly conveys the fear and disorientation that comes with breaking free and running away from everything you were. But he also conveys the joy and pride that comes from acting independently and forging one's own identity. Finn is an everyman in a world of larger-than-life heroes and villains. But his unassuming manner can't hide the remarkable strength of will it took to break away from The First Order. Finn is outmatched at every turn. But his basic decency and heart give him a fighting chance. I can't wait to follow Finn in future movies. I can't wait to see where this journey ultimately takes him. He's one of the best-ever characters we've seen in the Star Wars universe, and Boyega delivers one of the most likable, funniest, most heartfelt performances we've yet seen in a Star Wars movie.

I can't wait to see where Finn goes from here. But the single most badass journey within the confines of THE FORCE AWAKENS belongs to Daisy Ridley's Rey. Ridley is fantastic from moment one, giving us yet another totally new character type for the Star Wars films. Rey is a scavenger - a scrappy loner on the desert planet Jakku, a place littered with the ruins of old and long-forgotten battles. Like Luke Skywalker before her, Rey lives a humble life before getting swept up in intergalactic adventure. But unlike Luke's gee-whiz farmboy, Rey is a tough, self-sufficient, highly-capable prodigy who doesn't need the combined mentoring of Obi-Wan and Yoda to forge her into a badass - she already is one. To that effect, I have heard some gripes about Rey actually being *too* competent and awesome. Please. I say it's about damn time that Star Wars gave us a badass female character who's as tough as Han Solo, as determined as Luke Skywalker, and as adept at ass-kicking as Darth Maul. That's not to say that Rey is flawless. Ridley does a fantastic job of portraying Rey as a girl with a hardened shell, who is so single-minded in her own personal quest to find her family that she misses the bigger picture around her, and leaves no room to let others in. It's what makes the burgeoning friendship between Rey and Finn so cool and fun and easy to root for - they are two people who have basically been forever alone realizing the power of human connection and goodness. Aside from all that, Ridley pretty much just breaks out hard in THE FORCE AWAKENS. The entire film is like one giant I'm-a-movie-star-now moment for Ridley. She scales walls like Spider-Man, lays the smackdown with her bo-staff with moves that would make Donatello jealous, and uses force-powers like it's her job. So all hail Daisy Ridley's Rey - the new Queen of the Force.

Before I go further, I'll simply add this: it is pretty damn cool to have a Star Wars film with kick-ass lead characters who aren't all white males. I said it before: it's 2015, and we are all Star Wars. And finally we have a Star Wars movie that reflects that. I love this stuff, and I want everyone to be able to feel the same kind of inspiration that I felt from the original movies. I want there to be no barriers of entry for girls and women and people of color to dig these movies just like I do. And THE FORCE AWAKENS goes a long way towards making that a reality and knocking down those walls.

THE FORCE AWAKENS not only gives us two very unique new heroes, it also gives us a very different kind of villain in Adam Driver's Kylo Ren. Unlike the commanding, imposing, and regal Darth Vader ... Ren is a whiny, temper-tantrum prone, sniveling, emo, mentally-unstable brat. And Driver completely kills it in the role. I've become a fan of Driver over the years, but I wasn't sure how he'd fare as a Star Wars villain. The thing is, Driver brings a level of nuance and depth to Kylo Ren that we haven't really seen in this series so far. Sure, the prequels tried to give Vader/Anakin a more layered backstory, but even with the prequel's origin story, Anakin's flip to the dark side still felt a bit out-of-nowhere and contrived. But in a very short time, Driver completely sells us on Kylo Ren's fractured mental state, making him at once sinister-as-hell yet also oddly sympathetic - with hints that perhaps he has been manipulated into his current state against his will.

Combine the performances of Driver, Boyega, and Ridley and the result is a Star Wars movie that in a short time gives us more genuine emotional investment than all three prequels combined. It's not just that the characters work well in and of themselves - it's that, already, they've got incredible chemistry between them. I'll be honest, I don't know that THE FORCE AWAKENS has any fight scene as intricately-choreographed or as technically-impressive as the big Duel of the Fates face-off from Episode I. But what this movie has - that the prequels and even the original trilogy never quite managed - are big, epic moments that elicit gasps, applause, cheers, and even tears - because they are 100% driven by the characters. I mean, even the original trilogy - I love it - but you sort of watch it at a bit of a remove. It's high-fantasy. But a pivotal scene in THE FORCE AWAKENS between Kylo Ren and Han Solo - holy crap - I was on the edge of my seat, feeling all the feels (as the kids say). THE FORCE AWAKENS works so well because it works on a personal, grounded, emotional level - not just a mythic one.

So ... about Han Solo. As great as all the new characters are, THE FORCE AWAKENS does cash in a lot of nostalgia chips in its strategic utilization of old-favorites. Luckily though, this is not merely a cash-grab for Harrison Ford. In what is undoubtedly the movie's most grin-inducing surprise, Ford comes to play here, and by god he brings it. I mean, this is what we've dreamed of. This is Han Solo returning to action, Chewie by his side. This is Han Solo thrust into two-fisted action, squaring off against hostile aliens, cracking wise, and being awesome. But ... we all know what can happen in the worst-case scenario here. We've all seen Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Luckily, THE FORCE AWAKENS does its returning hero proud. Not only is Han Solo's return a memorable and triumphant one for Ford, but Solo is front-and-center, in many ways the heart and soul of the film. The movie does a lot to ensure that Ford comes out looking good. Solo is written as older and wiser and maybe a bit more sentimental and scarred - but still tough-as-nails and quick with a blaster and quicker with a good quip. And Ford gets to play off of Ridley and Boyega and Driver and feed off of their energy and general awesomeness. But even still, give credit to Ford for suiting up and going all in. The film gives us the Han Solo we wanted and needed and dreamed that maybe one day we'd see again - and for that alone you've got to give it props.

Solo isn't the only returning 'Wars vet, and I will say that THE FORCE AWAKENS very effectively layers in its other big original-trilogy returns. Carrie Fischer is used sparingly but effectively as now-General Leia Organa. Mark Hamill ... well, his biggest new-trilogy moments are clearly yet to come, and I absolutely can't wait to see them. Of course, it's always a pleasure to see Anthony Daniels' C3PO - it's no accident that his big return elicited maybe the biggest round of affectionate applause of the film.

There are also tons of great secondary and tertiary supporting roles in the film. On the side of good, Oscar Isaac is a huge standout as the Resistance's ace fighter pilot Poe Dameron. Poe is a pretty major character here, but I'm guessing he'll have an even bigger part to play in future installments. Isaac brings a charm and swagger to Poe that makes him a lot of fun. But the best thing about Poe may be his infectiously-fun camaraderie with Boyega's Finn. It's very easy to imagine a whole Star Wars movie just about the duo's misadventures. Oh, and of course there's BB-8, a really fun, awesomely-designed droid who is destined to live alongside R2 and C3PO as an all-time fan-favorite and kid-favorite. He's great. On the dark side of things, I really dug Domnhall Gleeson's turn as General Hux - the young face of The First Order, who rallies the regime's troops with entertainingly venomous evil-dictator hate-speech. Hux and Kylo Ren make for a great one-two punch, and their strange sibling-like rivalry is going to be interesting to watch evolve over the course of the new films - very curious to see how it plays out.

There are also a lot of wild cards in the film - characters with a lot of potential that we'll just have to wait and see if they live up to. Chief among the characters in this category is the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke. As played by Andy Serkis, Snoke is a Voldemoort-esque Big Bad who leads The First Order from afar. He appears only as a projection to Hux and Kylo Ren, further adding to his mysterious nature. At first glance, Snoke doesn't have quite the iconic look of Emperor Palpatine - or inspire the same level of awe and fear. But I'm willing to reserve judgement for now. Certainly, I'm incredibly eager to learn more about the guy, and I'm fairly certain that fans will be speculating about Snoke's true nature for many years to come. Meanwhile, there was a lot of early hype about the potential for badassery in the character of Captain Phasma - particularly since she was to be played by fan-favorite Gwedoline Christie of Game of Thrones fame. Phasma emerges from THE FORCE AWAKENS still being all potential. The fact is, she doesn't get much to do in the movie - I kept expecting her to have a major fight scene, but it never came. I've got to figure something was cut out for time. For now, I'll have to keep dreaming of the Phasma/Chewbacca brawl that never came.

Now, as great as most of the characters in THE FORCE AWAKENS are, there are, sadly, some duds. I'm thinking primarily of Maz Kanata, a diminutive, ancient alien creature voiced by Lupita Nyong'o. If Maz is supposed to be this movie's Yoda - well, she sort of misses the mark. The character is hurt from a lack of backstory. Presumably that could be forthcoming, but knowing so little about her makes it frustrating that this previously-unseen character is suddenly presented as an incredibly close confidante of both Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. As is, the film leaves us hard-pressed to understand who this character is, exactly, and what her deal is. Plus, she's just not that visually interesting of a creature-design. It's sort of a shame, because Nyong'o is such a striking and powerful on-screen presence that it makes you wish they had just used the actress to deliver a live-action performance, rather than just her voice. The other puzzling character here is Max Von Sydow's Lor San Tekka. Here is another instance where it feels like some kind of important backstory was left on the cutting room floor. Described as an "old ally" of Leia Organa's, we learn so little about Lor that his small but pivotal role is more confusing than intriguing.

THE FORCE AWAKENS feels new and different, but it also nails the original-trilogy aesthetic that seemed sort of off, at times, in the prequels. Abrams and his team clearly took great pains to match the rust-and-dirt, lived-in look and feel of the originals, and all the locations - from the interiors of the First Order's ships to the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon feel just as they should (the Falcon even gets to keep its old-school, 70's-era vector graphics-based targeting system). Despite the fresh coat of paint, this is Star Wars, no question. Overall, Abrams melds the classic Star Wars staples (wipe-cuts, for one) with a shooting style that is notably Abrams'. Mainly, the slickly-directed action scenes and set pieces feel familiar to those who've seen Abrams' two Star Trek films - themselves a sort of direct descendant of Star Wars and Spielberg and 70's/80's big-action filmmaking. But what I touched on earlier definitely holds true - whereas the prequels often tried to wow us with dazzling lightsaber duels and ostentatious, CGI-filled eye-candy, THE FORCE AWAKENS seems to reign things in a bit and really put character first. That leads to multiple action beats designed to be the same sort of big-applause, splash-page moments that have become a staple of modern blockbusters, from LOTR to Marvel movies. What the action here lacks in terms of memorable choreography, it more than makes up for in emotional stakes. That said, there are moments that suffer from Abrams clearly looking for those emotional stakes somewhat at the expense of logical stakes. The introduction of Han and Chewie is a lot of fun - but the whole logistics of how they happen upon the other heroes feels a bit shoddily constructed (the scene also doesn't take advantage of The Raid's Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahmanas as hostile space-baddies - give them their own Raid-in-Space spin-off, dammit!). Similarly, one of the big, climactic Resistance airstrike attack scenes is lacking the sublime simplicity of A New Hope's X-Wing raid on the Death Star. And in general, Abrams has a weird tendency to make space travel between planets feel like a mere hop, skip, and jump. It sort of undermines the concept of a universe filled with hidden secrets and backwater outer reaches.

In some ways, the way that characters in THE FORCE AWAKENS hyper-jump in seconds from planet to planet is emblematic of Abrams' overall approach to the movie. It moves along at a breakneck clip - and because there isn't really time to let things simmer, some of the film's literal and metaphorical journeys feel rushed. Like I said, I don't have a problem with Rey being an uber-competent badass. But there is still some wonkiness in terms of how quickly she develops - abilities-wise and relationship-wise. Similarly, the movie has a lot of plot contrivances - stuff that is, on one hand, great fodder for future writers and directors to more fully flesh-out, but on the other hand, frustrating in terms of the feeling of randomness and coincidence that sometimes pervades the film. Again, this is the good and bad with Abrams. He has a knack for world-building, for character creation, for propulsive narrative - but he tends to leave a lot for others to clean up and make sense of. I suppose that part of my general okay-ness with all of the outstanding questions I have about THE FORCE AWAKENS is that I have a lot of confidence in Episode 8's Rian Johnson to really deliver the big payoffs on this film's set-ups.

THE FORCE AWAKENS ultimately works because it gives us the Star Wars movie that was needed to reignite the franchise. In some ways, it reminds me a bit of Man of Steel. That film had flaws, but for me it was such a satisfying counter-punch to the issues I had with Superman Returns that I was more than willing to overlook them. This one is similar in that, at the end of the day, where the prequels felt flat emotionally, THE FORCE AWAKENS is overflowing with emotion and humanity and spirit in a way that even the original trilogy sometimes lacked. Certainly, this is a post-Game of Thrones, post-Marvel Studios Star Wars. In a referential culture, it was inevitable that this new film would have some wink-y references and some Whedon-esque humor. And it was perhaps inevitable - but not unwelcome - that this Star Wars, in an era where we are all Star Wars - would broaden its thematic scope to include more emotional stakes, more diverse characters, and more something-for-everybody-ness. Does it lose some of the George Lucas-infused auteur-ness in the process? Yeah, no question. But it gains a crowd-pleasing, can't-help-but-root-for-it aesthetic that also pushes the kind of nerd-buttons that we've developed in a post-Lost world. This is a Star Wars that seems designed to inspire endless internet-fueled speculation and think-pieces. Already we see the flood of "10 Questions We Want Answered in the Next Star Wars" clickbait articles. In a way, it's annoying. But in a way ... I mean, my god, we're all (emphasis on *all*) excited about Star Wars again - and we can't wait to see what the hell happens next. Is this all a calculated corporate move, or it is just JJ being JJ? A mix of both, I'd guess. But the bottom line is that this is a Star Wars movie that gives us a lot to be excited about, a lot to guess about, a lot to dream about. It takes me back to those early years when I would sort of piece together the plots of the original films on my own - without having even seen them, by looking at pictures and browsing books and imagining what was going on a long time ago in a galaxy far away.

Time will tell how we view this film years from now. But I want to say that the force is strong here. I want to say that THE FORCE AWAKENS has given us the raw materials needed for what may be a very awesome, very epic journey ahead. If nothing else, it's successfully passed the torch to a new generation of super-cool, infinitely potential-filled characters. This is their story now, just as it is all of ours.

My Grade: A-

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