Blu-ray Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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The theatrical event of 2015 is now the home video event of 2016 as Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrives on Blu-ray April 5 (DVD and Digital HD as well). No Star Wars fan should miss it, though reactions have been (and will continue to be) inevitably mixed. Is this really Star Wars without the guiding hand of George Lucas? No way. For better (the original trilogy) or worse (the prequels), this is truly Lucas' universe and anything else is just fan fiction. Of course, Disney and director J.J. Abrams have the money to trick out Force Awakens (and future installments) with all the bells and whistles. But in the end, it's still just someone else's idea for how Lucas' grand space opera should've/could've/might've proceeded.

Force Awakens gets off to an admittedly strong start by introducing us to some likable new characters. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a plucky new heroine, a scavenger on the Tatooine-like planet of Jakku. Finn (John Boyega) is a gung-ho defector from the First Order (basically the new Empire). Rey and Finn meet, discover their common interest in droid BB-8 (who carries a map containing the whereabouts of currently-in-hiding Luke Skywalker, again played by Mark Hamill), and eventually team up with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Seeing the old school Star Wars players back in action—Carrie Fisher returns as General Leia Organa—is a true nostalgic kick.

It's impossible not to notice the overall plot similarities between Force Awakens and A New Hope. It's as if Disney decided they needed a new Star Wars film ASAP and mandated that the filmmakers to stick 100 perfect with what worked in the past. Lucas took some real chances with his much-maligned prequel trilogy. While many of them didn't pay off the way he wanted them to, at least we got something new and different. Abrams gets the superficial details mostly correct—Awakens looks and sounds basically like Star Wars of old. The CG characters Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong'o) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) are every bit as annoyingly unrealistic as any in the prequels. But for the most part the sights and sounds are comfortably familiar (distressingly so at times, especially in the case of the 'cantina scene' redux).

The best new character is the primary villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). We learn almost nothing about Snoke, who appears to be something of a new version of Emperor Palpatine. Operating below him, but essentially in charge of First Order field operations (very much the same role Darth Vader occupied), Ren has great command over the dark side of the Force. He's feared by almost everyone, but no one seems to respect him all that much. His rise to power, it becomes clear, was very rapid. The more we come to understand his back story, the more we see why Ren isn't quite the hardened badass that Darth Vader was, but more a frustrated, relatively inexperienced young man. No more can be revealed without spoilers—and yes, believe it or not, there are folks who missed Force Awakens in theaters.

Disney's Blu-ray looks and sounds ridiculously tremendous, with a perfect transfer of Dan Mindel's cinematography (shot on actual 35mm film in a successful attempt to enhance continuity between this and the original trilogy). The DTS-HD MA 7.1 surround mix makes the most of the Oscar-nominated sound mixing and editing. Crank up your system nice and loud—surely every Star Wars fan will be ecstatic over the robust battle cacophonies and soaring John Williams score. 
star wars BD (300x380).jpg A second Blu-ray disc holds a healthy roster of excellent extras, led by the 69-minute "Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey." This is no promotional fluff piece, though there is a preponderance of glad-handing and back-slapping among the various participants. This is an in-depth look at every step of the creation of the film. It's great to hear reflections from original trilogy stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), and others. An additional 40 minutes of extras are spread across six shorter featurettes: "The Story Awakens: The Table Read" (four minutes), "Crafting Creatures" (ten minutes), "Building BB-8" (six minutes), "Blueprint of a Battle: The Snow Fight" (seven minutes), "ILM: The Visual Magic of the Force" (eight minutes), "John Williams: The Seventh Symphony" (seven minutes). There are also six very short deleted scenes, the best of which features some extra time with General Leia Organa.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, depending on your point of view, is either a welcome blast of nostalgia that carries on the saga in style... or a retread of former glories that, hopefully, has paved the way for more interesting storytelling in episodes eight and nine. Either way, there's fun to be had here but don't expect anything fresh.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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