Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens Blu-ray

Finally, after an interminable wait of three and a half months (anyone remember when films took a year or longer to come to video? No? Just me?), we have the home video release, on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital HD, of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Is it the home video release we’ve all been hoping for, or a bare-bones offering designed to tide us over until a sequel trilogy boxed set is released with the real goods? A little from column A, a little from column B, it turns out. Read on to see what I mean.

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THE FILM

Let’s be honest. If you’re reading this review — indeed, if you’re visiting this website — chances are you’ve already seen the film. Likely more than once. Likely more than I have. And have therefore already formed your own opinion. You know what you think of the movie; you’re here to see if the Blu-ray itself is worth getting.

That said, this is the first opportunity I’ve really had to sit down and organize my thoughts on The Force Awakens, so I hope you’ll forgive the indulgence. If you skip ahead, I won’t be hurt. If, on the other hand, you’re curious what I think of The Force Awakens, read on.

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So, I hope you’re not shocked, but I like The Force Awakens quite a bit. I think The Empire Strikes Back is still my favorite Star Wars film, but it’s just by a nose. The Force Awakens is a terrific amount of fun, and as someone who grew up with the original trilogy and then had to suffer through the disappointment of the prequels, this film is like a breath of fresh air. The characters come to life with a vibrancy that’s rare in big-budget blockbuster filmmaking, an achievement that’s no doubt due in equal parts to the skills of Lawrence Kasdan (screenplay), J.J. Abrams (director), and, of course, the incredibly talented actors — Daisy Ridley (Rey) and John Boyega (Finn) in particular. Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver as Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren, respectively, are likewise amazing, and the returning stars of the original trilogy — Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford — all inhabit their roles not as if no time has passed, which would have been awkward, but as if they’ve been playing the roles continuously for the intervening 30+ years. The dialogue is witty and mostly sharp; some lines feel a little wooden (Finn’s goodbye to Rey in the cantina, for instance), but for the most part the script sparkles.

Structurally, it’s very similar in parts to the first Star Wars film, but I didn’t find that to be a problem. If anything, the script’s buffoonish lampshading of the similarities (“There’s always a way to blow these things up!”) was more distracting than the similarities themselves. The film is attempting to accomplish a number of things, chief among them bringing the fun and vibrancy of the original trilogy back to the franchise, and setting up the new characters for the remainder of the sequel trilogy with a metaphorical passing of the baton (ironic, given the film’s final shot, but I digress). Now, if Rian Johnson’s Episode 8 follows the structure of The Empire Strikes Back then I might start calling foul, but this film seems designed to say “here’s the Star Wars you love, it’s back, now we’re gonna go have fun with it.” I suspect, as many do, that Johnson’s contributions to the canon will take the films in a new and different direction, and starting a new trilogy on that foot would have been jarring for some. Using Episode 7 as both an homage and as a jumping-off point seems eminently logical, and mostly works, in my opinion.

Even given the similarities to the 1977 film, The Force Awakens moves at a pace that’s decidedly 2015. It’s certainly the most fast-paced film of the franchise, which is, if anything, the film’s weakest point. Plot elements that would have benefited from just a touch more explanation are rushed past without so much as a by-your-leave. What is the Republic? What’s its relationship to the Resistance? How influential/powerful/widespread is the Republic in relation to the First Order, and vice versa? And please don’t get me started on that flipping map. Why is there a map in the first place? Why does Artoo have all but the last chunk? I know, I know, he downloaded it on the first Death Star, but (a) J.J. Abrams saying it in an interview isn’t exactly sharp scriptwriting, and (b) that doesn’t make any sense anyway. These are small points (and Abrams has historically not given much of a damn about the disposition of the MacGuffins in his films or TV shows), but they distract from what could have otherwise been a nearly flawless film.

And the film is, on a technical level at least, very nearly flawless. The special effects — a near-perfect blending of practical and CGI — are incredible. And I’m happy to report that the experience is not diminished by seeing it on a smaller screen (it should be noted that I have a 50” television color-calibrated for films; your mileage may vary with a 13” laptop color-calibrated for intense vibrancy). Indeed, seeing it again on Blu-ray allows me to appreciate the craftsmanship even more than I did in the theatre; I’m able to better appreciate camera framing, matching cuts, subtle sound design (BB-8 purrs, you guys), and other filmmaking decisions when I’m not overwhelmed by the sensory overload that is the theatrical experience. Coming away from watching the film at home, as a matter of fact, I feel I can state with some degree of certainty that it’s the best-made Star Wars film to-date; the direction, cinematography, and editing are all a cut above anything that’s come so far. And as I alluded to above, the acting (and the direction of actors) is unmatched by anything else in the series as well.

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Seeing it at home — rather, seeing it again after three months — also allows me to appreciate some of the smaller, more subtle touches, as well. For instance, hearing Rey sarcastically tell BB-8 that her identity is a “big secret” after enduring months of “who are Rey’s parents?!?” (or, more to the point, “here is incontrovertible evidence Rey’s parents are who I say they are, never mind that other person’s inconvertible evidence they’re someone else”) provoked a guffaw.

There are films I apply the label “perfect” to, and many of them are a great deal of fun to watch. The Force Awakens may not be perfect, but it is an incredible amount of fun to watch. And for a film that needs to do about twenty different things — appeal to old fans, bring in new fans, redeem the series for people who hated the prequels but not alienate those who didn’t — “nearly flawless” is a pretty incredible achievement. It revisits and expands a beloved universe, it brings back beloved characters, and — perhaps most importantly — it gives us new characters, characters who have become nearly, if not more, beloved as the originals, and makes us care deeply about them, and their journeys, and what comes next for them. It’s a remarkable achievement, on both a personal and a technical level, and all involved are to be commended.

PACKAGING & MENUS

The packaging of the Blu-ray/DVD combo is quite nice. The standard-sized keep case comes sheathed in a cardboard sleeve bearing the Star Wars insignia filled with images from the film’s poster. Slipping off the sleeve reveals selfsame poster, in a keep case that’s black rather than the standard blue, which makes the art blend in better with the case itself, a nice touch. Inside are three discs: the film on Blu-ray (printed with that early promo shot of the Falcon and two TIEs on Jakku), the film on DVD (printed with the now-iconic image of Rey and BB-8 with their backs to the camera), and the bonus features disc, a Blu-ray printed with the black-and-white photograph from the table read that drove everyone insane for about a week.

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Popping the disc for the film in brings you almost at once to the disc’s main menu. There are no trailers or other advertisements to skip, and the load times (on a PS3) were relatively brief. The menu screen is a still from early in the film, a wide shot inside the cavernous wreck of the Star Destroyer in which we first meet Rey. A wide, rectangular-shaped passage is used as a movie screen, and brief clips from the film are superimposed there as music from the film plays.

Given that the special features exist exclusively on the second disc, the only options are setup and play. The menu for the special features disc is similarly arranged, except upon selecting features you’re given a horizontal menu of choices to navigate. A simple vertical list might have been more preferable, but that’s a small quibble.

All in all, a very nice, if standard, packaging and presentation for the film.

VIDEO & AUDIO

These days, we still occasionally get sub-standard Blu-ray releases of older films (look at the DNR disaster that is Fox’s Predator release, or, indeed, the catastrophically bad color timing on the original Star Wars trilogy), but new films tend to make it to disc without incident. I’m happy to report that’s the case here; Star Wars: The Force Awakens looks just as good on disc as it did in the theatres. Levels are good throughout — colors bright but not oversaturated, blacks deep but not too crushed — and there’s a very fine layer, almost a hint, of film grain, giving the whole thing a lovely texture. Audio is likewise faithfully reproduced from the theatrical experience; dialogue is crisp and clear, effects are appropriately loud without being overwhelming, and the directional mix is solid (it should be noted that a 5.1 or 7.1 surround system was not available at the time of review). In short, if you saw The Force Awakens in theatres, you won’t have any unpleasant surprises seeing it again at home.

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SPECIAL FEATURES

Ah, here we come to the heart of the matter. Most of you will no doubt be wondering if the disc is worth purchasing for the special features that are included. The short answer is yes … but only because the disc is available for relatively inexpensive prices.

First, let’s discuss what’s not here: no commentary track, no promotional materials. Given the pressure and the artistry involved in marketing this film, I’m honestly shocked not a bit of it is represented here — not in the main documentary or its ancillary featurettes, and not even in the simple inclusion of teasers and trailers, something that’s become all but standard on home video releases. Likewise surprising is the lack of a commentary track; J.J. Abrams has not been opposed to doing tracks in the past (the Blu-rays of both Star Trek (’09) and Super 8 include commentary tracks from the director), and a track with just him, or him and Kasdan, would have I’m sure been fascinating. Likewise, the three new stars of the franchise — Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac — have basically become a meme unto themselves with their camaraderie and tomfoolery, approaching that of the quartet of Hobbits from The Lord of the Rings. A commentary track from the three of them would have been utterly delightful. The absence of commentaries and marketing materials is both glaring and disappointing.

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As for what we do get, it’s something of a mixed bag. The centerpiece is the hour or so documentary The Secrets of the Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey, a piece that, while containing a lot of fascinating material, is somewhat poorly put together. The documentary’s structure is weirdly floppy — a fact that makes more sense once you watch the other special features. Specifically. a half-dozen short featurettes, each focusing on a different aspect of production: BB-8’s function and design, the special effects, the climactic duel, et cetera. It seems as though the most interesting and focused parts of the main documentary were yanked out and scattered over the special features page to pad out the number of special features the disc could boast of. That’s not to say the main documentary is worthless in and of itself — as I said, it’s more than an hour of some great interviews and behind-the scenes footage. It’s mostly comprehensive, at least on a surface level, on who and what it looks at (though the First Order, both in terms of design and the absence of Domnhall Gleeson as an interviewee, are strange). But it’s not arranged in much of a logical fashion, other than sort of vaguely moving us chronologically through the film (rather than taking us chronologically through production, which would have made more sense). There’s little-to-no introduction to the people involved; we’re assumed to already know who J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy are, for example, and the careers of Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac aren’t put into any kind of context. The way the documentary just jumps in with the sale and then plunges forward without even explaining who Kathleen Kennedy is was kind of jarring. More on who these people are, what their careers have been like up until now, and what Star Wars meant — or didn’t — mean to them before getting this job would have been a good addition. Likewise, the fact that Star Wars has never had a female lead (Rey) or villain (Phasma) is touched upon, but the significance, I feel, isn’t fully explored. The fact that Ridley’s co-stars are two people of color, an equally remarkable fact for such a significant film, isn’t mentioned at all.

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As far as placing this film in the context of the larger franchise, the documentary essentially only acknowledges the existence of the original trilogy, and then only as a source of inspiration for this film. The prequels are barely mentioned and the animated spin-offs not at all. I’m no great fan of the prequels, but pretending they don’t exist is honestly kind of silly. I would have liked more of a discussion of where the franchise had been before Disney bought Lucasfilm, the paths it had taken between the original trilogy and the prequels, and between the prequels and now, to place the film in context with what came before (a discussion of the different styles of lightsaber fighting, from the original trilogy to the prequels [and the cartoons] to now, for instance, would have been welcome). If there were lessons learned from the prequels — even if they were what not to do — let’s hear about them!

Again, I don’t mean to convey the impression that there’s nothing of worth here. There’s an interesting discussion about how concept art based on story ideas would then feed more story ideas, in a kind of loop, which was really fascinating (though specific examples would have been nice). There’s some fun shots of Abrams and Kasdan on-set, a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes footage of key scenes, and some great discussions, from Abrams and Kasdan in particular, about the construction of the story and the characters — hearing them discuss Kylo Ren, in particular, makes me appreciate just how well-constructed that character was even more. Seeing the Falcon be reconstructed was neat, and honestly moving. The discussion of approaching the film as a period piece was pretty cool, as was hearing Abrams say that no matter how accurate or incredible the sets were, it didn’t mean a dang thing if the story and the characters weren’t on point. Seeing Andy Serkis and Lupita Nyong’o on-set, interacting with their co-stars while wearing their motion-capture gear, was fascinating. There’s a cool bit about the women who played Stormtroopers in the film, and a really fun revelation as to the origins of Captain Phasma’s name. And just for the record: Abrams pronounces “AT-AT”s phonetically. For whatever that’s worth.

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The featurettes “Building BB-8,” “Crafting Creatures,” Blueprint of a Battle: The Snow Fight,” “John Williams: The Seventh Symphony,” and “ILM: The Visual Magic of the Force” are all pretty much what it says on the tin, and should have just been edited into the main documentary (and I suspect were edited out, as I mentioned). The featurette on the table read, on the other hand, feels somewhat redundant to the main documentary, and yet tantalizing in its brevity. Cameras were evidently rolling through the table read; a fantastic special feature would have been the table read, presented in its entirety. I don’t know that there’s really even been a special feature like that on a DVD or Blu-ray before (which is why I didn’t gripe about it above, with the lack of commentaries and trailers), but if the cameras were rolling for the entire time, what a treat that would be! Alas, we’re only shown a few more snippets here than we were in the main documentary,

The other big draw of the disc, for a lot of people, will be the deleted scenes. And, well, prepare yourselves for some disappointment. There are six scenes — mostly snippets of scenes, really — almost of which were cut for very good and obvious reasons. The only one of any real consequence is “Kylo Searches the Falcon,” and if you’ve read those words, you can pretty much picture the scene (there’s not much to it). What’s aggravating is that there are more scenes which were shot and then cut — Leia sending her representative to the Republic senate, for instance (the woman we focus on right before the Hosnian system is destroyed), or Rey’s encounter with Unkar Plutt in Maz’s cantina (a glimpse of which we get in the behind-the scenes footage). Why these (and presumably other moments of interest) weren’t included is baffling; I can only assume either someone at Lucasfilm wanted to avoid the “okay but is this canon” questions that would inevitably come, and/or they simply wanted to hold something back for the inevitable trilogy box set.

The final feature is a short (but surprisingly sweet) promo video for the Force For Change charitable organization which formed during production on The Force Awakens.

So are the special features a complete bust? No. If you don’t go into the documentary expecting a great piece of filmmaking, and can mentally insert the more interesting ancillary featurettes back into the documentary where they belong, then you’ve got yourself a solid glimpse behind-the-scenes of the making of this film. It just could have been a lot stronger.

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CONCLUSION

So is this disc a must-buy? If you’re a fan of the film, yeah, of course. The presentation of the film is flawless, and the disc is not so exorbitantly priced (I’m seeing it most places for twenty por—sorry, twenty dollars) that you don’t really need to take the quality or volume of the special features into account when making your decision. That said, the quality of the special features we got — and the paucity of the features themselves — is disappointing, especially for a film of this significance (indeed, much of the documentary is taken up with discussions of just how significant this film is). So grab the disc and enjoy the film, and just hope that when that trilogy boxed set comes, the special features they include then will be worth double-dipping for.

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