Is Episode VII Better Than the Prequels?

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On October 30, 2012, George Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney. Movie fans everywhere collectively gasped, wondering what this would mean for arguably the most beloved characters ever created for the screen. Would fans finally get a sequel worthy of the hype? Or would these new films just become more manufactured cogs in Disney’s massive money printing machine? After holding our breath since 2012, I am happy to breathe a sigh of relief; The Force Awakens is the best Star Wars film since Star Wars.

For the first time since 1980, audiences have finally experienced the wonderful anticipation of a Star Wars movie with no clues as to where the story might go. Empire concluded with a cliffhanger to inform fans where Return of the Jedi would begin, and the prequels were largely known to be about Darth Vader’s past. This film, however, could go anywhere. And where did it choose to go? In a way, right back to the origin.

bb8-star-wars_3274_3274829bThe film opens in direct parallel to 1977’s Star Wars. A member of the Resistance (the new Rebellion) is captured by the First Order (the new Empire) just moments after storing valuable information in his droid, BB-8. This droid then wanders the desert sands of Jakku until bumping into the protagonist, a young woman oozing with potential and skill but feels trapped on her dusty, home-planet. If you change BB to R2 and throw in a second sun, you basically have the same opening as episode four.

Some Star Wars sticklers may roll their eyes at these similar story structures. Despite this critique, screenwriters Kasdan, Abrams, and Arndt have accomplished the far greater feat of scripting clever, well-timed reveals for each original character throughout the 136-minute run time. Lesser filmmakers would have over-embellished a lengthy reunion scene, bringing the whole film to a grinding halt in the name of fan-service.

Not only do the screenwriters avoid such a mess, but they successfully breathe new life into the saga by seamlessly integrating the classic Star Wars icons with a completely new cast. This new cast has already won my affection and earned their rightful place in the Star Wars cannon. In alphabetical order, they are Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, Domhnall Gleeson, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac. Not only do the young performers hold their own opposite the legendary Harrison Ford, but they manage to meet the unruly expectation of starring in the most anticipated movie of all time (yes, I’m calling it that).

cr_11029_02Driver delivers a chilling performance as Kylo Ren, the villain with a controversial lightsaber design. Thanks to a compelling back story, director J.J. Abrams answers the impossible question: how do you replace Darth Vader? Every moment of Driver’s screen time allows audiences to both understand him and hate him, further establishing Kylo Ren as a worthy successor to one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time.

My other looming question going into this film: will there be old-school, practical effects paired with the classic characters? To great delight, computer generated effects take a back seat to their puppet and prosthetic forefathers. Sure, there are plenty of CG effects, but Abrams took painstaking steps to put practical effects ahead of digital ones, when possible. This effort has yielded a wretched hive of scum and villainy, one that would make the masters behind the Mos Eisley spaceport proud. Expect Oscar nominations in sound, art direction, visual effects, makeup, costuming, and music. Ahhh, the music! The cheers that erupt for John Williams’ score during the title scroll sequence gave me goosebumps – it truly is one of the finest scores ever written for the screen.

VERDICT: Crowds will always, always, always cheer for the Millennium Falcon (as they should), but for the first time in a while, Star Wars fans have been given something new to cheer for.

★★★★★

Directed by J.J. Abrams.
Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams, & Michael Arndt

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