Review – The Force Is Strong With J. J. (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”)

Never, ever, can I remember a single movie getting THIS amount of hype. $100 million in pre-sales alone? Inconceivable! Companies and people taking off work to see it, children absent from school, and merchandising sales into the stratosphere. But, let’s talk about the movie, shall we? According to many Star Wars purists, Episodes 1, 2, and 3 didn’t happen. What, you can’t handle a little Jar-Jar Binks and Count Dooku? Anyway, this is THE movie every sci-fi geek in the universe has been begging for since 1983’s Return of the Jedi, and thank God the original cast is still around to reprise their roles!

It’s been 30 years since the events of Return of the Jedi and the old Rebel Alliance (the good guys) and the Empire (the bad guys) are gone and have been replaced by a whole new crop of good/bad guys: The Resistance (good) and The First Order (bad). Like ‘string-theory’ where the same story evolves in a multi-universe, but with alternated versions of the key players, this is Star Wars: A New Hope/Return of the Jedi retold a second time, but with new faces.

On the desolate desert planet Jakko, a brash and lonely girl named Rey (Daisy Ridley) spends her days eeking out a living by scavenging parts off an old Imperial starship wreck. But her life is turned upside-down when a cute little rolling droid named BB-8 comes into her possession. But little does she know this droid has a hidden map inside that leads to the whereabouts of long-lost Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), whom the entire galaxy (especially the First Order) has been been playing a game of Where’s Waldo with for decades. He’s the last Jedi and the source of the Force’s “light”; snuff him out and the Dark Side wins for good!

Meanwhile, a lone First Order stormtrooper (John Boyega) called FN-2187 (aka Finn), goes rogue after seeing too much killing and grows a conscience. His boss, Captain Phasma (a terribly underused Gwendoline Christie), doesn’t like it and reports back to HQ, the colossal Starkiller Base (a planet-sized Death Star). There we see a power struggle between two officers: the intimating and power-hungry General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and evil-Jedi commander Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a sinister Darth Vader worshiping mask-wearing figure who longs to please his master, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis in CGI form). Snoke (who looks like a holographic giant Smeegle from LOTR) wants Skywalker dead at any cost to end the Jedi order and the ‘light’.

Fortunately, ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) is rescued by Finn when he’s captured by the First Order, but is presumed dead when they crash land on Jakku. Finn meets Rey with BB-8 and the fun begins when our new hero’s take off in the old Millennium Falcon to get the secret map to the Resistance. Along the way they meet the one and only Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his BFF, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). After a brief skirmish with space pirates, they get to the base with the map. There Han meets up with his former love, (Princess) General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), who also has C3PO (Anthony Daniels) and a dormant R2D2.

After the map proves ineffectual, they discover bigger probs; Starkiller Base can harness the sun and blast out space rays that will (GULP!) annihilate planets miles away! A decision is made to destroy Starkiller Base, but not before a daring rescue mission by Finn, Han, and Chewbacca to save Rey who was kidnapped by Kylo and taken there. Hey, as long as you’re there rescuing someone, might as well blow up the shield generator so the X-Wings can bomb the place, right?

By this time, however, Rey has discovered sometime she doesn’t really understand: the Force is strong with her! Yup, looks like there’s another Jedi in the making and Kylo Ren wants her out of way via an epic duel. By the conclusion (guess what happens to the Starkiller Base?), we finally see Luke for all of one minute, setting it up for 2017’s Episode 8 where Luke will no doubt train Rey, just like in Episode 5.

With a fun, fan-fiction style screenplay by director J. J. Abrams, Michael Arndt, and Lawrence Kasdan, you really get your monies worth at a fast-paced 2hrs and 16 minutes. The similarities/plots between the previous Star Wars movies are everywhere: the hidden plans for the Rebel base in a droid, the holographic Emperor calling the shots to his apprentice, the bored youngster (and damned good pilot) on a desert planet who becomes the unwitting hero, a Death Star-ish Base to be destroyed. . . again, a hot-shot wise-cracking pilot, a ‘Mos Eisley’ creature canteen scene with a band, the pupil (Skywalker) eventually meeting his teacher (Yoda), etc. It’s Star Wars 2.0 retold for a whole new generation and done with panache and playfulness.

Abrams knows his Star Wars fans and does not disappoint them. The direction is clean and quick, with NO LENS FLARES, adding many homages and surprises along with some shocking revelations that I left out of this review. . .you’ll just have to go see the movie, which I highly recommended if you were ever a Star Wars fan. I grew up with Luke, Leia, Han, Chewy, and the whole gang in the 70’s and watching this film was like being hit with a happy wave of nostalgia. No whiz-bang, in-your-face, CGI stuff (like Episodes 1, 2, & 3), but a delicious old-school throwback to practical SPFX, make-up, sets, and costuming. Love it!

The acting is uniformly excellent; Ridley is wonderful and has a very nice transformation from local desert girl to kick-ass warrior, while Boyega is the new Han Solo with his quirky devil-may-care attitude hidden within his cloned heart. Driver is just scary as Kylo Ren with both his muted expressions of rage and wild temper tantrums. Then you got Ford as the irascible, cantankerous Han Solo who is SO damn enjoyable, whether he’s the old curmudgeon pirate or the caring scoundrel, you can’t help but love this guy! Yeah, I’ll be seeing this movie again!

There practically isn’t a man, women, or child on our big, blue planet than doesn’t know what Star Wars is. The iconic and worldwide phenom has launched billions and billions of dollars worth of merchandising, not to mention a plethora of some of the worst Star Wars rip-off movies ever made! Starting just a year later in 1978, horrible low-budget films like Starcrash, Galaxina, the goofy Japanese Message From Space, the animated Starchaser: Legend of Orin, and Battle Beyond the Stars peppered the screens hoping to catch some of the box office gold that Lucas has wrought.

Battle Beyond The Stars (1980)


Remember Richard Thomas from The Waltons TV show? This is the movie his agent suggested he should do after his TV career was done. This is why you shouldn’t trust an agent.A Roger Corman produced blatant rip-off of The Seven Samurai (which itself has been ripped-off to infinity) and Star Wars, this space opera deals with an all-to familiar setting on a planet named Akir (homage to Samurai director, Akira Kurosawa). Young farmer Shad (Thomas) and his people are threatened by an intergalactic bad guy named Sador (John Saxon). Surrender your planet or be destroyed! Oh, what to do? What to do?

Shad volunteers to take their only star cruiser and seek out help to defend their planet. His adventures in space and neighboring planets has him meeting up with a rogues gallery of bizarre and weird mercenaries that take Shad up on his offer. Among his “samurai” are George Peppard (as Space Cowboy from Earth–no kidding, that’s his name!), a wealthy assassin called Gelt (Robert Vaughn–a Magnificent Seven movie alumni–nice touch, there), Saint-Exmin (a very buxom Sybil Danning) a Valkyrie warrior who longs to die to battle, and Nestor 1 of 5 (Earl Boen) an alien being who speaks for his fellow mute beings. Shad also meets the pretty Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel), the daughter of crazy Dr. Hephaestus (Sam Jaffee). Wait for the campfire scene, it’s a hoot.

The major battle in space then begins with the powerful Sador vs the seven ragtag heroes who battle and die off one by one, but Shad naturally wins the day and gets the girl. It’s pure 80’s cheese with tongue-in-cheek dialoge, silly SPFX, and a witty and fun storyline that (thank God) doesn’t take itself seriously.

With a popcorny screenplay by John Sayles, who usually writes/directs such heavy films like Matewan and Passion Fish, this is a one of those scripts where he threw caution to the wind and just wrote some fun scenes. It worked and this rip-off actually made bank at the box office. The director, James J. Murakami, is primarily a Japanese animator who did one other live-action film for Roger Corman, so don’t expect anything other than point ‘n’ shoot stuff here.

Cool trivia note: The model maker and art director in charge of the space craft and SPFX for this movie? James Cameron! Yup, you can thank B-movie maker Roger Corman for giving James Cameron his big break into the biz with this and other projects. It was in this film Cameron also met Gale Anne Hurd, assistant to Corman and who would go on to be Cameron’s wife and one of THE top producers in Hollywood.

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