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“STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS” Review (✫✫✫✫)

J.J. Abrams: the spiritual successor to George Lucas.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a sheer blast of nostalgia, meaningful and joyous from it’s opening scroll credits to when John William’s score crescendos in the last shot. We’ve seen an updated Star Wars for a modern audience before, and that was in the lopsided and disappointing prequel trilogy. Now we have The Force Awakens, and it’s so good that it’s eligible to compete with the original.

It’s 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. A new sith named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has arisen and is bent on taking over the galaxy. His pursuits lead him towards a troup of misfits who have become acquainted almost by sheer chance. A scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) lived on the desolate planet of Jakku before she got entangled into this conflict. Finn (John Boyega) was a Stormtrooper who defected for reasons unbeknown to us. BB-8 is a spherical droid who wants to get away from Kylo Ren for reasons also unknown. What is known is that these three figures have something that Kylo Ren wants, and he won’t stop at nothing until he has fulfilled his destiny.

It’s hard to talk about this movie without giving away any spoilers. One thing I will say without giving too much away is that the story is exemplary, and is reminiscent of the adventure and intrigue that made Star Wars iconic in the first place. The screenplay, written by Toy Story 3 scribe Michael Ardnt and polished up by Star Trek director J.J. Abrams and The Empire Strikes Back writer Lawrence Kasdan, is an active synergy of the old and new, incorporating elements that we are familiar with while at the same time introducing original content all their own. This is not just a strong Star Wars story. It’s a strong story, period.

For me, that was my biggest concern going into the theater, and the biggest relief coming out of it. This was the first Star Wars movie where its key subjects would not be featured. Yes, we have references to the older films, but we don’t have Darth Vader. We don’t have Yoda. We don’t have Obi-Wan. We don’t have any of the key figures that linked the whole series together, minus R2 and C-3PO. How would the movie hold up on its own?

Very well, as it turns out, and the new cast members do a great job servicing their roles and making them memorable on their own. Driver is menacing and malicious as Kylo Ren, an egotistical and maniacal presence that reflects both the chilling imposition of Darth Vader and the deepening paranoia of Episode III’s Anakin Skywalker. Boyega is both humorous and likable as Finn, a reformed spirit who is just trying to find new meaning and purpose in his life. Out of the entire cast, however, I am most impressed with newcomer Daisy Ridley. This is the first time she has acted in a feature film, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell that based off of her performance. She is both heartbreaking and intriguing as Rey, equal parts fascinating, sympathetic, and compelling as this character whom is a complete mystery to us. Even by the end of the film, we still don’t understand everything about her, and that’s the point. We’re not supposed to understand her history; we’re supposed to understand her. Ridley did an amazing job at bringing this character to life, and out of anyone else from the cast, she made me most excited for her journey in the future installments.

Do I need to go into the film’s visual and sound effects? They were the groundbreaking features of the very first movies, and they’re stronger than ever in this motion picture. Part of that is because Abrams takes a note out of George Lucas’ old playbook, reverting to practical effects and detailed costuming to bring authenticity to this universe. He still uses CGI, but he doesn’t rely on it. He only uses it when he absolutely has to, when X-wings are firing at TIE Fighters or when lightsabers are clashing against each other. Everything else is created through elaborate art direction and set design, while the CGI is used to compliment the visuals rather than serve as them. The result is the most visually authentic out of any of the films yet.

I have one gripe, and one gripe alone, and that is that there are plot elements that eerily mimic the storyline of one of the original films. I won’t spoil it by saying which one. I will say that even in the face of that criticism, The Force Awakens still manages to make itself unique and special in a series that is already unique and special by itself. We said goodbye to this universe a long time ago. Rejoice as we are once again reunited with the galaxy from far, far away.

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“STAR WARS: RETURN OF THE JEDI” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Balance to the force, there is at last.

Editor’s note: There are spoilers to ‘Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back’ in this review. You have been warned.

This is it, the moment that everything has been building up to: the conclusion of George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy. Just like the last few movies, Return of the Jedi is a strong sci-fi feature that focuses on its character’s development just as much as it does on its mythology and visual effects. I’ve grown fond of Star Wars and its sequel The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi is no different. The only disappointment is that it has to end.

Taking place after The Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is frozen in carbonite and Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) reveals he is Luke’s (Mark Hamill) father, Return of the Jedi sees our heroes as the Galactic Rebellion comes to its most crucial moment. As the Empire works to rebuild its infamous Death Star and the rebellion works to counterattack the Empire, both sides mount up their efforts as they have one last chance to defeat their enemies, either freeing or enslaving the galaxy for all eternity.

Out of any of the other Star Wars movies, Return of the Jedi is the most exhilarating, an exciting action romp that contains rebels and stormtroopers shooting at each other, chase sequences through forests, and lightsaber duels that are arguably the best out of the series. We’ve witnessed over and over again how visually ambitious the Star Wars saga is. Here is another demonstration of how groundbreaking the Star Wars movies really are.

Take the film’s climax as an example. As the film gains momentum, we switch around to multiple scenes at once and the stakes that characters are faced with in the heat of the moment. We switch to an epic space battle where rebellion cruisers and imperial spacecrafts are firing and flying at each other all at once. We switch to a ground scene where rebels are breaking into an imperial base before they are suddenly captured and fired upon. We switch to a dark room, where two jedi are staring tensely at each other, waiting for the other to make the first move against them.

This is something all of the Star Wars movies handle well, which is perspective. We have our main conflict between Luke and Darth Vader, certainly, but they’re not the only ones in the scope here. We also have Han and Leia’s romance, 3PO’s humorous cowardice, R2’s curious sense of adventure, and Chewbacca’s loyalty and brutishness. We have a comprehensive understanding of all of these characters, their motivations and aspirations, and we sympathize with them when they’re in the midst of tragedy. It’s rare to have this much character diversity and not have it fleet in its focus, but Return of the Jedi succeeds in being emotionally balanced and meaningful. If The Empire Strikes Back is the buildup, Return of the Jedi is the payoff.

There are a few elements that don’t work as well with this picture. The beginning sequence, for instance, ran a little longer than it should have, and could have been edited down to about ten minutes as opposed to the 25 minutes it took up. On the opposite end, the final battle, while thrilling and climactic, was equally too long and took up the better half of the picture. The introduction of some teddy bear-sized aliens called Ewoks definitely did not help the picture either. These squatty little freaks speak in such incomprehensible and annoying sounds that they make Chewbacca look like he speaks English. The fact that these midget-sized creatures had a fight scene was almost laughable to me.

But the film’s flaws are miniscule compared to it’s sheer and massive successes. Yes, the runtime was too long, but it at least kept me interested throughout most of it. The action was engaging, the chemistry of the cast was genuine, and George Lucas ultimately gave a fitting conclusion to one of cinema’s most cherished trilogies. We can forgive him for the Ewoks.

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“STAR WARS” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The force is strong with George Lucas.

What is your favorite piece of science fiction of all time? Nine times out of ten, most people’s answer will be Star Wars. Not Star Trek. Not Terminator. Not Alien, or Blade Runner, or Metropolis, or 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s always Star Wars. Why is that?

I think it’s because, unlike Gene Roddenberry, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Fritz Lang, and yes, even the great Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas succeeded in making characters that were not only believable, but loveable. We didn’t just accept them. We embraced them as we found a piece of ourselves in each of them. If I bring up the name David Bowman, many of you might ask “Who?” If I mention Nyota Uhura, most of you would stare at me in puzzlement. But if I mention the letters and numbers of C-3PO and R2-D2, your ears would most likely perk up in excitement as you realize I’m talking about Star Wars.

That’s what happened to me in my small living room in Brownsville, Texas when I was just a little boy. When the opening credits and theme song for Star Wars opened up, my attention was immediately caught. When the vast imperial fighter boarded the small rebel ship and the tall figure of Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) entered the deck, I stared at the screen in bewilderment and amazement. But when those two geeky droids entered the frame, as R2 slid around beeping and 3PO clumsily blundered about, I knew I had found something special, as we all did when Star Wars hit the theaters in 1977.

The droids escape the rebel ship and soon land on the dusty planet of Tatooine, where they are soon captured and sold to a small plantation family outside of the city. It is here where we meet our hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and we watch as he grows from being a desert farmer to a jedi warrior.

After spending years apart from this picture, I wondered if its appeal would still hold up to today’s standards. Yes, I had grown up with the characters, but that was when I was a child. I had grown away from many things as I grew into adulthood. Would I grow away from Star Wars too?

The answer is no, I didn’t, and I don’t think anyone can grow away from Star Wars. Star Wars appeals to a very specific part of the moviegoing experience: imagination. Yes, plenty of science-fiction films existed prior to the release of Star Wars, but none left the impact on the genre that Star Wars did. And every time I view Star Wars, watching as the droids beep and the aliens groan and the stormtroopers march, I ask what was it that this movie had that all of the others didn’t? My answer is the same every time: George Lucas.

From the writing to the visual design, George Lucas was heavily involved with the film’s concept and creation. How could Lucas come up with such creative and dynamic characters? From the droids to the humans, every character is completely fascinating and appealing, reaching a deep part of our mind from when we were excited at those swashbuckling serials we read when we were kids. It’s almost childlike in its appeal, and its heroes and villains alike are people we learn to root for not because we are asked to as viewers, but because we want to as fans.

Luke is the well-intentioned hero of the story, the knight in shining armor so to speak that is looking for his own adventure out there, all while trying to help anyone he can along the way. 3PO and R2 are the Abbott and Costello of robots here, and provide some of the more comedic moments of the picture without trying too hard or seeming exaggerated. Then there’s Darth Vader, whose visual scope and deep, imposing voice sets a new standard of villainy altogether. James Earl Jones wasn’t a relatively popular actor before Star Wars’ release. Yet, when Star Wars hit the theater, Jones’ personification of the character summoned such a powerful sense of intimidation for Darth Vader that it emboldened his status as a movie villain forever.

In retrospect, these characters don’t do anything in Star Wars that other characters haven’t done in other movies before. A princess is captured, a dashing hero (or two) comes in to save her, a climactic duel builds between its two leads, and somewhere, in one place or another, an explosion happens.

Doesn’t that sound like something you’ve seen before? Indeed, in most classic westerns and swashbuckling pictures, this was the template for your typical motion picture. What places Star Wars above the standard is its characters, in their funny, witty remarks, their moments of lighthearted comedy, and their deepened sense of adventure that survives past the stars and beyond. Yes, the cast gets credit for servicing their characters well, but not as much credit as the man who created the characters.

The other technical elements of the motion picture are astounding and contribute to the overall vision of this science-fiction fantasy. The visual effects were groundbreaking for its time, its elaborate art direction, set design, costuming and make up creating this authentic and aged environment that makes it feel like an age long lost. The technology and the weapons they use make for some of the most exciting action sequences, with one light saber battle between two jedi in the movie serving as one of its high points. And the musical composition by John Williams is simply beautiful, with the horns and the strings switching from moments of ease and reflection to moments of excitement and anticipation. Williams demonstrated his mastery of handling different aesthetics from his Academy Award-winning score for Jaws. Here is another film where he arguably contributed just as much to the film as its creator did.

But a film can be technically well made and fail on the whole. What makes Lucas’ work stand out is, once again, his characters. We share the young farmer’s dreams as he wants to travel to different worlds and become a jedi. We share the droid’s frustration at each other as their situation quickly crumbles into shambles, and we share the rebel’s fear and gloom as the shadowy figure of Darth Vader approaches them. This is a film that is strong in both production and concept, as it makes us deeply care for the characters that exist from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

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