Is J.J. Abrams able to recreate the magic of the earlier films in Star Wars: The Force Awakens? How does Episode VII stack up with the first six first three films? Check out my spoiler free review to get my thoughts on this, the return of the old guard, new villains and heroes, and more!

It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than 10 years since the last Star Wars film, Star Wars: episode III – Revenge of the Sith (May 19th, 2005), was seen in theaters. It’s even harder to believe that it’s been almost 40 years since Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope premiered at Grauman Chinese Theater *without* a red carpet premier and without an official poster for the release. Fast forward to 2015 and it’s a completely different world with 4 blocks of Hollywood Boulevard closed to traffic and transformed it all into a living, breathing, Star Wars monument with droids and wookies galore and a world premier showing the film in three different theaters, including a return to TLC’s Chinese Theater (which is where I had the opportunity to view the film).

Let’s get a few things out of the way first: “Yes” I am a BIG Star Wars fan (who isn’t)? “Yes” I have seen just about anything and everything available on all of the Star Wars films, TV specials, animated cartoons and I have read several of the books. My uncle, David Farland, actually wrote one of my favorites – The Courtship of Princess Leia which sees Han Solo and Princess Leia tie the knot.
There is SO much to the film that it’s hard to share any of it without spoiling *something* for someone, but I’ll do my best. The one thing that I can tell you is that if you think the trailers and have given the story way, you couldn’t be more wrong. I walked into the theater thinking that I had an idea of what the film would be about, who would do what, etc., but I had quite a few questions - Who is Kylo Ren and what's up with his mask? Why has Mark Hamill’s role been shrouded in such secrecy? How does Finn (John Boyega) go from being a storm trooper in the First Order to being a Jedi? Who’s this junker girl “Rey” (Daisy Ridley) and how does she fit in? What’s the big deal about the pilot Poe Dameron that Oscar Isaac is portraying? A female chrome trooper? How in the world did that happen? Granted, I had a few questions, but I thought I had a pretty good grasp of things going in. Needless to say, I walked out of TLC's Chinese Theater with my mind not only blown, but filled with more questions than I had entered with. I was stunned that I could be so completely misled, I mean the trailers always give away the plot and the good parts of the movie, right? My hat goes off to J.J. Abrams and the cast and crew for being able to keep such a tight lid on all of it like they have.
Let’s dig into it, shall we? To start, the cast was amazing. After the hit or miss casting in the last three films that we saw (some were much better than others, to say the least), I was very concerned about some of the casting choices for this film. Rest assured that all of them turn in fantastic performances with Daisy Ridley possibly turning in the best performance from the new Generation, although Adam Driver’s “Kylo Ren” is bound to not only shock, but really upset a few people. He may be one of my favorite on-screen villains in a long time, sounds absolutely bad @$$ and he carries a sweet lightsabre. Although it’s been over 30 years, it was great to see the cast back together on screen and in the Star Wars universe. Harrison Ford gets plenty of screen time and reminds us of why everyone loved the cocky smuggler Han Solo and some of the scenes shared with Fisher’s Leia Organa were quite touching.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Kylo Ren

The special effects were great, but you already expected that. The trailers showed off some of the greatness to be seen, but only a very small portion. The X-wing and TIE fighter sequences are absolutely breath taking, as is the first flight of the Millennium Falcon, which we had a brief glimpse at in several of the trailers and TV spots. Yes, the Corellian freighter looks like it can still make the Kessel Run in less than fourteen parsecs (you’ll see what I did there *after* you see the film). The lightsaber battles are intense and Kylo Ren’s blade is absolutely BRUTAL. You'll find out exactly what those smaller blades on the hilt can be used for.
The story is well written and pays homage to the films before, with several scenes and peices of dialogue referencing the previous Star Wars "episods". As I mentioned earlier, the story does answer quite a few questions that viewers will have going into the film, but it will raise many more and leave most of them unanswered, presumably for Episodes VII and IX to answer. The story may be the one part that “critics” (I use the term loosely and definitely consider myself a “fan”) may have issues with. It covers a lot of ground and the pace really picks up in the second act, but hits the perfect pace for a fantastic third act. It doesn’t quite feel rushed, but it pushes the envelope at times. This leads to one of the other possible issues some will have with the film in that some characters do not get much screen time or character development.  I have a feeling that this will be rectified, similar to the unanswered questions that are raised, in later films. I REALLY want the back story on several of the new characters that are introduced in the film.
John Williams is back with a fantastic score. I own the soundtracks from all of the films and used to put my oldest boy Griffin, who was lucky enough to attend the premiere with me, to sleep as a baby with the music of Return of the Jedi (mostly because he was a crazy kid and “Ewok Celebration” and “Lapti Nek” were the only things he would fall asleep to late at night in his baby swing). Williams IS Star Wars and the music reinforces that over and over throughout the film. From the opening sequence to the end credits, this film SOUNDS like Star Wars and will pull at your heart strings a time or two as the music and the scenes sync beautifully together. The rest of the sound design is on target as well with the great Star Wars sound effects that you would expect, plus some fantastic new ones. Did I mention that Kylo Ren sounds absolutely amazing? There are probably kids that will have nightmares from his voice alone. Is there a sound award for that?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Finn (John Boyega)

The film also has a LOT of humor, similar in tone to the first three Star Wars episodes. Some may think there is too much, but I thought it hit the right tone of seriousness with some comic relief thrown in just when things start looking bad for the characters. John Boyega is pretty darn funny and is able to pull it off quite well, which is a good thing considering many of the comedic scenes involve his character. Some may see it as over-the-top, but I thought it was just about right considering the newer and younger generations of Star Wars fans that are learning about this galaxy that’s far, far away.
Needless to say, this is a movie that you absolutely must see. Will it disappoint? I honestly don’t see how that’s possible. Yes, the film has has a tremendous amount of hype behind it and there are some rather zealous fans out there, but to me it lived up to everything I wanted to see in a new Star Wars film and even surprised me with a some things that I had never really given much thought. I think it's better than A New Hope and may be right there with The Empire Strikes Back, my favorite film of the Star Wars franchise. I'm happy to say that I have at least two new Star Wars characters that I absolutely love (they're probably not who you think), plus a new droid thrown in to boot.  Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens was like hanging out with some old friends who you haven’t seen in a long time and catching up on some out of this world stories. Did I mention that they happened to bring a few new friends to the party to get to know and love?

Review: 5 BB-8s out of 5
[5 out of 5 BB-8s]

Questions I’m Most Often Asked

Q: Is Jar Jar Binks in the film and is he the Sith Lord?
A: I can neither confirm nor deny that Jar Jar Binks makes an appearance in the film. I WILL say that The Force Awakens does not have any of the annoying aliens or characters that plagued some of the earlier films.
Q: Luke turns to the dark side and becomes Kylo Ren, right?
A: I CAN tell you that in the books following the events of Return of the Jedi, Luke does indeed spend some time on the dark side. Does that happen in this film? Is he Kylo Ren? You’ll have to watch it to find out.
Q: I heard that ---InsertChracterNameHere—dies in the film. Is that true?
A: It’s a film where the First Order has a thing called the “Starkiller Base.” There are LOTS of people, and aliens, die in the film. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens hits theaters this Friday, 12/18/2015 (as if you needed to be reminded).

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