Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Kozak rating: 4 1/2 stars

Tuesday December 15, 2015    6:17 PM

We waited for 32 years, but we finally get a Star Wars film that's exciting, exhilarating, creative, and all around excellent. George Lucas' prequel trilogy, which took a bow with Revenge of the Sith ten years ago, brought us the general feel of the original trilogy on a superficial level, while severely lacking in creativity, ingenuity, and visual inventiveness.

Lucas has been admitting how much he hates directing pretty much since the beginning of his career. Perhaps when it came time to make the prequels, instead of turning into the evil emperor of his Lucasfilm empire and controlling every aspect of the production, he should have passed the baton to a bunch of fresh and talented filmmakers/fans who could have taken a bold new step with the franchise.

After buying Lucasfilm, Disney makes the decision Lucas should have made 16 years ago, and shows us how impressively outside talent can shape the most popular blockbuster franchise in the world. If this new trilogy, set up as episodes VII, VIII, and IX, follow in the footsteps of co-writer/director JJ Abrams' excellent execution in realizing The Force Awakens, Star Wars fans have nothing to worry about.

Forget spoilers, I'm going to try to avoid describing characters and specific plot points as much as possible. In an age where Internet ruins the secrets of every single pop culture phenomenon, Abrams and his team achieved the impossible and managed to shroud their film in an impressive amount of mystery. The trailers gave the audiences the feel and look of the movie, while managing to avoid getting into even the broadest of plot elements. Now that we're so close to opening day, I don't want to undo their efforts by getting into specific details about the story or the characters.

In a purely narrative sense, The Force Awakens works mostly as a bridge between the original trilogy and the new one. But instead of the cynical "Let's reference the movies the audience loves so we can laugh all the way to the bank" nostalgia porn approach of recent franchise releases like Jurassic World, there's a real attempt at respecting established material while creating something new and exciting.

As far as the screenplay beats go, The Force Awakens basically mirrors the simple yet incredibly effective story structure of A New Hope: The Empire, now a continuation of Palpatine's legacy called The First Order, goes after a vital piece of information hidden inside a droid, a Luke Skywalker-esque character follows the Hero's Journey from being an isolated outcast in a desert planet to discovering her connection to the force, a Han Solo-esque character begins the story with selfish motivations, only to gradually realize that he can make a difference in the galaxy, etc, etc… There's even a new Death Star that's supposed to be ten times bigger than The Death Star, but is not called The Death Star.

Yet Abrams manages to capture a fresh new energetic outlook by forming a 50/50 balance between nostalgia and originality, instead of lazily employing the bland fan service of the prequels. The new characters might resemble the old ones, but they manage to live and breathe on their own. On the other hand, the established characters aren't treated like novelties to be paraded in order to simply put artificial smiles on fans' faces. They get new motivations and, gasp, relatable arcs. For example, I'm guessing those who thought Han Solo (Harrison Ford) will only grace us with a five minute cameo will be pleasantly surprised at how integral the iconic character is to the overall plot.

The ceaseless howling of "Where's Luke?" that erupted from fans ever since the release of the first trailer is answered within the first sentence of the opening crawl. I wonder if this was a last minute decision so the fans could get that information out of the way and enjoy the story? Even though Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt try their best to keep fans happy, they're also not afraid to make brave and perhaps even controversial decisions that should add a level of unpredictability to a franchise that desperately needed to raise the stakes. One of those choices was so shocking, that I wished I could have asked the projectionist to stop the film for half an hour so I could at least process what I'd just seen.

Instead of awkwardly placing actors in front of green screens while employing a bland and flat visual approach, Abrams infuses The Force Awakens with an expert blend of real locations and CG backdrops. I can't tell you how refreshing it is to see characters run through huge battlefields during the many excellent action set pieces and know that they're running through an actual field instead of pretending to break a sweat on a treadmill. The creature design also does wonders when it comes to world building by employing a blend of animatronics and CGI.

Some of the creatures that the crew must have spent months creating are only seen in the backgrounds during quick shots. The ships and costumes look used or even worn out. That's the kind of attention to detail that once again makes the Star Wars universe feel lived-in. One more bit of good news: Apart from two quick shots, I didn't see any lens flares.

With The Force Awakens, the bridge between the old and new is complete. Now the duty of the following films should be to cross that bridge and bring the fun and excitement of Star Wars to a new generation.