Star Wars: The Force Awakens

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Mar 25, 2016
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Director

J.J. Abrams

Release Date(s)

2015 (April 5, 2016)

Studio(s)

Lucasfilm/Bad Robot (Walt Disney Studios)
  • Film/Program Grade: B
  • Video Grade: A+
  • Audio Grade: A-
  • Extras Grade: B-

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Blu-ray Disc)

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Review

It’s almost strange now to think that there was a time, not so very long ago, when many longtime fans felt as if they were finished with George Lucas’ Star Wars universe, at least as it appeared on the big screen. Revered and life-changing though the original films were for moviegoers in 1977, ‘80, and ‘83, the years since have delivered one too many painful Special Edition alterations and a trio of digitally-contrived prequels that, while certainly thrilling to a new generation, left most older fans feeling empty and dissatisfied. But there’s always been that lingering question: “What if?” What if those prequels hadn’t disappointed? What if other talented directors were given chance to play in the Star Wars universe? What if Lucas’ original and evolving concept for a 9-film or even a 12-film story somehow came to fruition?

Now, with the sale of Star Wars to Disney, it seems quite likely that many of the fans who were first introduced to young Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo in theaters in ‘77 will not even live to see the final chapters of this story be told. Lucas’ departure from the franchise, and his replacement by the veteran and canny Hollywood producer Kathleen Kennedy (of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and E.T. fame), means that a whole new generation of filmmakers will guide the saga’s direction, breathing fresh energy, creativity, and new ideas into the mix. Somehow, against all odds, Disney has successfully relaunched and reenergized the Star Wars universe. The Force Awakens has been released to worldwide critical and commercial success. The original fans have, by and large, embraced its story and characters. Yet another new generation of moviegoers has succumbed to its charms. And The Force Awakens has smashed global box office records to become one of the most successful films of all time.

Just as in the real world, some thirty “story” years have passed in-universe between the events of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi and those of The Force Awakens (also known as Episode VII in franchise parlance). When we last we saw them, the heroes of the Rebel Alliance had just defeated the evil Galactic Empire. The Emperor had been killed, Darth Vader had been redeemed by his son, Luke Skywalker (now a full Jedi), and all was right with the galaxy… or so it seemed. But the intervening years have not been kind to our old friends. The New Republic that the Rebels sacrificed so much to birth is now under siege from the surviving and reorganized Imperial forces, known as The First Order. What’s worse, the New Republic doesn’t consider The First Order a threat, so only the surviving Rebels, now fighting as The Resistance, are taking them seriously. And all across the galaxy, the true stories of Rebellion and Empire, Jedi and Sith have fallen into legend.

As The Force Awakens begins, we meet the Resistance X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his droid BB-8, who have been sent to a village on the remote desert planet of Jakku. There, Poe hopes to recover a map fragment thought to reveal the location of (as we’ve learned in the film’s opening crawl) the missing Luke Skywalker. When the village is suddenly attacked by First Order forces, led by the mysterious Kylo Ren (a masked Adam Driver), Poe is taken prisoner… but not before he sends BB-8 into the desert wastes to hide with the map. As fate (or perhaps the Force) would have it, the little droid soon encounters Rey (Daisy Ridley), a resourceful young woman who’s been scraping out a meager living on the planet as a junkyard scavenger, all while hoping she’ll one day be reunited with the family that left her behind. Rey soon rescues BB-8, even as Poe is himself rescued by Finn (alias FN-2187, played by John Boyega), a First Order Stormtrooper who’s decided he can no longer kill for his dark masters. Poe and Finn escape from Ren’s Star Destroyer in a stolen TIE Fighter and return to Jakku to find BB-8, but they’re shot down before they can land safely. This eventually leads Finn to Rey, and the two of them to the realization that not only are the legends of the Jedi and the Force real… they now find themselves at the epicenter of a new galaxy-wide conflict between the forces of Darkness and Light.

Director J.J. Abrams and original Empire and Jedi screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan took on a nearly impossible set of tasks with The Force Awakens. Not only did they have to re-introduce this universe and these iconic characters in a way that brought fans of the original trilogy back into the fold, they had to avoid alienating younger audiences whose first experience with this world was the much maligned prequels. In addition, they needed to captivate an all-new audience and introduce a newly-developed backstory to help set up future sequels to come. It’s no surprise, then, that Abrams and Kasdan reached back to the familiar here.

Its epic box office haul aside, The Force Awakens does has its flaws. While its story has a basic beginning, middle, and end, it sometimes feels as if important parts of the narrative have gone missing (particularly after the characters arrive at Maz Katana’s tavern on Takodana) – either left on the cutting room floor or simply left blank for the next two filmmakers (Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow) to fill in with the forthcoming Episodes VIII and IX. There are moments where the plot twists are a bit convenient, such as the operation of Starkiller Base and the way seemingly anyone in the galaxy can see it doing its thing just by looking up at the sky. The Force Awakens has also been knocked by some for too closely copying the plot of the original Star Wars and that’s a fair criticism. It’s also a deliberate choice. The introductions of Rey, Finn, and Poe into this universe directly mirror those of Luke, Han, and Leia back in 1977, making it easier for audience members new and old to buy in. An all-new droid, BB-8, now stands in as a surrogate for C3P0 and R2-D2, which also helps to lead the audience into the story. Indeed, the plot itself follows a familiar pattern, but that tendency to crib from the original film is one of the reasons The Force Awakens actually succeeds as well as does. That plot works.

All the old familiar faces are back for this film, including Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill. As good as it is to see them here, however, it’s the new cast members who really do the heavy lifting and they are, to a person, fantastic. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac are all great together on screen. It’s pretty terrific to see strong young female and black characters at the beating heart of a Star Wars film. The classic cast delivers too, with tons of emotion, some good humor, and lovely nostalgia moments. The entire first hour of this film is a pure delight and, as it allows us to finally see Han Solo in full space pirate mode (really more than ever before on the big screen), the Rathtar sequence is a genuine bit of genius. From the very wording of the opening crawl, the tone of The Force Awakens just feels right. Eschewing the overuse of CG, the filmmakers have sought to create a much more tactile and lived-in world – one that’s far more like the original trilogy in tone and texture then the prequels. Certainly, there’s still much CG involved in rendering the final images on screen, but it’s almost always grounded by real physical elements. This movie crackles with energy and clips along at a brisk pace, harkening back to the old Saturday afternoon Flash Gordon serials even more so that the original Star Wars. And it would be hard to say enough good things about the new movements in composer John Williams’ score. Rey’s Theme in particular is lovely, all at once flowing with charm, hope, and strength. In the end, perhaps the best thing that can be said about The Force Awakens is this: It’s just a great deal of fun.

Disney and Lucasfilm’s new Blu-ray version of The Force Awakens includes the film all by itself on Disc One, in full 1080p widescreen (aspect ratio 2.40:1), so the video compression has plenty of room to breathe. The disc’s overall image is near reference quality, with gorgeous clarity and contrast. The colors are vibrant and accurate, image detail is crisp and nuanced without appearing edgy, and the subtle textures of the Jakku desert and the forests of Takodana and Starkiller Base are truly impressive looking. Note that the film’s shifting IMAX aspect ratios are not included here, but a Blu-ray 3D version of the film is expected later in 2016 – it’s possible they’ll be included there.

The film’s audio options include 7.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio lossless, along with English Descriptive Audio, and 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes in both French and Spanish. The 7.1 mix’s clarity and staging are excellent, and the dynamics are quite good as well. But the surround channel use is a little more atmospheric and nuanced in this mix that you might wish. In the opening shot, for example, when the Imperial transports head down to Jakku – it’s in moments like this you typically want a lot more sonic bite in the rear channels as the ships zoom past the camera. (Compare that scene to the opening moments of The Phantom Menace on Blu-ray, for example.) That said, the Blu-ray mix is certainly true to the theatrical experience. Its staging and sound design are wonderful, and Williams’ score is very well presented indeed. Nevertheless, some A/V enthusiasts may still find the 7.1 mix a little lacking. Note that subtitle options include English for the Hearing Impaired, French, and Spanish.

Disc Two contains all of the set’s extras, which are also in full HD. They begin with the Secrets of The Force Awakens documentary (1:09:14). Directed by longtime Spielberg collaborator Laurent Bouzereau, Secrets is quite good on the whole. It starts with the initial impetus for this franchise’s continuation, following its sale to Disney by George Lucas, and producer Kathleen Kennedy’s efforts to recruit all the various team members. You get to see highlights of the pre-production, the casting, the first day of filming, and all the various elements of production work. The doc includes good interview bits with all of the key participants, both in front of the camera and behind, as well as a number of “golden” production moments. For example, you get to see the initial cast table read and the filming of Han and Chewie’s first scene on the Falcon set. There’s a great outtake moment, of Han’s return to the Falcon’s cockpit, where you see him hang a familiar pair of dice on the overhead controls. Adam Driver offers some interesting insights into his character’s backstory. You also get a look at the filming of The Force Awakens’ most significant dramatic scene. The documentary even includes some archival ‘77 footage, and has beautiful transitions with glimpses of vintage photographs and artwork. Secrets isn’t especially comprehensive, but what you do get to see is really pretty terrific. Once you start watching, you quickly become absorbed and engrossed in the experience.

When you’ve finished the documentary, you’ve got six additional behind-the-scenes featurettes to check out, including The Story Awakens: The Table Read (4:01), Crafting Creatures (9:34), Building BB-8 (6:03), Blueprint of a Battle: The Snow Fight (7:02), ILM: The Visual Magic of the Force (7:55), and John Williams: The Seventh Symphony (6:51). These examine key aspects of the production, that were highlighted only briefly in the documentary, in a bit more detail. The Target-exclusive version of this release apparently has 20 minutes worth of additional digital-only featurettes – something that will surely annoy many fans.

The set’s bonus experience also includes six short deleted scenes from the film (including Finn and the Villager – :31, Jakku Message – :47, X-Wings Prepare for Lightspeed – :22, Kylo Searches the Falcon – :50, Snow Speeder Chase – :48, and Finn Will Be Fine – :23). They’re in HD, but they all have a time code window in the upper left corner. A few are largely finished, while others are rough edits that have live action mixed with early previz. Really, these are just brief sequences, scene extensions, and trims. There’s nothing especially significant here, so if you were hoping for cut scenes of substance, you’re going to be disappointed. Unfortunately, there’s apparently one more deleted scene that’s only available by using the Digital Copy code that comes with the set. It’s called Tunnel Standoff, and it involves Maz, Chewie, Finn, and Han’s escape from the tunnels under Maz’s tavern. It’s likely the best of the lot, so the fact that the scene is not on the disc itself is a bit frustrating.

Rounding out the extras is a Force for Change (3:22) promo, a bonus DVD copy of the film, and the aforementioned Digital Copy. There’s no audio commentary in this set, nor is there any kind of production art gallery, and the film’s much-loved trailers have sadly not been included. That, plus the exclusive digital extras, likely means a more elaborate Blu-ray version is forthcoming at some point (possibly in the same release as the eventual Blu-ray 3D version). Or it could simply be representative of Disney’s new normal for BD extras – it’s hard to say. The BD menus here are subtly animated renderings of the interior of the crashed Star Destroyer environment set to music. It’s worth noting that optional subtitles are available for the extras too (in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, and Portuguese) for those who might appreciate them. On the whole, the bonus package is fairly good. When you’re finished with it all, you’ll be left wanting more, but the documentary especially is worth the set’s purchase price.

Given the impossibly high fan expectations and reservations, the success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was far from a sure thing. The fact, then, that it actually achieves so much of what it must, faults and all, is a minor miracle. This is certainly the first time in over thirty years that many fans have felt like they’ve truly returned to the Star Wars universe, and that is no small achievement. That the film’s first spoken line is “This will begin to make things right” is no accident. The Force Awakens isn’t perfect… but it is perfectly wonderful. For this new trilogy, and for the future of the franchise as a whole, that’s a damn good start.

- Bill Hunt

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