Thirty years after the defeat of the Galactic Empire, the galaxy faces a new threat from the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order. When a defector named Finn crash-lands on a desert planet, he meets Rey (Daisy Ridley), a tough scavenger whose droid contains a top-secret map. Together, the young duo joins forces with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) to make sure the Resistance receives the intelligence concerning the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last of the Jedi Knights.
So much of this could have gone horribly wrong. When George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney back in 2012, there was a shout of both amazement and worry when the Mouse House announced they would be making a whole new batch of 'Star Wars' movies, starting with this one – Chapter VII in the series. What would Lucasfilm's newest owners do to the beloved franchise? Would they restore it to the glory days of the 70s and 80s, or would the new movies be more like the three prequels – films that have managed to alienate fans over the years, in large part due to their over-reliance on digital effects, their questionable storylines ("the taxation of trade routes" – how exciting!), and their borderline acting.
Most of us breathed a big sigh of relief when Lucasfilm's new president, Kathleen Kennedy, announced director J.J. Abrams would be helming the newest Star Wars movie. Those sighs turned to gasps of joy when J.J. made it known that not only would most of the actors from the original trilogy be returning to the roles that made them famous, but he also planned to return to the look of those original films as well: using CGI when he needed to (and rest assured, there's still plenty in 'The Force Awakens'), but also using as many practical effects as he could. This wouldn't be a movie that just had actors standing in front of a lot of green screens (although, again, such use is not totally absent here). There was going to be a tangible feel to the new Star Wars film.
Well, I've said it before and I'll say it again: J.J. Abrams saved my childhood. Not only does 'The Force Awakens' live up to expectations, it surpasses them – giving fans what is clearly the best 'Star Wars' movie since 1980's 'The Empire Strikes Back'. From beginning to end, the film is a sheer thrill ride, bringing back memories of what it was like to first see the original movie, while still providing viewers with a fresh new look at that galaxy far, far away. The movie is not without its problems (which I'll get to in a bit), but considering how badly it might have gone wrong, it's nothing short of a miracle so many things here go so right.
In this review, I'm going under the assumption that most readers will have seen 'The Force Awakens' at least once. That doesn't mean I'll be giving away any major spoilers, but it also means I'm not going to bore you with a plot recap. So, on the off chance you haven't seen the movie yet, welcome to Earth and don't read any further so you can go into this one without anything being ruined.
Perhaps the most anticipated thing about 'The Force Awakens' for fans was the return of the original cast – particularly Harrison Ford as Han Solo. He doesn't appear in the movie until a good half-hour in, and by that point some viewers may have forgotten he's going to be in the film at all (which makes his first appearance a nice surprise). It's not that Solo isn't a wonderful addition to the plot (of all the returning cast, Ford has far and away the most screen time – with the possible exception of Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, who isn't always in the suit, due to Mr. Mayhew's debilitating health), it's that director Abrams does such a great job with the new characters that by the time Ford finally makes it to the screen we realize the returning players aren't necessarily needed to make this an engaging story.
Let's start with Daisy Ridley, an amazing find by the director and casting department. This is Ridley's first movie, but you'd never know it. She plays scavenger Rey, who lives on the desert planet Jakku (which is pretty much like...okay, exactly like...the old Skywalker home of Tatooine) and doesn't realize just how important she might be for the future of the galaxy. After two previous trilogies where the men have taken the reins, it's refreshing to see a woman be the main character of a 'Star Wars' movie, and one that doesn't fall into film clichés about what a female can or can't do in a story. The character is a great role model for young females who see this film, and this first movie in the trilogy only scratches the surface of what Rey might bring to the remaining two releases.
Then there's John Boyega as the ("Traitor!") stormtrooper-turned-Resistance fighter "Finn" (taken from his trooper FN-2187 designation). A good movie always needs a character the audience can relate to, and for most viewers it will be Finn – who is thrust into action more due to his circumstances than his desire to be a hero. Boyega has to play his part just right or it could have come off as either cowardly or cornball (he's also given the responsibility for much of the film's comic relief), but like Ridley, he nails it – giving us the "everyman" that we can relate to in this new adventure.
The new trio of heroes is rounded out with Poe Dameron, played by Oscar Isaac. Believe it or not, this is a character that wasn't originally intended to stick around – which may indicate why he's somewhat removed from our main characters for much of this movie. But Isaac brings such charm and bravado to Poe (if anyone in this new cast is the "new" Han Solo, this character may be him), he's instantly likeable, and we can only hope that Isaac is given a much bigger role in future movies.
Then there's our new trilogy's primary baddie, Kylo Ren – played by Adam Driver. Another difficult role to get right, as Driver is asked both to be an ominous presence, yet still show a vulnerability to Kylo as well as an unstable personality. Ren is basically the Anakin Skywalker we should have seen in the prequel trilogy had that character been better written (and, let's be honest, better acted). I'm not sure Driver completely pulls it off, but at least he makes his villain interesting to watch, although – of course – it will be hard for any 'Star Wars' movie to ever match Darth Vader from the original trilogy.
I would be remiss if I didn't once again mention Harrison Ford, an actor who hasn't shied away from saying how "thin" in depth he thought the Han Solo character was over the years. We also know that it's a character he begged George Lucas to kill off in the original trilogy, just to give some meaning and weight to the proceedings. Well, 'The Force Awakens' gives us the most on-screen minutes of Solo we've seen since 'The Empire Strikes Back', and this is very much Ford's movie. The old Solo swagger is back, but also here is a wisdom and maturity that has evolved the character over the years. While he's still the Han we know and love, he also serves very much as the "Obi-Wan Kenobi" character here – an older character with knowledge about the galaxy that leads our new heroes on their adventure. Of course, the similarities between Han and Obi-Wan don't end there, but that would be telling!
Which brings us to the large AT-AT Walker in the room – the biggest criticism of 'The Force Awakens' (and a valid one), which is that this movie borrows a lot from the original movie, 'A New Hope'. Once again, we have a young 'nobody' from a desert world thrust into a struggle for galactic power. Once again, a little droid is holding vital information that everybody wants to get their hands on, and – most significantly – once again, the bad guys have a superweapon designed to blow up entire worlds. These similarities certainly prevent 'The Force Awakens' from being a "great" movie (although it's still a really good one), but let's also not pretend that the creators didn't know exactly what they were doing here. I mean does everyone really think that J.J. Abrams and writer Lawrence Kasdan weren't aware of how much cribbing they were doing from the original film? Obviously the intention here was to re-introduce us to this universe by reminding us what was so great about it in the first place. Whether that was the right move or not is up to each viewer to decide, but I, for one, wasn't really bothered by the fact that so much of this story is familiar territory. Now, if Chapter VIII is a carbon-copy of 'The Empire Strikes Back', then I think fans will have a more legitimate gripe.
No, 'The Force Awakens' isn't a perfect movie, but it's about the best 'Star Wars' movie we could have hoped for, especially given the fact that this franchise has been coasting off the good graces of its first two entries for 35 years with a lot of mediocre movie and TV entries in the interim (yes, I'm going to get some backlash over that statement...let the hate flow through you!). This newest film is a return to form and, for the first time in a long time, made me feel like I did when I went to the movies as a kid. It's a remarkable achievement by all involved and I can't wait to see where the story goes from here.
The Blu-Ray: Disc Stats
'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' makes its triumphant debut on Blu-ray in a standard – but black-colored – Elite keepcase. The 50GB feature film disc and the 50GB Bonus Disc are held on a plastic hub inside the case, while the dual-layer DVD is held on the inside right. The case contains two inserts: one with a code for a digital copy of the movie; the other an advertisement for the Disney Movie Club. While the keepcase slick contains the original poster art for the movie, the slipcover that slides overtop is a slightly embossed version of the Star Wars logo against a black background, with portions of the movie poster artwork inside the lettering. Both the back of the keepcase slick and the back of the slipcover contain the same artwork.
There are no front-loaded trailers on any of the discs in this set, although before one gets to the main menu, they'll be treated to a still image of BB-8, where viewers need to make their language selection. The main menu on all discs is the same design – a still shot of the inside of the crashed Star Destroyer on Jakku, with a tilted screen in the background showing a montage of video footage (from the movie on the movie disc(s) and from the bonus materials on the bonus disc). Interestingly, the movie's name does not appear anywhere on the menu screen. Menu selections go horizontally across the bottom of the screen.
In addition to this 'standard' release, there are a number of retailer exclusives out there, which most of you are probably aware of already. Walmart has the same release we see here, but with a different slipcover – one that features BB-8. Target's version has the same discs, but in different fold-out packaging, and also comes with a code that will allow viewers digital access to 20 extra minutes of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews. Finally, Best Buy is offering a steelbook that features Kylo Ren on the front, Captain Phasma on the back, and an image of the Millennium Falcon flying over Jakku on the inside.
The two Blu-rays in this set are both region-free; however, the DVD is Region 1 only.
In a wonderful decision by director J.J. Abrams (with both Lucasfilm and Disney backing him), 'The Force Awakens' is shot on film – giving it a look that is far more in line with the original trilogy than the prequel trilogy (even though 'The Phantom Menace' was also shot on film). It was shot primarily on Panaflex Millennium XL2 35 cameras, although several scenes were shot on and for the IMAX format. The movie is presented in the 2.40:1 ratio, and in case you're wondering – no, the IMAX sequences do not "open up"...they're also in 2.40:1.
I really only have one complaint about this otherwise excellent presentation of the movie, and that's that it appears to be just a tad on the dark side (if you'll pardon the annoying pun). While the daylight scenes look just fine for the most part, scenes like the opening invasion of the Jakku village, some of the Star Destroyer scenes, and the scenes where Kylo Ren addresses Snoke seem darker than they should be. I compared the Blu-ray with the digital version and they seem to be exactly the same in terms of contrast and brightness, so this appears to be exactly how the filmmakers want the movie to look – I just remember the movie being a tad brighter in the theatrical presentation. The results are negligible, but such scenes do seem to have a little less 'pop' than they should. Black levels still manage to be pretty deep, but there are a few instances of crush, particularly in those early Jakku scenes (where Kylo's outfit just appears as a black blob in a few shots, instead of revealing more detail).
But the above is really nitpicking on my part – something I'd be unlikely to even comment on in other reviews, but this is 'Star Wars' after all, and home viewers are no doubt going to demand a level of excellence from Lucasfilm and Disney. So with those minor quibbles aside, this is by and far an excellent looking transfer, with not a hint of dirt, debris, aliasing, banding, haloing (although J.J.'s lens flares are more frequent and evident than I remember even seeing on the big theater screen), or other problematic glitches. Perhaps the best thing here is that this title keeps the appearance of film on Blu-ray. It doesn't look over-digitized or overly sharpened. There's a warm, natural look to the movie that is pleasing to the eye. Colors are nicely saturated without being pushed to the limits or bleeding. Skin tones are consistent and facial features are well defined. I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that this is probably the best looking of the seven available 'Star Wars' features on Blu-ray...and the good news is that there appear to be no changes or tinkering from the original theatrical version – so hang on to this one, who knows what they'll do with future releases!
Since 'The Force Awakens' was released in select theaters with Dolby Atmos audio, many fans may be disappointed to hear that the Blu-ray only contains a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. But, wow, what a track this is! Usually, when a big-budget action movie gets a Blu-ray audio track, the mix makes the mistake of pumping up the aggressive sounds so it's nothing short of an assault on one's eardrums. In such cases, said sequences are usually mixed disproportionally with dialogue, so the spoken word often sounds much lower than it should. There are no such issues here, as this 7.1 lossless track gets everything right.
Not only is dialogue crisp and clear (or, in the case of Kylo Ren, properly deep and echoey), but those big action sequences have the proper amount of 'oomph' in every laser blast, explosion, or lightsaber strike. The feeling of immersiveness is quite wonderful as well, as viewers/listeners are going to feel like they're right in the middle of the action. The track also makes frequent and fun use of directionality, as TIE fighters, X-wings, and the beloved Millennium Falcon will swoop from one side of the room to the other seamlessly. Even when the movie isn't involved in action, most scenes have the feeling of hustle and bustle all around via ambient noises, like when Poe is brought aboard the Star Destroyer early in the movie, or when Han, Finn, and Rey visit Maz Kanata's castle.
I don't consider myself a huge audiophile. As long as a track is competently produced and free of any major glitches or distractions, I'm usually satisfied with it. But I can't remember a recent audio track that was as much sheer fun as the one we get on this release. It literally adds to one's enjoyment of the movie and the overall entertainment value of this release. It's easily a reference-quality track, and I'm not sure we'll hear a better one – at least not in the 7.1 realm – on Blu-ray this year.
In addition to the lossless 7.1 track, Spanish and French 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are also available, as is an English 2.0 Descriptive Audio track. Subtitles are available in English SDH, Spanish, and French.
Let's be honest, I don't have to convince most of you that 'The Force Awakens' is worth picking up on Blu-ray. It's a wonderful movie and the A/V presentation here is pretty impressive. However, the lack of an audio commentary track, a 3D version (which we've been promised by year's end...but seems like just the first in a multitude of re-releases and re-packagings), and additional bonus materials (what is here is nice, but far from all-encompassing), means this one misses a "Must Own" rating and drops down to "Highly Recommended" territory. But you're still picking it up, right? Yeah, me too!