Fans of Star Wars got treated to a brand new episode of the story of good and evil, only this time the former Rebel Alliance has taken the form of The Resistance, which sounds rather weak compared to their previous incarnation, and then there's The First Order, a descendant of the former Galactic Empire. Before I continue, you should know that I have a huge LOVE for Star Wars, especially the original trilogy or what I like to call "the REAL Star Wars". Now, if you haven't seen the movie yet, you may want to stop reading NOW!
This movie, which is entitled as "The Force Awakens" seems more like "Smuggler's Return" and you'll soon see why. Our story begins with a First Order assault squad of stormtroopers descending upon the barren rock known as Jakku. Meanwhile, crack Resistance pilot Poe Dameron is hanging out in a tent with a man who seems to know much of the history of Leia Organa and the Jedi. Lor San Tekka, as our mysterious sage is called, gives Dameron a chip with data leading to the whereabouts of the legendary Luke Skywalker who's been missing for quite a while it appears. As the exchange concludes, miniscule ball droid BB-8 bops in to warn Dameron about the arrival of the First Order troops. The stormtroopers rush in, jogging off of their dropships and rounding up the villagers in an attempt to get Tekka's attention and possibly draw out Dameron, who is busy racing off to his starfighter with the droid in order to escape. A violent exchange happens with the villagers, the hero's plane gets damaged, and we're introduced to the new villain, a dark Jedi who calls himself Kylo Ren, played with adolescent angst by American actor and "Girls" alum Adam Driver. Showing off some new Force flare with some Tarantino-like discourse, Ren is clearly driven to find Skywalker and has no restraint in killing to achieve his selfishly misguided desires.
Our new fan-favorite droid escapes and soon encounters the lost scavenger Rey, played with feminine gravitas by British actress Daisy Ridley. There's a duality of emo-like solitude and fierce determination to survive the wasteland of Jakku, but Rey shows her strength in her resistance to give up the little droid for food in her selfless desire to help the little guy complete his "classified" mission. In the interim, Ren attempts to interrogate Dameron to find out what he knows about the search for Skywalker, but Ren fails to complete his aim as a shellshocked stormtrooper decides to spring Dameron because he needs a pilot to escape from The First Order. As played by fellow Brit actor John Boyega, the trooper, who Dameron affectionately names Finn, becomes this story's version of Jar Jar Binks as the psuedo-serious hero trying to do "the right thing". His dialogue throughout the story, along with his antics, comes off so haphazardly and contrived that I found it challenging to take him seriously as his character wasn't sufficiently developed in this first outing and his dialogue never matched his intentions. At the same time, Dameron's Top Gun-esqe attitude shows up as two-dimensional and ill-plotted. He has the potential to be as valuable as Wedge Antilles or Biggs Darklighter, but it's going to be up the writers of Episode 8 how he develops going forward into a hero who can actually be believable and not a CGI-seated jockey.
As our different main characters collide in the main village of Jakku, Rey and Finn discover the Millennium Falcon which has been left derelict and unkempt. They board the ship as The First Order attacks them with their crack squadron of Tie Fighters whose pilots can actually hit targets with some accuracy. Clumsily, young Rey pilots the ship over and around wreckage of a downed Imperial Star Destroyer with the "boy wonder" using his ill-developed skills as a gunner in their attempt to escape and journey to return little BB-8 to the Resistance with his data intact.
The real story begins when the Falcon is drawn aboard an unnamed freighter and into the clutches of Han Solo and Chewbacca. Hauling some fearsomely grotesque beasts to keep up a contract, Solo and Chewie discover our new heros hiding in a mechanical hold on the ship. BB-8 reluctantly shows the smuggler and his partner the secret map, which although incomplete, gives a slight indication as to the possible location of the missing Jedi Master. The venerable former Rebel Alliance general relates to the others that all of the stories are true, just as their interrupted by bounty hunters. Calamity ensues and our friends break camp and head off to the planet of Takodana where Solo introduces his new charity cases to Maz Kanata and her Mos Eisley-style castle. In the depths of this castle, Finn comes clean about his true identity as a former stormtrooper who's deperate to escape The First Order any way he can, and Rey becomes haunted by the visions manifested by the calling of a lightsaber that shouldn't exist. Thought to be lost and its finding never really explained, the lightsaber that formerly belonged to both father and son Skywalker has turned up to ping Rey and show her the possibilty of her Force sensitivity. As Abrams always has it, a critical moment of revelation is interrupted by some immenent violence thanks to The First Order who have been alerted to the smugglers' whereabouts. Plucky stormtrooper-turned-comedy relief takes the lightsaber in hand and engages his former comrades while Solo and Chewbacca once again earn their stripes knocking off bad guy after bad guy and injecting some witty dialogue and friendly interaction in the process. Unfortunately, the smuggler brigade is unsuccessful as Ren and his grunts make off with Rey aboard their shuttle.
The mid-film tension is heightened by The First Order unleashing their planet killer as their lapdog fuhrer named Hux, played with overenthusiatic fever by Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson, gives his soliloquy to The First Order troops declaring single-handedly that The New Republic will come to an end. Abrams harkens back to fanboy status all too often in this film as he brings back shades of "A New Hope" upgraded for the 21st Century. However, even our golden boy director makes a few missteps. The emotionally unhinged Ren doesn't evoke terror and fear as a villain emulating Grandpa Vader ought to, but instead he shows his skills as undeveloped and his focus erratic as the First Order grand master who's channeling Gollum does his best to guide Ren via hologram.
Following a pithy reunion with the upper echelons of The Resistance, Solo and his chum lead the charge once again to shut down the First Order's planet-killing sun cannon while at the same time rescuing the future lady Jedi, who has had her Force sensitivity unlocked thanks to Ren's attempts to interrogate her. Soon, Abrams pulls once again from the age-old formula of the three-pronged combat plot: space battle, attempt to divert the enemy, and the infamous Jedi duel. This time, however, the slapdash dogfight seems to invoke the worst parts of the space battles from "The Phantom Menace" and "Revenge of The Sith" with a variation on a theme for Poe Dameron to help take out Starkiller Base's main power transducer. Our favorite smuggler duo, again rolling out clever dialogue and a strong buddy-system ethic, breaks into the ice ridden facility committed to making Dameron's job easier while towing along our comedy-relief trooper who desperately wants to rescue Rey. What happens next is both tear-jerkingly climactic along with a cheerfully mishandled follow up as our favorite smuggler meets his brilliantly tragic death at the hands of his son who now gives himself fully over to the Dark Side. As Chewbacca detonates the mines that him and his former buddy laid all around the power chamber, Kylo Ren stops Finn and Rey in their tracks outside on the planet-of-perpetual-blizzard. Finn's attempt to evoke a would-be Jedi warrior is sloppy and lame, and while his turn with ye olde lightsaber fails, Rey comes to own her Jedi past taking lightsaber in hand and in a moment of clarity, she taps into her identity and cleans Dark Sider Ren's clock. The mines and Dameron's success causes the planet to break up thereby bringing our final duel to an abrupt close.
The heroes and villains go their separate ways once again as Starkiller Base erupts into a fiery galactic cauldron and our people return to the Resistance headquarters where run-down R2D2 once again comes to life just in time to piece together the map with a little bit of feel-good help from BB-8. Rey, now fully owning her powers in confidence, joins up with her Wookie comrade and they speed off to a dialogue-free ending bringing them face-to-face with Mark Hamill bringing some Alec Guinness flavor in silence as Jedi Master Luke Skywalker whom Rey meets atop an island peak before the end credits roll out.
The story, adapted from a previous draft by the creator of "Little Miss Sunshine", while containing many moments of dramatic brilliance, still falls short of the epic stature that the Mousedom promised us when they absorbed Lucasfilm into their majestic entertainment empire. True, it does overshadow the multitude of mistakes from the "Prequel Trilogy", but Abrams and company have done little more than to create more questions than answers by bringing out a plethora of new stars with many holes in their characters and backstories. The possibilities for what come next are what will keep movie lovers and recreational fanboys and fangirls coming back for the next in the series, but THIS dedicated fanboy prays to the ancient Jedi that Rian Johnson can redeem this series by channeling some Irvin Kershner epicness into the as-yet-unnamed Episode 8. This new film, while slaying the intergalactic box office, lacks the critical superpower that was promised from both Abrams and Kennedy. I'm giving it a B- on plot, C+ on character development, and an A- for effects and production design. Better luck next time, Lucasfilm! But look at the bright side, you have the story of "Rogue One" to keep you company next year while you wait for the next installment which will muster some classic Star Wars essence for modern audiences. Thanks- JM