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Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens (Blu-ray Review)

1 Apr, 2016 By: John Latchem

Street 4/5/16
Box office $934.07 million
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sci-fi action violence
Stars Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow.

Nostalgia. It’s a word often associated with a longing for past events one holds in high regard. In cinematic terms, it can ignite warm memories for an audience looking to reconnect with their childhood, but it can also serve as a crutch for the filmmaker to gloss over flaws in the film.

The Blu-ray of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is dripping with nostalgia at almost every level, from the film itself to a package of bonus materials loaded with actors and filmmakers reflecting on the classic “Star Wars” films and hoping to restore that feeling in an era following the often-chided prequels. There is perhaps no greater symbol of the sentimentality on display than all the people who stopped by to visit the set of the Millennium Falcon, a celebrity line-up that even includes Malala Yousafzai.

The Force Awakens is Disney’s attempt to restart the venerable sci-fi franchise since its $4 billion acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012, and as such a lot of care has gone into crafting a film that connects fans to what they loved about the original trilogy while building a foundation for future episodes.

The creative spark was provided primarily by director J.J. Abrams, who co-wrote the script with Lawrence Kasden, the industry veteran cut his industry teeth writing the screenplays for The Emprie Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Abrams is a director who coasts on nostalgia, putting his focus on strong character dynamics and audience sentiment in service of a story that isn’t always the most original.

Force Awakens, as has often been noted during its record-breaking box office run, is essentially a retelling of the original 1977 Star Wars (which has since been dubbed Episode IV — A New Hope) with a new generation of characters. Lifting story elements from the original Star Wars to restart a franchise isn’t a new trick for Abrams, since he essentially did the same thing for the 2009 Star Trek reboot (listless farmboy following the advice of an older mentor to join a larger effort that brings him into conflict with a weapon that destroys planets — don’t deny it “Star Trek” fans). In fact, because of Abrams’ involvement, it would be easy to classify Force Awakens as a remake of Star Trek ’09, which itself was a remake of the original Star Wars.

Oddly enough, though, such trappings of nostalgia actually work in the context of “Star Wars,” a franchise that often relies on different characters encountering similar decision points in order to create an expansive environment where experiences can be compared and celebrated.

There may be quibbles to be had about the placement of certain plot developments within this film, as opposed to later in the trilogy (chronologically, this would be the third of four episodes in which the good guys have to attack a battle station that can destroy planets). The Force Awakens can’t help but throw familiar elements at the audience, but at least it has the good sense to provide a knowing wink as it does it.

Moving the story ahead three decades beyond Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens echoes many familiar characters and situations from the earlier films. There’s a young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) who gets caught up with a group called the Resistance that is fighting against a new galactic menace called the First Order. She’s joined by a former stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) and a droid named BB-8 that contains information vital to the fight. In their travels they encounter smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford in a wonderful performance, effortlessly slipping back into the role), who gets to both imbue this film with the character’s trademark roguish charm while also slotting into the Obi-Wan Kenobi role of the grizzled war veteran who relates to the newcomers how things used to be (a neat twist given how much Han was skeptical the Force in the original film).

The film does a great job reestablishing the franchise with a sense of fun, even if some of Abrams’ distinct directorial flairs can be a bit of a distraction at times for anyone overly familiar with his work. This is a minor quibble about a film that does such a good job keeping all its elements in balance and providing a new batch of likeable characters.

A lot of the buzz about the Blu-ray has been about the deleted scenes on the bonus disc, but these don’t really amount to much more than a curiosity. There are six scenes totaling a tad over four minutes, with some interesting moments but ultimately underwhelming since the visual effects aren’t completed and there has already been myriad discussions online about what didn’t make it into the film. There's a digital-exclusive scene of Han, Chewie and Maza Kanata fighting stormtroopers that you can get by redeeming the accompanying digital copy code. But where's Constable Zuvio? Where’s the scene of Chewbacca ripping out a guy’s arm to protect Rey?

A bit more insightful are the two hours of behind-the-scenes featurettes, topped by “Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey,” which runs an hour and nine minutes. After an amusing bit of all the actors joking about how they can’t talk about anything, the documentary traces the creation of the film from George Lucas selling Lucasfilm to Disney, through the writing process, pre-production, casting, location shooting and more. It's a nice look at the production, but lacks the kind of depth that marked similar extras from the prequel DVDs. The well-publicized accident that broke Harrison Ford's ankle isn't even mentioned here. The emphasis seems to be to focus on the happy times.

The four-minute “The Story Awakens: The Table Read” offers Abrams and Kasdan reflecting on the time the first time the cast gathered to read the script.

“Crafting Creatures” is a 10-minute look at designing new aliens and bringing back some familiar ones.

“Building BB-8” is six-minutes about the creation of the franchise’s newest lovable droid, brought to life as an on-set puppet based on a rough sketch by Abrams.

“Blueprint of a Battle: The Snow Fight” is a seven-minute dissection of the climactic lightsaber duel.

The eight-minute “ILM: The Visual Magic of the Force” focuses on the visual effects and the use of motion capture to create several key characters, and finding a balance between CGI and practical physical effects that evoke the feeling of the original trilogy.

“Force for Change” is a three-minute PSA-esque look at charity efforts surrounding the film and a contest that gave a fan a chance to have a walk-on role.

The nostalgia factor is turned up a notch in “John Williams: The Seventh Symphony,” a seven-minute featurette about the film’s fantastic music from composer John Williams, who has provided the music for all seven episodes. Williams earned his 50th Academy Award nomination for his effort here adding to the franchise’s “glossary of themes.” Hopefully he’ll be able to come back for Episode VIII and IX to round out the set.

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