Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson

Star Wars: The Force Awakens shattered box office records upon its debut to become the cinematic event of a generation with over $926 million domestic and $2 billion worldwide. Thirty years after the defeat of the Galactic Empire, the galaxy faces a new threat from the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order. When a defector named Finn crash-lands on a desert planet, he meets Rey (Daisy Ridley), a tough scavenger whose droid contains a top-secret map. Together, the young duo joins forces with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) to make sure the Resistance receives the intelligence concerning the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last of the Jedi Knights. Discover the complete story behind the making of Star Wars: The Force Awakens with in-depth documentary and bonus material that will take fans on an exciting journey behind the scenes. Secrets will be revealed through extensive footage, never-before-seen deleted scenes, and exclusive interviews with the actors and filmmakers.
Film (4 out of 5 stars)
Before I begin this review, let me just say that I'm one of those hardcore fans of Star Wars that people like to make fun of. I loved these movies for as long as I can remember, as I was five years old when Star Wars (A New Hope) was released. I can still remember the gut punch that The Empire Strikes Back provided with its emotionally draining/uplifting ending and the crushing disappointment that I couldn't see Return of the Jedi on opening day because it was sold out. I've collected Star Wars toys, books, clothes (including underoos), and everything in between. I played as Luke or Han on the playground with other kids, I've dressed up as Star Wars characters for Halloween. I'm telling you all of this so that there's full disclosure that I've loved Star Wars my whole life before you read any further. 

Unlike a lot of my fellow Star Wars fans, I enjoyed the prequels although nowhere near as much as the original trilogy  . Still, there was plenty to enjoy in them from the great special effects, to the fights between the Jedi and the Sith. I also really enjoyed Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor's performances as well. I would have preferred that George Lucas would have made Episodes 7-9 then instead of the prequels, but that wasn't meant to be (you can read more about that here). Instead, the reins have been passed to J.J. Abrams to continue this new trilogy starting with this film The Force Awakens which takes place some thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi which mirrors the real time lapse between the films.

Just like the Old Republic was replaced by the Galactic Empire, the Empire itself has morphed into the First Order. The Rebellion itself has changed to the New Republic, while a splinter group opposed to the First Order is known as the Resistance, a group that is led by Princess/General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). Her brother Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), has disappeared and Leia is desperate to find him so that he can help her fight the New Order. As part of that search, Leia has sent Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to Jakku to obtain a clue to Luke's possible whereabouts from an old friend. Poe is able to obtain the info but his return is thwarted by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order who have come to Jakku to find the same information. Also on Jakku, is a young woman named Rey (Daisy Ridley) who ekes out a living salvaging parts from crashed Star Destroyers and other relics from a past fight, but has no idea who she is or why she was left alone. 

Poe is able to escape Kylo Ren's clutches thanks to a defecting stormtrooper, FN-2187 (John Boyega) who is later renamed Finn by Poe. Finn has decided that he has no desire to kill anyone for the First Order and he sees Poe as his best chance to escape. When they crash land back on Jakku during their escape, it's not long before Finn and Rey meet up and begin a shared adventure which leads them to the Millennium Falcon, which of course leads to Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewie (Peter Mayhew) in short order. Han and Chewie have reverted back to smuggling due to a family crisis that drove them away. Of course, trouble is never far away from Solo and they soon have to deal with rival death gangs determined to make Solo pay. Soon enough, both Han and Chewie are swept back into the fight against the First Order once they learn that BB-8 has a key to a map that will lead to their old friend Luke Skywalker. To find him, they know that the map has to be brought to Leia and the Resistance fast - before Kylo Ren and the First Order beat them to him.

I really liked The Force Awakens, but from this point forward there will be spoilers so stop reading now if you want to keep spoiler-free. I've seen the movie four times now and I've enjoyed it each time, but the first time was the hardest. Watching my favorite character (Han Solo) get arbitrarily killed left me cold for the rest of the movie from that point on. I felt no real elation at the victory over the First Order, in fact it actually turned me against the movie. The prospect of having Harrison Ford return to play Han Solo seemed to good to be true and perhaps it really was. In the years since Jedi, Ford never seemed to care much for Solo, and it's only been in recent years that his position seemed to have softened, Perhaps it was the heartfelt reaction he got at Comic-Con or maybe the wave of love he felt at the charity screening of The Empire Strikes Back, but something changed within him and for the last several years, he's been very open about his appreciation for the role and what the movies have done for his life and career. 

But in this movie Solo is at the end of his rope. Everyone is after him and the famous Solo luck seems to have run out. The writers even have downplayed his skills to the point that Rey has to tell him how to fix the Falcon. It's a betrayal of the character which was just the beginning of his downfall in this movie. I was originally so happy to think that we would get three more movies with Solo that I thought if Ford ever did get his earlier wish to have Solo killed, it would happen heroically in the final movie of this new trilogy. But no, instead he willingly walked to his almost certain death at his own son's hand instead. And why did this happen? Because director/writer J.J. Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan thought it would make their villain Kylo Ren more cool. As Abrams said later, "Long before we had this title, the idea of The Force Awakens was that this would become the evolution of not just a hero, but a villain. Star Wars had the greatest villain in cinema history. So, how you bring a new villain into that world is a very tricky thing. We knew we needed to do something fucking bold. The only reason why Kylo Ren has any hope of being a worthy successor is because we lose one of the most beloved characters." 

To summarize, because they couldn't write a better villain, they took a shortcut and killed the most popular character in the saga to give the emo Kylo Ren some extra street cred. That's not bold, that's incredibly stupid. Darth Vader became the most memorable villain not for killing Obi-Wan (although that helped), but because of the totality of his actions, dialogue, and actions. Vader killed more Imperials than Rebels onscreen during the original trilogy. As if that wasn't bad enough, I was even more pissed to see that I was more upset at Han's death than anyone else in movie including Leia and Chewie. At least Chewie was briefly mad and shot Kylo Ren which was appreciated. Even when Chewie returns back to the Resistance base, he and Leia don't even share a word or gesture even though they both cared about Han more than anyone. 

At least Abrams later realized this when he said, "That was probably one of the mistakes I made in that. My thinking at the time was that Chewbacca, despite the pain he was feeling, was focused on trying to save Finn and getting him taken care of. So I tried to have Chewbacca go off with him and focus on Rey, and then have Rey find Leia and Leia find Rey. The idea being that both of them being strong with the Force and never having met, would know about each other — that Leia would have been told about her beyond what we saw onscreen and Rey of course would have learned about Leia. And that reunion would be a meeting and a reunion all in one, and a sort of commiseration of their mutual loss. Had Chewbacca not been where he was, you probably wouldn’t have thought of it. But because he was right there, passed by Leia, it felt almost like a slight, which was definitely not the intention." 

I appreciate the sentiment, but how did a self-avowed Star Wars fan like himself not realize how that would be perceived? I think he should have screened the movie for some die-hard fans to get that kind of feedback. I get that most people in the audience could care less, but a lot of us do. And those are the same people that were unhappy that Luke only got about 30 seconds of screen-time with no dialogue at all. He has to play a bigger role in Episode VIII and if he doesn't, the fans will revolt. Besides, when did Luke ever become a quitter, hiding out from everyone he cares about? That isn't the Luke we've seen before at all. Luke is the one who went to save a princess, took on the Empire, abandoned his own Jedi training to save his friends, and later confronted and spared his evil father because it was the right thing to do. The episode VII version of Luke is basically a hermit hiding from the problems of the galaxy and his own friends (and possible family if Rey is his daughter). 

Okay, enough of my bitching about the parts that I didn't like as I did love a lot of it. I liked all of the new characters and I was very happy to see so many of the original ones returning besides the main cast like Admiral Ackbar, Nien Numb, and even the voices of Alec Guinness, Frank Oz, and Ewan McGregor. Of course, my favorite parts were with the original cast and I really enjoyed them during the limited screen time they had. I especially liked the scenes between Ford and Fisher as they brought back their irresistible chemistry as Han and Leia. I really wish that they had more time together. A lot of people have complained that the plot of this movie mirrors A New Hope too closely and on the surface it does. Even George Lucas himself said that “(Disney) wanted to do a retro movie. I don’t like that. Every movie, I worked very hard to make completely different, with different planets, with different spaceships, to make it new." That's not entirely fair, as his own sequel trilogy also retread a lot of the same ground which when he did it he called it something else. "You see the echo of where all is gonna go. It's like poetry, they rhyme."

I'm sure it was very hard for Lucas to pass over the reins for something that he had had absolute control over for decades. He's also probably bitter that Disney didn't take his story ideas for episodes 7-9 too. As he said, "I said, ‘If I get in there, I’m just going to cause trouble because they’re not going to do what I want them to do, and I don’t have the control to do that anymore, and all I’m going to do is muck everything up,’ so I said, ‘OK, I will go my way, and I’ll let them go their way.’” J.J. Abrams did just that. He was determined to recapture the magic that the original films had and he largely succeeded. Abrams is a gifted visual storyteller and there's many beautiful shots in The Force Awakens and they all tell part of the story. 

He's also very good with actors as he deftly obtained strong performances from the cast old and new. Speaking of the cast, they are all excellent and I was surprised at how effortless the new cast made it seem to integrate into this universe. I also liked how Abrams added some nice character moments in between the action like letting Han have a quiet moment in the cockpit of the Falcon for him to celebrate getting his beloved ship back. I seriously doubt that Han would ever let someone steal the Falcon in the first place, but it's a great moment nonetheless. (And did Abrams have to beat the crap out of the Falcon throughout the movie?) In any case, I have to say that I'm excited to see what happens next in the story for all of the characters.

Special mention must also be made to some of the those that have been there since the beginning. There's no way that you can leave out the contributions that John Williams and ILM always make for these movies and once again they've done an incredible job bringing the film to life in their own respective ways. While I didn't love some of the choices made for the film, it's still a worthy film in the canon and one that I unreservedly recommend. It's also nice to see more than one heroine in the Star Wars universe that is just as capable as the guys around her. This film is a lot of fun and really packs more of a punch that it needed to. 
Video (5 out of 5 stars)
I knew without a doubt that this Blu-ray would look and sound amazing and as expected it does. This 1080p (2.40:1) transfer is incredible from the start. The opening scrawl is razor sharp and defined and the bright yellow characters jump off the screen as the darkness of space provides a welcome backdrop. This film is a great blend of contrasts and colors between the various planets and their environments. From the sand covered world of Jakku to the iciness of the Starkiller Base to the cold and sterile look of the First Order or the musty greens of the jungle base of the Resistance, this transfer captures it all perfectly. The detail provided is also amazing as you can see every worn imperfection in costumes like Kylo Ren's. Flesh tones are suitably natural for each of the various humans and aliens. Black levels are pitch black and completely solid and there's no sign of any imperfections at all in this transfer.
Audio (5 out of 5 stars)
The Force Awakens' DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix is also stellar across the board. The dialogue is crystal clear and the sound effects sound so so good. I love it all - Kylo Ren's angry sounding lightsaber, the riot control weapon used on Finn, the various ships (and of course the sounds of the one of a kind Millennium Falcon), Chewie's bowcaster, and the various sounds of Rey's Force vision. I also really liked the all enveloping atmosphere delivered throughout the movie. From the various battle scenes, to the sounds of Maz's cantina, to the Starkiller base, the rear channels provide an immersive experience. The action on the screen is well defined across the various channels with the sound field constantly in motion around the viewer. The cross channel activity's position is extremely accurate and precise. John Williams' score is also presented impeccably from the start of the movie to the end. As always his score is at least half of what makes these movies successful and as moving as they are. This is a fantastic mix that really brings the movie to life.  
Extras (4 out of 5 stars)
While I really enjoyed the documentary provided, I really wish these releases would not only add even more extras, but also stop giving some retailers like Target extra features not found anywhere else. All of the extras should be one set and that's the same set given to everyone. While this isn't as bad as what Star Trek Into Darkness did, it's still really annoying so be forewarned that there's different versions out there. For a movie as culturally important and loved as these Star Wars movies, a little more consideration would be nice. But then again, I've bought the series at least five times to cover each release so far so maybe that's their plan again. Also, there's no trailers at all which is really surprising since they made like a hundred of them. All of the extras are in high definition.

Here's what you will find on this version:
  • Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey - At almost an hour and ten minutes of goodness, this four part documentary is my favorite special feature on the set. Masterfully directed by Laurent Bouzereau, this documentary covers just about every aspect of the making of this film. 
    • Chapter One covers the transition of Star Wars and Lucasfilm Ltd. from George Lucas to Disney and how Kathleen Kennedy was given the opportunity to take over leadership of the company as Lucas retired. Kennedy talks about how she brought in J.J. Abrams to direct the film and how they decided the direction that they wanted to take it. We also learn how the original writer Michael Arndt couldn't meet the deadline imposed, so Abrams and original trilogy writer Lawrence Kasdan rewrote the script. We also learn that the team was devoted to recapturing the feeling of the original movies so they used film instead of digital, used practical effects as much as possible, and created actual aliens instead of just depending on CGI. A lot of effort also went into the casting of the movie and we even get to see Daisy Ridley screen-test. There's also a look at that table read that we all saw the picture for. 
    • Chapter Two focuses on the actual filming of the movie starting with the scenes from Abu Dhabi that stood in for Jakku. The creation of BB-8 is also shown and we also learn how some of the movie was filmed on location for some scenes only to be filmed again in Pinewood Studios later. There's also talk about creating the various new characters and how they interact with the universe and the other established characters. We also get to see a timelapse build of the Millennium Falcon and hear about how much effort went into making it look exactly the same as before only older and grimier. And with the Falcon, we also see the filming of the reintroduction of Han and Chewie to the audience, a scene that everyone in the cast and crew knew was iconic. 
    • Chapter Three delves into Maz's cantina and all of the aliens created to populate it, a look at the motion capture process that was used for Maz and Snoke, the return of R2-D2 and C-3PO, and Carrie Fisher shares how difficult it was to return to play Leia at first and some information about Kylo Ren. 
    • Chapter Four covers what I wanted to learn the most about - the decision to kill Han Solo. While I still don't agree with the decision at all, at least after watching this extra I can take some small comfort that the decision wasn't made lightly Kasdan and Abrams. I really wish more time had been devoted to covering the reason why they did it, at least they did talk about it. A lot of other releases would have avoided it altogether. I also appreciate the behind the scenes look at Harrison Ford's wrap party where he got a huge hug from Chewbacca which seemed very fitting and helped take the sting out of the previous discussion. I will never be happy with that decision though. If they really wanted to kill Solo they could have at least waited until the third movie to give us more time with our favorite scoundrel.
  • The Story Awakens: The Table Read - I was really hoping that we would be getting the complete read through of the script by the cast, but alas this is only four minutes long. We do get to hear a few bits from the table read and we also learn that Mark Hamill did the narration for the descriptions (which makes sense since Luke has no lines in the movie at all). 
  • Crafting Creatures - This is a nine and a half minute look at the creatures created for the movie including Chewbacca. The love for Chewie is also discussed along with the recreation of his suit for Peter Mayhew which constantly got worn out by everyone wanting to hug Chewbacca. 
  • Building BB-8 - This six minute look at the genesis of BB-8 and the various models that were created to do various things in the movie.  
  • Blueprint of a Battle: The Snow Fight - This is a short look at the preparation and execution of the battle in the forest between Kylo Ren, Rey, and Finn. We see the set get constructed, the cast practice their moves, and the filming of the lightsaber battle too. 
  • ILM: The Visual Magic of the Force - Of course there had to be an extra devoted to the awesome special effects provided for the movie by ILM. Not only did they handle the usual visual effects, but they also helped bring practical effects to life too by adding some extra detail and life to them. 
  • John Williams: The Seventh Symphony - Here's a way too short look at the legendary composer John Williams who talks about continuing his long association with Star Wars and how his previous scores were incorporated into this new score.  
  • Deleted Scenes - There's a collection of deleted scenes that wouldn't have really added much to the movie if they had been kept in. There's six of them here including: "Finn and the Villager," "Jakku Message," "X-Wings Prepare for Lightspeed," "Kylo Searches The Falcon," "Snow Speeder Chase," and "Finn Will Be Fine."
  • Force for Change - Here's a quick look at the effect of this charity campaign had on the recipients including the winner of the Omaze contest. 
  • DVD version of the film
  • HD digital copy of the film
Summary (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)
The Force Awakens is a great movie and it really does recapture the old magic that a lot of people felt was missing from the prequels. While I don't agree with the decision to kill my favorite character, it's easy to see that a lot of effort and love was poured into this film from everyone involved and it looks like it was a blast to make it. This Blu-ray is also top notch with fantastic video and audio quality and some excellent extras as well. This is a must buy!

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