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  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Blu-ray)

    Posted in: Disc Reviews by Gino Sassani on March 29th, 2016

    Overall
    Film
    Video
    Audio
    Extras
    (out of 5)

    “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…”

    It sure does seem like it was a long time ago since Star Wars was actually very good. It doesn’t matter if you thought Empire or Jedi was the last good film; few people that I’ve encountered mentioned the more recent trilogy in the same sacred breath as those original films. Star Wars gave us swashbuckler adventure in the spirit of the early serials. Then it was about a mythical epic story that swept a generation into its colorful universe. What George Lucas created in the late 1970’s will never die. But before long it became more about the creator and less about engaging the fans. The attitude turned into “this is my franchise and I’ll do whatever the heck I want to do with it.” First he changed elements of the first films, most notably the “who shot first” controversy over Han Solo and Greedo. It was as if Lucas was truly feeling like God now. Lucas giveth, and Lucas taketh away. The prequel trilogy was all about getting theaters to change to digital and presenting films that shouted wildly, “Look at me”. Many scenes were so crowded with visuals that it wasn’t even possible to take it all in. The technology began to overshadow the story. And it was always made worse that Lucas didn’t seem to care at all what we thought. Star Wars no longer belonged to us.

    Enter Walt Disney Studios. Disney was enjoying quite a lot of success buying properties like Pixar and Marvel. They paid huge prices but ended up making it back in what seems like mere hours. Now all that remained was for George Lucas to make one last sacrifice for the fans. Could he walk away from his brainchild? Of course, if $4 billion is making a sacrifice, I wouldn’t mind making one myself. Still, it was the best thing that Lucas could have done. He stepped away and let a new generation guide the next phase in the life of Star Wars. It was a long wait, and it almost seems surreal that it has finally arrived. Arrived it has, with the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

    “I’m impressed.”

    The choice of director went to J.J. Abrams. It was a pretty solid one. Abrams has put together a good resume, particularly with reinvented franchises. He worked on Mission Impossible and rebooted Star Trek for the big screen. He has always called himself a Star Wars fan, and he had some pretty sweet ideas from the beginning.  One of the most impressive was to shoot the movie on film. It’s ironic that the franchise that really pushed the digital projection era was returning now to its roots. He also decided to do the film’s visuals with as much practical f/x as possible. Certainly, there some incredible CGI here, but there are a lot of model ships and in-camera tricks that will absolutely return the feel of the franchise back to its early days. The overall visceral experience here is much closer to the first trilogy than it is to the prequels. Because of this the characters and their surroundings feel solid and real. I can once again imagine that I’m there and let the film experience take me away to that galaxy far far away, and suddenly I’m a 15-year-old kid again. That alone is worth the price of admission.

    But it’s not just the “feel” of the old movies that has returned. Some old friends have returned to us as well. Harrison Ford returns as Han Solo, and his trusty co-pilot Chewbacca is still right there by his side. We always knew they were friends, but now we get to see the depth of that relationship. It’s not just the actors who have matured, but the relationships between some of these characters, and the Chewie/Solo relationship is a tearful one, to be sure. Carrie Fisher is back as pretty much the leader of what was once the Rebellion. She doesn’t get a lot to do here, but she serves as the maternal heart of the film in more ways than one. Anthony Daniels is still the voice of C3PO, and many of the iconic alien characters from the original films return in often meaty parts.

    Of course, there’s been a ton of speculation about Mark Hamill and his conspicuous absence from the trailers. Rest assured he is there. His presence is one of those things you really need to discover for yourself. It might not be the big moment you are expecting, but it is certainly an emotional one and quite subtle in many ways. He’s the mysterious link in the film. There are a lot of people looking for him, and not all as an old friend. To many he has become the mythical figure that many aren’t even sure ever existed. Of course, we know he did and that he still does. What all of that means is something I leave you to discover on your own.

    All of the physical elements are there. You’ll see plenty of shots dedicated to memorable technology. The tie fighters and X-wing ships have been tweaked a little, but they’re pretty much just like we remembered. Abrams was very careful to pay off those requisite shots and traditional elements. Make no mistake. This really is a Star Wars film in every way. It’s the one you’ve been waiting for since Return Of The Jedi.

    To say more would truly be to spoil your own experience. You’ll find very few plotlines in this review, and that’s not failure to inform, but rather consider it a chance for you to live this two hours in a way that will honor the wait and the struggles you’ve been through to get to this point. It’s a moment you will absolutely want to savor. Unfortunately, it all moves so fast that I found the two hours had come and gone before I knew it.

    Of the plot I will say a few things. There is an obvious effort to revisit some of the most memorable beats from the early films. Yes, there’s a new and improved Death Star, of sorts. Yes, the gang will need to take it out before it is able to do its incredible damage. At first I was a bit unhappy that so many of these beats appeared to be repeated, but by the time it was over I realized just how much they kept me engaged, allowing me to appreciate the many new elements and characters. And there are a ton of those.

    One final point on the plot. This film brings up questions by the case. There’s so much I want to know about the new order of things. I was painfully aware that a lot has happened since Jedi, and I wanted very much to know those things. How many of these answers we’ll get remains for future films to tell. Give The Force Awakens credit for taking all of this anticipation and paying it off while maintaining that same level of anticipation for the next films. It’s an appetizer. There’s so much more to see and learn.

    The old gang is a joy to behold, but they are older now, and the universe needs new heroes and new villains. Daisy Ridley is the spotlight hero in this film. Her character’s name is Rey, and much like Luke before her ,she leads a mundane life in a backward planet until events land her in the middle of the action. There’s little question that this is developing into her story, and she’s quite a nice fit for the part. Lucas had made many casting mistakes in his prequel films. That has been corrected here, and the new characters and the actors who play them have the kind of strength that Luke, Han, and Leia had before. Her journey is just beginning, and the film’s conclusion promises an exciting time to come for Rey.

    John Boyega is Finn. His character’s story is the most unexpected. His life offers an entirely new perspective on both the Rebellion and the Empire, now called the First Order. It’s such an uplifting experience to see these new characters interacting with so many of the first film’s iconic characters. Abrams blends them together in a seamless bit of story and filmmaking that makes this a natural transition film from Jedi. In fact, it’s almost as if the previous films did not exist. You’ll find no direct connection at all to those films. This one picks up 30 years after Jedi and refuses to look back. That’s our job, and Abrams merely gives us the tools to do it ourselves.

    Of course, there’s also a new villain, and the less said about him the better. He’s the guy with the odd-looking light saber, and yes, he reminds us quite a bit of Darth Vader. It’s not an accident. As you can get from the trailer he is inspired by Vader, keeping his mangled helmet as some kind of talisman. But this is a more calculated version of Vader. He’s pledged not to make the same mistakes and is colder and far more emotionally detached. His story is one of those that will require more to fill in some huge holes. I want to know how he came to be what he is more than I ever did Vader. He’s scarier than Vader was, and I suspect the best is yet to come.

    Video

    Star Wars: The Force Awakens is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30 mbps. The first thing you have to understand about this high-definition image presentation is that this was made on film and has all of the qualities that implies. You get a rich, warm image with just a hint of grain that makes the image organic and alive. That’s one of the things missing in the digitally perfect prequels. You get all of this without sacrificing a bit of sharpness and detail. You get all of that with the added bonus of texture and a feeling that you’re seeing something real and solid. Black levels are wonderful and provide nice shadow definition. Contrast is impressive with the stars against the deep inky blackness of space.

    Audio

    The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 is just like going home again. The John Williams anthem is a glorious and dynamic call to action. The surrounds put you squarely in the action. It’s so nice to hear blasters and light sabers flashing about our heads once again. Subs took a little adjustment on my end to boost them a bit. It’s the only nitpick flaw in the audio presentation. Dialog is perfectly placed. There’s tremendous separation of all of this at every turn.

    Special Features

    It was very smart to put the extras on a separate Blu-ray disc. This way we get a good accounting in the extras department without losing anything in the feature film.

    Secrets Of The Force Awakens – A Cinematic Journey: (1:09:14) There are four chapters with a handy play-all. The feature goes back to the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm. There’s the announcement at the Disney board of directors. We get plenty of concept art, test footage, story meetings, and production footage. There’s plenty of participation by cast and crew. Nice to see Andy Serkis doing motion capture again.

    The Story Awkakens – The Table Read: (4:01) Cast and crew give their thoughts on the first table read of the script that brought the cast together for the first time. There’s a plenty of appreciation for the cinematic history being made. Mark Hamill fills in as the narration and directions in the script.

    Crafting Creatures: (9:34) Focus here is on the over 100 creature characters appearing in the film. We get to see the various ways they are brought to life from old-school puppetry, makeup, and animatronics to CGI.

    Building BB-8: (6:03) See how the droid actually works. See early concept art. One had wings.

    Blueprint Of A Battle – The Snow Fight: (7:02) This one looks at the light saber fight between Finn then Rey and Kylo Ren. It’s a new twist on the climactic fights of the franchise. This one happens in a snowy wood.

    ILM – The Visual Magic Of The Force: (7:55) People tend to overlook that when Disney bought Lucasfilm they got more than Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones. Those things would pay off down the road. The immediate property has always been Industrial Light & Magic. This feature is as much about the folks and their work at ILM. The piece is also as much about restraint than the CGI.

    John Williams – The Seventh Symphony: (6:51) John Williams is just as much a defining element in the franchise as anything else. We get to see some recording session footage. The 83 year-old composer and conductor is still on his game. He talks about both old and new themes.

    Deleted Scenes: (4:14) Six with a play all option. There’s not a lot here. I suspect there’s plenty more footage out there.

    Force For Change: (3:22) A look at the charity connections the franchises and its fans have made.

    Final Thoughts:

    All of those wonderful dogfights and heroics are there. Many are framed in quite familiar set pieces and situations. Abrams has done what Lucas was clearly not capable of doing. He balanced the expectations of one generation of fans who hold this stuff to be sacred against a younger generation that has been jaded by 30 years of escalation in computer-generated worlds. Maybe you can please everyone after all. The result is an even larger audience for this stuff, if that was even possible. That almost hurts my head to imagine, but I’m very sure it’s true. Star Wars is about to be larger than it ever was. You are about to witness a generational event. “The Force, it’s calling to you. Just let it in.”

    Posted In: 1080p, 2.40:1 Widescreen (16:9), AVC MPEG4, Blu-ray, Digital Copy, Disc Reviews, Disney, DTS HD 7.1 Master Lossless Audio (English), Sci-Fi / Fantasy

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