Monday, March 28, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Blu-ray Review!


This review covers the three-disc Blu-ray set.

THE SET-UP
A desert scavenger (Daisy Ridley) and a rogue Stormtrooper (John Boyega) team up with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to discover the whereabouts of the missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Also stars Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, and Adam Driver.
Directed by J.J. Abrams.

THE DELIVERY
When Disney announced the greenlighting of Episode VII after purchasing Lucasfilm, fan excitement was tempered with the realization that the magic of the original trilogy likely could not be recaptured. We had good reason to worry: not even George Lucas himself could do it with the prequel trilogy. Even though I generally like the prequels, even I admit that their flaws ultimately do not put them in the same league as the original three. I remember walking out of The Phantom Menace in 1999 feeling totally underwhelmed, and I had a bad feeling going into Episode VII. And not the good kind of bad feeling either.


Thank God, The Force Awakens was a satisfying and immensely entertaining installment that revitalized the iconic film series. My childhood remained unmolested and giddy nostalgia for all things Star Wars swept the country and most of the civilized world. Under the direction of J.J. Abrams, and with a script co-authored by Lawrence Kasdan (who also wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Raiders of the Lost Ark), The Force Awakens strikes a familiar chord, while a new trio of heroes handily sets the franchise in a bold and fresh direction.

Indeed, the casting of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac could have been easily dismissed by cynics as multicultural, politically correct stunt-casting, but each delivered fantastic performances that bode well for the series moving forward. The casting of Daisy Ridley in particular was an inspired choice, capturing both the vulnerability and strength needed to make Rey an appealing heroine. Oscar Isaac (who had already established himself as a gifted actor) is sorely underused as Poe Dameron, and although John Boyega’s Finn can be a bit giddy at times, his appeal as a leading man is hard to deny. Of course, anyone who saw Attack The Block already knew that.

The Force Awakens borrows quite liberally from A New Hope, not just in character archetypes, but in theme and structure. Settings look familiar, and even the use of a Death Star-like superweapon as a plot point seems a bit too convenient. Rather than drifting into lazy imitation, however, The Force Awakens uses original trilogy parallels to satisfy fans’ need for nostalgia and still set a new narrative direction.


It was a bit of a risk not to reunite the original cast on-screen for a final adventure, but the choice had a distinct purpose. As Abrams himself says in the making-of documentary included on the disc, The Force Awakens was never meant to be the story of Luke, Han, and Leia, but rather to introduce a new generation of heroes taking up the struggle. The film wonderfully ushers in these new characters with the help of Han Solo and Chewbacca, who serve as a welcome bridge connecting the new and old. With a wink and a nod, Harrison Ford easily slips back into the role that made him a star, and it is a fantastic performance.

Screenwriters Kasdan, Abrams, and Michael Arndt provide a story that moves along quickly, without being mired in trade federation negotiations or sappy love stories (save a wonderfully touching moment with Ford and Fisher). The dialogue crackles with energy and snappy lines abound, that serve Ford in particular rather well. On the directing side, Abrams understands the gravity this story and these characters carry, and each gets the iconic moment they deserve. The return of Han and Chewie onto the Millennium Falcon will give you chills, even if you had already seen it in the trailer. I’ve been a fan of Abrams since the first episode of Alias, and Star Wars could not have found a more capable director to give it a second life.

Abrams and company managed to do what most of us thought was unachievable: a Star Wars film that met, and even exceeded, the expectations of rabid fans. Some may nitpick specific elements of the film, but doing so only makes one sound like a Trekkie, and no one really wants that. It is best just to appreciate just how much fun The Force Awakens is. And isn’t that what won us over with these films in the first place? 


VIDEO AND AUDIO
Knowing that The Force Awakens was shot on actual film stock, as opposed to digital, I expected the video transfer to show at least some film grain, especially in the many darker settings featured in the film. Surprisingly, the image shows little grain, and the color reproduction and detail is nothing short of superb. In a word, the film looks beautiful.

The 7.1 DTS-HDMA soundtrack is active and robust throughout the channels, exhibiting nice balance between dialogue and sound effects. Having seen the film in a theater, I found the sound mix subdued John Williams’ score a bit, but in my home theater, it gets a proper boost to the forefront, and it sounds fantastic.

SPECIAL FEATURES
In the three-disc Blu-ray set, there are no extras on disc 1, which includes the film only. All of the special features are included on disc two, and there’s plenty to see. Although this isn’t the “emptying of the archives” some hard-core fans would have liked to see, what we do get provides the insight into the making of the film we had all hoped for. While most featurettes included on Blu-rays these days are mere promotional fluff, the ones included on the Force Awakens set are crafted with the fan in mind, and include some solid content.

The special features on the disc are as follows:


“Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey” documentary. This hour-plus look at the making of the film is the highlight of the extras. It’s absolutely fantastic, delving into all of the key scenes and answering the myriad of questions fans have wanted answered since the film opened. And yes, THAT scene is discussed by all involved, and we even get to see footage from the soundstage of the scene being shot. As far as the rest of the documentary, all of the major cast and crew members provide interviews and satisfying insight into the film. The documentary is viewable as a whole, or by any of four chapters, which cover various aspects of the film’s production. Running time: 69 minutes.

“The Story Awakens: The Table Read” featurette. The first read-through of the script by the assembled cast is featured here, and the only drawback is it isn’t longer. Fun fact: Mark Hamill was asked to read the non-dialogue portions of the script, a duty usually left to the director. I personally would have loved to hear the entire read, with Hamill narrating everything. Running time: Four minutes.


“Crafting Creatures” featurette. Over 100 aliens were created for The Force Awakens, and this featurette provides a look at how the creature effects department brought them to life, both practically and digitally. Some old favorites, including the Power Droid, Nien Numb (once again portrayed by the great Mike Quinn), and Admiral Ackbar are featured. Warwick Davis also appears, showing off his new character, and Peter Mayhew and his alter-ego Chewbacca get some love as well. Running time: 9:34.

“Building BB-8” featurette. Since his first appearance in the teaser trailer for The Force Awakens, BB-8 has become a scene-stealing, fan-favorite character. How his appearance in the film was achieved is the focus of this featurette, including a look at how the various models of the droid were built. Running time: 6:03

“Blueprint of a Battle: The Snow Fight” featurette. The filming of the climactic battle is featured here, with both Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver discussing how they prepared for it. Running time: 7:02.

“ILM: The Visual Magic of the Force” featurette. The efforts of Industrial Light and Magic to create the practical and digital effects of The Force Awakens are explored. The creation of two key CGI characters, Maz Kanata and Supreme Leader Snoke, are shown. Running time: 7:55

“John Williams: The Seventh Symphony” featurette. The genius behind the iconic soundtrack discusses his approach to the new film. He even touches upon the specific new themes he composed, including Rey’s theme and the “Jedi Steps” theme that closes the film. Fantastic stuff to take in. Running time: 6:51.


Deleted Scenes. Scenes include: “Finn and the Villager,” “Jakku Message,” “X-Wings Prepare for Lightspeed,” “Kylo Searches the Falcon,” “Snow Speeder Chase,” and “Finn Will Be Fine.” The value of watching deleted scenes are debatable, but in the case of The Force Awakens, we get a few gems, including a discarded snow speeder chase scene and Kylo Ren searching the crashed Millennium Falcon. Running time: 4:15.

“Force for Change” featurette. Kathleen Kennedy discusses the charitable initiative launched by the film, and the various causes it supported are featured. Running time: 3:22.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The Force Awakens delivers on all levels
The Force Awakens delivers a riveting new direction for the Star Wars saga, served with a healthy dose of nostalgia to boot. J.J. Abrams does a masterful job recapturing the look and feel of the Star Wars universe, and fantastic performances by a trio of newcomers, supported by some familiar faces, make this new installment of the film franchise a winner.

BLU-RAY SPECS
Release Date: April 1 (Digital HD), April 5 (Blu-ray/DVD), 2016
Running Time: 136 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
Audio: English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, English 2.0 Descriptive Audio, French 5.1 Dolby Digital, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English for the Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, Portuguese (Special Features only)
Special Features: “Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey” documentary, “The Story Awakens: The Table Read” featurette, “Crafting Creatures” featurette, “Building BB-8” featurette, “Blueprint of a Battle: The Snow Fight” featurette, “ILM: The Visual Magic of the Force” featurette, “John Williams: The Seventh Symphony” featurette, Deleted Scenes, “Force for Change” featurette.
Label: Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Home Entertainment

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