Star Wars: The Force Awakens
With a couple of different reviews for Star Wars: The Force Awakens having already been published on The Digital Fix (here and here), there seems little need for another, at least one of any length. (And might this actually be the most-reviewed movie ever, given the sheer number of people who saw it and available channels for opinion nowadays?) As such, I'm happy to share just a few thoughts on the film itself before jumping to some discussion of the newly released Blu-ray package.
To start, surely the reason the film managed to set all of those box office records was a reflection of just how much sheer joy and fun can be gleaned upon viewing. Certainly, it would have done mammoth business based on the hype and promise attached to its franchise but the quality of the picture was what put it over the top commercially. Its pacing is tremendous - giving viewers one action setpiece after another while liberally mixing in humor and unmatched nostalgia. The opportunity director J.J. Abrams had here was virtually unprecedented. He was able to simultaneously reboot and further the mythology of perhaps cinema's greatest saga, washing away a bitter taste in the mouths of many fans over the oft-maligned prequel trilogy. And he had Han Solo at his disposal! And Princess Leia! And Luke Skywalker!
All of those recognizable pieces aligned perfectly with the new characters. Additions like Rey and Finn and BB-8 feel very much in the spirit of the existing group while still coming off as fresh and exciting. They're well-written, by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, but the performances, especially from Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, are thrillingly alive. You feel so much wide-eyed excitement through them that it really puts you right there, feeling just as in over your head as they are. It's easy to succumb to hyperbole in the moment, but the cohesion of casting actors who were hardly, if at all, known with these newly created yet somehow immediately familiar characters seems nearly miraculous.
The truth, too, is that the narrative blueprint for past films from the original Star Wars trilogy is utilized to a remarkable extent in The Force Awakens. This shouldn't be problematic if you embrace the serial aspect of the films, though a movie of this magnitude is sure to have acclaim and dissent of many flavors. That, of course, is part of the fun. Fans able to experience this anticipation and uncertainty leading up to and between new Star Wars films enjoy a unique longing that should hardly be taken for granted. How amazing is it that we can wonder about Rey's origins while awaiting Episode VIII? The intrigue is integral to the sensation. This entry in the series has gifted viewers not just a lovely continuation but also a new means of enjoying an ever-growing whole. Whether the future episodes and side films live up to expectations or not, the moment afforded by The Force Awakens was nothing short of magical.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was made available in North America a couple of weeks earlier than in the UK, and that's the edition, from Walt Disney/Buena Vista Entertainment and region-free, being reviewed here. There are a pair of Blu-ray discs - one with just the film and a second for extra features - as well as a DVD and Digital HD code. It comes in an unusual black plastic case instead of the usual royal blue version. My copy also had a slipcover with the classic title logo against a black background on the cover.
The 1080p high definition image looks, expectedly, crisp and spectacular, with excellent depth and dimension. The image is presented in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Colors are beautifully rendered, as the bright reds and blues emanating from the lightsabers even look astonishingly "real" (at least as much as they can). Outdoor shots like the early scenes on Jakku or the harsh rocks amid the brilliant green of the final locale show detail that approaches perfection. Fire to snow, dark to light, everything is quite exceptional. There are no instances of damage or other issues here. It's reference-quality, as well it should be.
Audio is probably where the most fun is to be had from a technical standpoint. We're treated to various beeps and blasts and signature Star Wars sort of sound effects. Similarly, the familiar John Williams score booms enthusiastically from the English 7.1 DTS-HDMA track. Sound design is a huge part of the movie and it's tied beautifully into the audio here. There's also an English 2.0 Descriptive Audio option as well as French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital dubs. Subtitles are offered in English for the hearing impaired, French and Spanish. The DVD switches out the 7.1 DTS-HDMA for a 5.1 Dolby Digital but otherwise replicates the audio specs.
With an entire disc of bonus material the expectations deserve to be quite high. Things are lead by the full-length documentary Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey (69 mins.), directed by Laurent Bouzereau. It's a very good exploration of the entire process of getting the film made, from the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Walt Disney Studios to bringing in J.J. Abrams, casting, and, ultimately, the actual making of the movie. Divided into four chapters, the entire thing is in-depth enough to satisfy those looking to dig beneath the surface of the film itself without being so exhaustive as to feel tiresome.
The problem with having a feature-length making-of piece is that the other, more typical featurettes begin to feel standard and sometimes repetitive. Thankfully this is only the case on occasion here, and some of the extras, like the perhaps too brief "The Story Awakens: The Table Read" (4:01) that covers the well-publicized table reading done prior to filming with the entire cast, are still very, very charming. Footage from the read is here, though not nearly enough to satisfy the especially curious.
"Crafting Creatures" (9:34) touches on everything from the denizens of Maz's watering hole to recreating Chewbacca. "Building BB-8" (6:03) looks at the saga's newest droid while also shoehorning in a little on C-3PO and R2-D2. "Blueprint of a Battle: The Snow Fight" (7:02) is a really neat piece on the lightsaber battle between Rey and Kylo Ren near the film's end.
"ILM: The Visual Magic of the Force" (7:54) gives us a deeper understanding of what went into getting characters like Maz and Snoke, as well as some of the spaceships, onto the screen. "John Williams: The Seventh Symphony" (6:51) features a short interview with the famed composer of all seven of the Star Wars films as he particularly discusses the new music he did for The Force Awakens.
The Deleted Scenes (4:15) section includes six short (typically under a minute each) bits cut from the final film. Kylo Ren stepping onto the Millennium Falcon is probably the highlight. These can be played consecutively or individually, and feature time stamps near the top left of the screen.
Lastly, a promo for "Force for Change" (3:22), a charity associated with UNICEF that most everyone associated with this project has embraced concludes the disc.