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Brad’s April Escape - Part 10
April 16 - Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Each weekday this month, I’ll screen a film from The Bearded Trio Cinematic Universe and list 10 random scenes, characters, musical cues or performances that I particularly enjoy and look forward to upon every viewing. I’d love to hear similar little things you enjoy about these films, and hope you join me in this escape from the present-day world.

Next up is the film that brought Star Wars into a new era, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

The Force Awakens - An Introduction
I'll be up front about this - I am not the biggest fan of the Sequel Trilogy. Narratively, it's a mess and suffers from a lot of issues inherent in key decisions about the plot and characters across the three films.

But this is not the place for me to air grievances. My presence on this website will be a positive and supporting one. There's enough negativity on the net about Star Wars, and well, pretty much everything else these days. If you're looking to anger-agree with someone about the Sequels, close out the window now, because I am here to share the scenes, music and characters I enjoy every time I cue up Episodes VII, VIII and IX. We'll get started with the number one box office movie of all-time, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).

10 Things I Like - Star Wars: The Force Awakens

1. I always like making connections of actors from one film I like to another, unrelated film that they appear in. In this case, we have Ming the Merciless (Flash Gordon, 1980) himself, Max Von Sydow, making a brief but memorable appearance in the very first scene of this new era. Lor San Tekka is a key contact for Poe Dameron in the search to relocate Luke Skywalker. Von Sydow is 35 years older than his appearance as Flash Gordon's chief villain in that campy but fun 1980 sci-fi classic. It's also a callback, for me, to George Lucas's desire to purchase the rights to Flash Gordon from King Features Syndicate in the early 1970s. I don't take Flash Gordon all that seriously as cinematic art when I watch it today, but it's a guaranteed good time for me.

2. New Force powers! This was one way in which the Sequel Trilogy advanced the lore of Star Wars, but introducing previously unseen Force abilities in all three films. Here, we see Kylo Ren's freeze ability. I particularly like the sound of the frozen blaster bolt as the camera moves past it, hearing the sound move from one speaker to the other. The blue bolt was also reminiscent for me of the cold December weather outside when I saw this on first viewing. This was the first Star Wars film to get released in December, and I wasn't convinced it was the best choice. The May 19-25 date range belonged to Star Wars. George Lucas established as the go-to date, when no one else did, in 1977 with the release of A New Hope, and it was one of many little traditions I loved about the saga. But Disney decided it wanted to release Star Wars around Christmas, and I have to say, I have gotten used to the idea.

3. Kudos to J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan for writing a compelling introduction to the key character in our new trilogy, Rey. Her humble beginnings are expertly introduced here, with minimal dialogue and a fine performance from previously unknown Daisy Ridley. It struck a nice balance of not dwelling on her activities too much while painting what we believe to be an everyday portrait of what life on Jakku was like for Rey. Like with Anakin, it's important we see the starting point for Rey, so we can follow her growth and progress over the next two films. This introductory scene is perfectly done. These scenes also give us the gentle musical theme for Rey, beautifully done by John Williams, who returned to Star Wars after a 10-year break since Revenge of the Sith. Rey's theme consumes all the emotions, and settles into a wonderfully quiet area when she is enjoying her meal near the fallen AT-AT.

4. A subtle thing I noticed about the Sequels, but most particularly in TFA, was the laser sound effects. These ventral cannons, and shots fired from the Millennium Falcon, seemed to have more "punch" to them than the sounds we were used to from previous films. Again, this is a detail I enjoyed and accepted, because we are talking about the passage of 32 years, and we make the safe assumption that technology in the GFFA has evolved. Kudos here to sound designer Matthew Wood, one of the true behind the scenes stars of the modern era of Star Wars. He rose through the ranks of Lucasfilm, starting as a teenager and took on more and more responsibility through the Prequel Era, learning from and working with the Godfather of Star Wars sound, Ben Burtt. Wood has stayed very involved in Lucasfilm projects, both as a voice actor for the battle droids and General Grievous, to continuing his sound work with all the animated series. Here's hoping Mr. Wood has many years of more brilliant Star Wars sound work in his future.

5. I watched this film earlier today to prep for this post, and it was the first time in a while I've watched it. Harrison Ford's performance as Han Solo stood out to me even more than on past viewings. He is clearly comfortable in the role, and is just terrific in applying proper age to the Han Solo we all fell in love with during the Original Trilogy. His back-and-forth with Chewbacca drew out numerous laughs from the audience I watched it with. Lines like "What was the second time?" and "Wasn't he a war hero?" are very funny exchanges with Chewie, manned by both Peter Mayhew and Joonas Suatumo.

One of my hesitations with the existence of the Sequel Trilogy at all was, would audiences accept Han, Luke and Leia so much older than what we left them in Return of the Jedi? They can't be the physical performers they used to be, so how would they be used? Fortunately, in the case of Ford, he pulled off an aged Han Solo, hitting all the right beats.

6. Who didn't fall in love with Rey in this shot? Never mind the confusing dialogue, over her being excited Han Solo was offering her a job, then her turning it down that quickly. Rey was seeing all this for the first time, and her dazzling smile invites the audience to take it in with her.

7. I don't care that this shot was lifted directly from Apocalypse Now (1979). It's an absolute classic, and my favorite frame from TFA.
This shot also exists within my favorite musical sequence from the film. I wrote in my Revenge of the Sith post, I stitched together a handful of tracks to make one mega-track, called "Enter Lord Vader" that spanned from the Tantive IV scenes after Order 66 to when Anakin is crying after his slaughter of the Separatist Council.
In the case of TFA, I stitched tracks together that include "Finn's Confession," "Maz's Counsel," "The Starkiller," and "Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle." The music swoons from quiet and personal, to epic, to tragic and finally, dramatic in such a way that only John Williams can pull off. It's not the steepest musical roller coaster you'll ever ride in these films, but it's one of the most active and intentional as it relates to great changes our characters are undergoing.

8. As soon as this frame hit the screen, I knew something bad was going to happen. Maybe that's what J.J. intended. But Han and Ren on a bridge, lit by just the wintry light coming from one small window in Starkiller Base, walking towards an inevitable confrontation, filled me to the brim with dread. I let out a quiet "oh man" when I first saw this shot on the big screen.
I could, or should have seen Han Solo's death coming. But even when he and Ren had their hands on Ren's lightsaber, I held out hope the worst wasn't to come. Naturally, it did.

9. In this scene, we are all Chewbacca. Han Solo's death was necessary for this story. I completely get it, and it's something that had to happen. It would have been irresponsible for the storytellers to do anything different. But that doesn't mean it didn't hurt or wasn't hard to watch.
In the immediate aftermath, Chewie roars out in pain and anger, and delivers a shot to Ren's kidney area.
Now think about this. Chewbacca probably had a front row seat to much of Ben Solo's childhood. We only know bits and pieces of that story, from the wonderful novel "Last Shot" by Daniel Jose Older. And Ben Solo's back story ought to be a huge emphasis of future novels and comics, well beyond what's out there now. But filling in those assumed gaps, and Chewie's closeness to the Solo family, add emotional weight to this scene, as well as Chewie cleaning house of the stormtroopers in his ran out of the base.

10. So Rey is a Palpatine. Agree or disagree with that major story point, that's what Rise of Skywalker lays out for us. And this shot, during the first Rey-Ren saber battle in the Starkiller Base forest, was the first foreshadowing sign of that.
There are two shots of Rey with a menacing look on her face as she gets the better of Ren in the final portion of their fight. My "Rey going dark" red flags went up during both of those shots. Ask me the night of December 20, 2015, and my prediction would have been Rey going dark and Ren turning to the light. Guess I was half right!

Brad’s Escapism Moment in The Force Awakens
We waited 32 years and 2 hours to see Luke Skywalker on the big screen again. And there he was, on the amazing set on Michael Skellig, off the coast of Ireland, a breathtaking location.
The time around the release of TFA was a magical time. There was tangible anticipation for the resumption of the Han-Luke-Leia story from the Original Trilogy. I never, ever expected to see an Episode VII, and here it was, coming to reality in a fashion I never could have anticipated.
The time after the release of TFA held a wonderfully positive buzz as well. Critics and fans embraced this film in the way the Prequels deserved to be. The film lasted a long time in theaters, and made more than $936 million (U.S.) in domestic film rentals. People were awash in Star Wars fever again, and I couldn't have been happier about it.
TFA and The Last Jedi (2017) are such interesting films to compare. Criticism of TFA centered on it being too safe, while criticism of TLJ was that it was too far out of bounds. It just reinforced a lesson I learned in the prequel era - Star Wars fans, as a large group, are rarely happy.
And sure, The Force Awakens isn't in the top half of my Star Wars film rankings. But it was Star Wars, and this film was, and still is, an enormously fun experience.

Coming next: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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