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52: Spoiler-Free Review Of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

December 16, 2015 12:02 a.m.

Episode 52: Spoiler-Free Review Of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

'The Force Awakens' opens and fans can breathe a sigh of relief. Warning: Contains explicit language.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

“Star Wars The Force Awakens” opens on Friday but with early shows starting at 7:00 pm on Thursday. I have a SPOILER- FREE review.

Have no fear. I will not spoil your experience of seeing “The Force Awakens” with any details that haven’t already been readily available in trailers. I was so obsessive about not knowing too much that I simply stopped looking at any information. I watched the teaser trailer at Star Wars Celebration in April and then avoided anything on the film. So I ran out of theaters if the trailer came on and covered my ears and hummed if anyone started speculating on where Luke might be or whether or not John Boyega was really a Stormtrooper. I’m a “Star Wars” fan and I respect people’s desire to not have their first experience of the film ruined by knowing something they didn’t want to.

But I did get to see “The Force Awakens” on Tuesday morning and was bound by Disney to not reveal anything on social media or in a review until 12:01 am Wednesday morning. So it’s 12:02 am and now I can finally talk about the most eagerly anticipated film of the year.

Star Wars fans can breathe a collective sigh of relief.

JJ Abrams did not go to the creative dark side and pull a Jar Jar Binks. There’s nothing embarrassing or cringe-worthy in “The Force Awakens.” That’s a big deal to longtime fans who felt severely burned by the prequels. We had looked forward to George Lucas returning to his space saga to reveal how Anakin Sykwalker became Darth Vader. We bought the toys, coveted the promo swag, and lined up for “The Phantom Menace.” Then our jaws dropped. Some of us searched for crumbs to savor as we tried to ignore how disappointed we were; other railed against Lucas and accused him of ruining the franchise. It was the dark times.

Then along comes J.J. Abrams and the plans for “The Force Awakens,” also known as Episode VII, the follow up to “Return of the Jedi.” Our fan boy and fan girl hopes rose yet again but lurking and stumbling about in the back of our minds was Jar Jar whispering, “Don’t forget about meesa!”

We were afraid… but guardedly hopeful. Nothing Abrams could do could possibly be worse than the prequels. Right? So we waited… and waited… and waited. Some details – like the fact he was returning to the world of practical effects to create some of the creatures and props – gave us genuine hope that Abrams knew what he was doing.

Star Wars Celebration

Then in April, we had Star Wars Celebration and the first teaser trailer for the film. Disney and Lucasfilm had done a remarkable job of keeping things under wraps and only letting the most meager details out. But as the teaser played to a packed 5000 plus arena in Anaheim, fans went crazy. People cried, waved their lightsabers, and screamed till they were hoarse.

A perfect sequel

Now the finished product arrives and the trailer did not mislead us. Abrams may not have taken a lot of risks – perhaps that’s for a later film – but with “The Force Awakens” he’s fashioned a perfect sequel that knows exactly where it stands in a galactic-sized franchise. It’s not supposed to break new ground or shake things up. It’s supposed to deliver something that fits into an existing universe and makes us happy to return. When Han says to Chewy in the teaser, “We’re home,” that was how fans felt. After being adrift in a trilogy of prequels that felt like an alien universe, we had finally arrived home like our heroes and it felt good.

Abrams does an amazing balancing act of delivering enough nostalgia to please fans of the original with plenty of fresh blood to hook a new generation on the Star Wars saga. In many ways “The Force Awakens” and “Creed” both show how a new generation of filmmakers can build on a well-established franchise in highly successful and effective ways. Both Abrams and “Creed’s” Ryan Coogler understand that these aging franchises need a young new cast but also an appreciation of all that came before. You can’t ignore the history or the crowd-pleasing formula of what came before.

What’s surprising in the case of “The Force Awakens” is that Abrams also endows the film with a surprising emotional resonance that had even this hardened critic welling up with tears a couple times. That comes from respecting the core characters and their shared past (shared with each other and with us the audience). Seeing Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford return to the roles of Leia and Han remind us older fans that we have grown up with these characters and feel a deep attachment to them. Time has passed for real for Han, Leia, Carrie, Harrison, and us. This isn’t something created through make up effects, and there’s something about that that gives an added richness to the film.

I’m not going to say anything about the plot except that when the title card saying “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” came up in silence and then John Williams’ “Star Wars” them cut in and the yellow text began to crawl across the screen, I got emotional.

Wisely, Lucasfilm went with top-notch writers for the script. Lawrence Kasdan was a writer on “The Empire Strikes Back” (still hands down the best “Star Wars” film in my book) and Michael Arndt wrote “Little Miss Sunshine.” They along with Abrams deliver a script that keeps the story moving forward at a fast clip but with characters that we are either being introduced to for the first time or being re-introduced to after too long a hiatus.

Casting proves key as well. The prequels suffered from some truly atrocious casting – Hayden Christensen, Jake Lloyd – and then some actors who just seemed lost in the effects – Liam Neeson, Ewan MacGregor. In “The Force Awakens” we get all the original cast back – Fisher, Ford, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew – and new actors who have proven themselves in strong independent films. Oscar Isaac as rebel fighter pilot Poe Dameron and Adam Driver as the dark Kylo Ren both come from working with the Coen Brothers. John Boyega plays Finn and comes off the indie fav “Attack the Block.” And then award-winning actors such as Max Von Sydow, Lupita Nyong'o, Domhnall Gleeson, and Andy Serkis fill out other roles. There are no wincing moments with this cast as we had with the prequels. They sweep us up into the action and win us over.

A galaxy far, far away

Kudos also to the tech crew that have brought the “Star Wars” universe to new life. The action scenes are breathtaking in their speed and the amount of activity going on. The creatures, aliens, and droids are wonderful too. The cool thing about BB8 is that Lucasfilm called on the fan group R2-D2 Builders Club and its members Lee Towersey and Oliver Steeples to help. That’s Lucasfilm and its president Kathleen Kennedy putting its money where its mouth is by not only saying how important fans are to them but also how they are actually putting some of those talented fans to work.

I have to say that the press screening was a little disappointing and I'm happy that I will be seeing the film again at the El Capitan in Hollywood and at Cinepolis in San Diego. The screening was at one of the smaller houses at Edwards Mira Mesa and the sound seemed low. One of the things that I loved at Star Wars Celebration was how when the X-wing fighters flew over the water, the sound of the engines made then entire arena rumble so the sound vibrated from your feet up through your body. There was no such feeling at the screening. And the critics and media in attendance were the quietest audience I have ever been with. I'm looking forward to seeing it with fans like the ones at Star Wars Celebration who will react to every Easter egg, every reveal, every action sequence with squeals, hoots, and hollers. A film like this needs to be a community experience so I am looking forward to the crowd at El Capitan on Friday. I did see it in 2D, which actually was fine since I find that 3D only rarely enhances the experience. But if you do want to see it in 3D I do recommend the extremely bright screens at Cinepolis as the best for watching 3D.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence) is one of the most hyped film of all times and that’s a huge burden. The fact that Abram’s film doesn’t disappoint is no small feat proving that the Force is strong with this one.