“The Force Awakens” solid, if familiar

For storytelling purposes, the “Star Wars” saga should be over. It should have ended with “Return of the Jedi” in 1983. That was a natural conclusion to the story with the destruction of evil, the redemption of a fallen character and the ascension of the hero. There really was no need for additional films.

But “Star Wars” is the most successful film franchise of all-time so the story will not end despite how natural its conclusion may be. There will be more and more. It’s a shame, but audiences are insatiable when it comes to this galaxy far, far away.

First came the prequels. They were awful. They contained everything that is wrong in today’s Hollywood: an overuse of CGI special effects, a lack of storytelling and character development, an assembly-line production that never hints at any goal other than profit.

But fans still went to see them in record droves which only meant that there would be more films. “Star Wars” may have lost its magic in the digital age, but it has not lost its money-making power.

So it is that we receive Episode VII: “The Force Awakens.” Expectations were sky high (which they should not have been after the disaster of the prequels). George Lucas had sidestepped his throne to the next generation, starting with J.J. Abrams, one of the fanboys who fell in love with the original films.

And amazingly the film delivers. Despite the fact that it is not necessary, that expectations are too high, that it is still purely a money-making machine rather than a storytelling experience, the film is an exciting adventure that utilizes character, reverence and nostalgia (though perhaps too much).

Needless to say, there will be more Star Wars films, there will be more toys and promotions and products, there will be more everything. But if the films can continue to reach this level of semi-competence, this level of pop art, it won’t be the end of the world.

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SPOILERS

“The Force Awakens” takes place 30 years after the events of “Return of the Jedi.” Luke Skywalker is missing and the shards of the old rebellion and the old empire are fighting once again (now called the First Order and the Resistance). It is somewhat confusing who is in charge of what and where everyone is, but that is beside the point. They are fighting, one is evil, one is good, move on.

There is a map to Luke stored on the drive to a BB-8 droid who is left on the planet Jakku after his master Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is captured by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a Sith, and the First Order. The droid befriends young Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger, and they join up with Finn (John Boyega), an ex-stormtrooper. Together, they go to deliver the map to Luke to the Resistance.

While the prequels are stale and unfeeling, this film is nothing if not packed with emotion. Abrams and everyone in crew obviously love “Star Wars” and have created a film imbued with that love.  There is great attention to detail with many of the side characters, locations and gadgets having complexity and realness beyond the modern movie spectacle. It is a joy to see such adoration in every frame of the film.

However, the story suffers as it is a direct copy of Episode IV: “A New Hope.” Both films follow a young individual on a desert planet who befriends an R2 droid with secret information that needs to be returned to the good guys while the bad guys chase them. They both meet a potential love interest and are chased off the desert planet. They both befriend a scruffy, old, wise mentor from the previous saga (Obi-Wan/Han Solo) who ends up dying at the end of the film at the hand of his former pupil/son over a ravine while the heroes overlook the situation and shoot at the perpetrator. There’s a cantina scene in each where a character looks for a pilot. There’s a menacing creature that the heroes need to escape from (trash compactor creature/ranthars). There’s a confrontation involving X-Wings sent to destroy an evil space station that has already destroyed a planet. There in fact seems to be very little that’s new in the film at all.

Granted, there can be some allusions to the plot of the franchise’s first film to tie everything together, but at a certain point, the repetition gets to be a little too much, especially in regards to the Death Star-esque weapon and confrontation at the film’s conclusion. It would be nice if Episode VIII left the nostalgia at the door and presented a unique, new story, devoid of similar plot references. Otherwise it will feel like just another cashgrab based on nostalgia and sentimentality.

And personally, it would have been nice for few if any of the original characters to make an appearance as Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher all seem a little long in the tooth for this type of movie. Perhaps just the character of Luke Skywalker was all that was needed to tie in this saga with the previous as Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren are all engaging, interesting characters who could have carried the film themselves. All that needed to be mentioned about Han or Leia or R2-D2 is that they lived happily ever after or died in some explosion or something that ended their story so that a new cast of characters could get their narrative without being bogged down by the previous trilogy’s characters.

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So there will be more “Star Wars” films. One every year for the foreseeable future in fact. There will be product tie-ins, film spin-offs, excessive merchandising and a gluttony of fan tributes and speculation. It is the greatest film juggernaut of all-time, seemingly a religion for some people, and though “The Force Awakens” plays it a little too safe, it is fun, it is adventuresome, it avoids so many of the problems that plagued the prequels, and it is far better than many other blockbusters released over the last few years.

If the films can continue to be this engaging, the marketing will be easier to stomach.

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