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Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (PG-13)
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Caution: spoilers!

So. This is something that people have looked forward to with varying degrees of eagerness or dread. There was never any question that it was going to be huge, as far as box office was concerned, but there was plenty of question as to whether it would be good or not. It's been over 30 years since Episode VI came out, and roughly that much time has passed in the Star Wars universe, as well. Of course, in the real world, a lot has happened in between episodes 6 and 7. Things like sixteen years of nothing (aside from the expanded universe of books and such). Then there were the long-awaited prequels, which many longtime fans of Star Wars hated. (I actually liked them, but I was disappointed not to love them, as I did the original trilogy.) So there was reason to doubt that the new set of movies that begins with Episode VII would be any better. Further complicating things was the news that the movie would be directed and co-written by J.J. Abrams, who had recently rebooted the Star Trek franchise, to mixed reaction from fans. (News of his involvement with Star Wars led some people to start calling him "Jar-Jar Abrams," referencing a much-hated character from the prequels.) It's also the first Star Wars movie to be made since Disney bought Lucasfilm, and the first to be made without the involvement of creator George Lucas (who would have some less than enthusiastic things to say about the movie). Still, there was some good news, in that the new movie would involve a lot less CGI than the prequels, which signaled a possible (and very welcome) return to the look of the originals. And pretty much everyone loved the trailers. Then again... one thing that bothered me, long before the movie was released, was that apparently decades' worth of expanded universe books, comics, and at least one TV show, which were heretofore considered at least nominally "canon" were just basically jettisoned into space (metaphorically speaking). Which is not to say that you couldn't still read or watch those things and enjoy them, but it seemed kind of unfair to suddenly say they don't "count." What's more, there's a massive new expanded universe of books and comics and at least one TV show which are part of the new canon. And it's all more than I could possibly keep up with. But... whatever. All that really matters is whether the movie itself is any good. And I'm happy to report that it is. (I got to see it in a theater, just over a week after it opened. Which is surprising, because I almost never get to go to the movies. Any movies.) I can't really say I loved it, but I definitely liked it. And it's possible that upon repeat viewings (on DVD, someday), my appreciation for it will increase to love (though surely never on the same level as the original trilogy).

Anyway... the movie failed to make me entirely certain of what the political state of the galaxy is, at this point. Obviously, the Empire is long gone, and has been replaced by the New Republic. But there's also a group called the First Order, which as far as I can tell is exactly the same as the Empire was, except... I don't think it's officially recognized as a legitimate government. Then again, maybe it is recognized by some star systems and not by others. It confused me a bit, because members of the Order refer to their enemy as "the Resistance," which is obviously reminiscent of the Rebellion from the original trilogy. I kind of would assume they use that term specifically to be dismissive, and refer to the Republic as "supporting" the Resistance, when it seems more likely to me that what the Order calls the Resistance is really the legitimate military of the Republic. On the other hand, from what I saw in the movie, it seemed as if the First Order had greater military strength than the Resistance, which itself seemed no more powerful (maybe even less so) than the Rebellion was. Maybe all of this is (or will be) explained in the new expanded universe, or maybe the picture given by the first movie was not an accurate representation of the respective overall forces of the Republic and the First Order. (None of this is really important, but it's something I couldn't help wondering about, while watching the movie.) The important thing, or one of the important things, is that the First Order has a new superweapon called Starkiller Base, which has been built into an entire planet. So it's way bigger and more powerful than either Death Star was. It can destroy entire star systems, not just individual planets, and apparently it can do so from vast distances (rather than having to actually travel to the system they want to destroy). Incidentally, the Starkiller gets its power by consuming a sun, so... that kind of means it's actually killing one star in order to kill another. (I reckon it also means the planet would have to travel to another star system after making one kill, in order to obtain more fuel.)

The other important thing is that Luke Skywalker has been in hiding for some time, prior to the start of the movie. So now, both the Resistance and the First Order want to find him. The movie opens on the desert planet Jakku, where a Resistance pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) obtains a map to Luke's location. However, the planet is soon attacked by the First Order, and Poe is captured. However, he first managed to give the map to a droid called BB-8. (Note: BB-8 is one of the few characters fans had gotten a glimpse of, and loved, well before the movie came out. Its appearance is kind of reminiscent of R2-D2, except... different. And it communicates the same way as Artoo. Incidentally, I couldn't help thinking, while watching the movie, the Order should have learned from the Empire's mistakes, and always follow the droid. Luckily, they didn't. At least not immediately.) Meanwhile, during the battle that destroyed the village where Poe had obtained the map, a stormtrooper (John Boyega) watches all the killing and decides he wants no part of it. (We'll later learn that he's been raised by the First Order, which is presumably true of all stormtroopers, and has no actual name. In any event, he's another of the characters fans saw before the movie came out. And the internet being the wretched hive of scum and villainy that it is, of course there was some backlash against there being a black stormtrooper in the movie, but I daresay most Star Wars fans are better than that.) Anyway, back on the base, when the stormtrooper decides to escape in a TIE fighter, he needs a pilot. So he breaks Poe out of his holding cell, and when they escape, Poe names him "Finn." Finn wants to get as far from Jakku as possible, but Poe insists on going back, to retrieve BB-8 (and the map). Of course they're pursued by the Order, and end up crashing on Jakku. Poe is apparently killed in the crash, so Finn starts looking for a settlement, on his own.

Meanwhile, there's a young woman named Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who has spent most of her life on Jakku, waiting for her family to return. (We eventually see a flashback of her being left behind as a young girl, though the actual details of what happened to her family remain vague, for now. Oh... and Rey is another of the characters we knew about before the movie was released, and again, the internet has plenty of misogynists, in addition to racists, so some people were upset about her existence as a protagonist, as well. But again, I think most fans are better than that.) She soon meets BB-8, and a bit later she meets Finn. But the Order begins chasing them (Finn for being a traitor, and BB-8 because they've finally figured out that it has the map). So Rey, Finn, and BB-8 steal a certain freighter that had apparently been sitting around on Jakku for some years now: the Millennium Falcon. Rey manages to pilot it, and they escape from the First Order. However, they're soon captured by a larger ship which turns out to belong to Han Solo and Chewbacca, who have been searching for the Falcon for quite some time.

Well, some other stuff happens that I don't want to get into. But after a little while, they all leave the larger ship behind, and travel on the Falcon, to a planet called Takodana. There, Han introduces Rey and Finn to a wise old alien woman (and cantina owner) named Maz Kanata (a CGI character voiced by Lupita Nyong'o), who supposedly can get BB-8 to the Resistance. But before she can do anything, one cantina patron secretly contacts the Order, while another contacts the Resistance, each to let them know where BB-8 was. Meanwhile, it turns out that Maz has had possession of Luke's lightsaber for quite some time, and now she wants Rey to have it. It becomes clear that Rey is strong in the Force, though as yet it's unclear if there's a particular reason for that. But at first, she rejects it. So Finn takes the lightsaber, for now.

Meanwhile, the Starkiller destroys its first target... looking at Wikipedia, I see that it was the capital of the Republic, a fact which either I missed or have simply forgotten, since I saw the movie. So... that's pretty bad. And I guess it explains why the Resistance fleet wasn't as strong as it should have been, later on. But anyway, the First Order then attacks Takodana in a more traditional fashion. Our heroes put up a good fight, but are soon captured... until the Resistance shows up, and manages to win the battle in spite of their recent loss. At this point, Han is reunited with Leia, who is now a General in the Resistance. Apparently it's been years since they've seen each other, although we learn they have a son named Ben (Adam Driver). He had been trained as a Jedi by Luke, until being convinced by the First Order's Supreme Leader Snoke (another CGI character, voiced by Andy Serkis) to betray the Republic, and become a Sith. Ben now goes by the name Kylo Ren, and he wears black armor that's reminiscent of Darth Vader's. (And of course, Vader was his grandfather.) But I think such armor is now worn by all the captains of the stormtroopers. Or... maybe not. The only other character I'm sure I saw with black armor was Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), and I guess hers was basically just stormtrooper armor that was black instead of white. (Though somehow I failed to notice the difference, while watching the movie. And now that I look online, everything I find says it's silver, though the pictures I can find all make her armor look kind of black to me, and I swear in the movie itself the armor looked unmistakably black. So... whatever.) Phasma and Kylo Ren were both characters that fans heard of before the movie, but while Ren turns out to be the film's main villain, Phasma's own role is a lot smaller than I expected. Anyway... of course Han and Leia both hope that they can find their son and bring him back to their side.

However, in spite of the Resistance's victory on Takodana, Ren manages to capture Rey and take her back to his base. Meanwhile, Finn joins the Resistance (after initially wanting nothing to do with them), and the map is delivered to the good guys. It turns out to be incomplete, so it doesn't really help them. But the Order has the other part of the map, and Ren believes he can read Rey's mind to see the part of the map he lacks, since she had seen the part BB-8 had. Anyway, our heroes go to their base on a planet called D'Qar, which the Order plans to destroy with the Starkiller. Of course, the Resistance comes up with a plan to destroy the Starkiller, which is pretty much the same as the plan to destroy the original Death Star. Part of the plan requires Han, Finn, and Chewie to infiltrate Starkiller Base, before X-Wings can take it out. But Finn really just went along to rescue Rey (who actually managed to escape on her own, using her growing Force powers). And... something happens on the Starkiller that I absolutely am not going to spoil (at least until the next movie). But ultimately, the Starkiller is destroyed. And there's another battle between Ren and Finn and Rey (the latter of whom finally accepts the lightsaber). Rey ultimately wins the battle, but Ren escapes, and Snoke plans to complete his training. And... eventually, Artoo discovers the rest of the map, so the Resistance now knows where to find Luke. Rey goes to him at the end of the movie, but he doesn't speak, yet. So... I look forward to seeing what happens next.

As usual, I feel like I've said too much, but left out... well, a couple of things, at least. So, what else can I say? The movie had some decent humor, decent drama, decent characters, decent special effects, decent battles. The actual plot didn't do much for me; I thought much of it felt very "been there, done that." (Some details were far too similar to plot points from the original trilogy, and even the things that were relatively fresh to the Star Wars universe had been done in other movies. BB-8, in spite of being a lovable little droid, was pretty much a MacGuffin, and the map it carried reminded me of Titan A.E.) But even if it wasn't quite as original as I would have liked, it was a lot of fun to watch, and I didn't find anything to actually dislike about it. But I do sort of see it mostly as an introduction to several new characters. So I'm hoping the upcoming movies will be better, have more unique and interesting plots, now that the introductions are out of the way. (And hopefully reveal some answers to questions that were raised in this movie, particularly about Rey's origins.)

ETA: there's a video on the webseries Pop Culture Detective Agency called "The Stormtrooper Paradox" that discusses an interesting point about this movie, which is easy to overlook.

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Prequel trilogy: The Phantom Menace * Attack of the Clones * Revenge of the Sith
Original trilogy: A New Hope * The Empire Strikes Back * Return of the Jedi
Sequel trilogy: The Force Awakens * The Last Jedi * The Rise of Skywalker
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