First, a disclaimer: STAR WARS is one of my favourite things in this, or any, galaxy. It was my childhood playground and will always have a very special place reserved in my heart. Now arguably the most highly antipated film event of the decade is here as THE FORCE AWAKENS hits cinemas the world over.
Thirty years after the fall of the Galactic Empire, rebel hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) has disappeared without a trace. In his absence, a new and sinister presence, The First Order, has emerged and, led by the ferocious Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) they seek to once again subjugate the galaxy. Now a Stormtrooper deserter (John Boyega) a canny scavenger (Daisy Ridley) and a hotshot pilot (Oscar Isaac) seek to halt the advancing darkness and preserve the light.
I wasn’t keen on the idea of JJ Abrams inheriting this universe, these characters. He’s a great marketer, but thus far I’ve seen very little evidence of him being anything beyond a journeyman filmmaker. But with the care and attention he clearly lavished on The Force Awakens, I’ve been proven wrong. For every nod to the past and safe story decision, Abrams and returning EMPIRE STRIKES BACK screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan also take an almighty risk for good measure.
The film had me from the very first shot. Star Wars has always done opening sequences well, from the never-ending Star Destroyer bearing down on the tiny fleeing Blockade Runner above Tatooine in A NEW HOPE to the fireworks of the naval battle in space about Coruscant in REVENGE OF THE SITH. Here, we see an unremarkable little dusty planet nestled amongst the stars as it is slowly and ominously eclipsed by the silhouette of a Star Destroyer, its blinking lights blending with the space around it.
Kylo Ren makes his mark as a great villain early on too. He’s not as iconic as Darth Vader of course, but that’s one of the main points of his arc, and his character’s brilliant alternate corruption angle (the exact opposite of Vader’s crisis of conscience) makes him stand out from innumerable black-clad movie baddies. He’s also got a entertainingly twisted sense of humour, asking a torture victim “Are you comfortable?” and once a lackey informs him of a mission failure he throws a massive wall-slashing tantrum followed by a snide “Anything else?”.
Ridley, Driver, Boyega, Isaac, Ford all turn in series-best performances. Ridley is the real breakout as Rey, strong-willed and intelligent with great comic timing, especially when she’s getting frustrated at Finn not being the sharpest tool in the box. Boyega plays Finn the way a lot of Star Wars characters should be – terrified and out of their depth, and Isaac is pure moviestar charm on legs as Poe Dameron. Driver incredibly manages nuance from behind a mask, and becomes the twisted heart of the story when it comes off. It’s lovely that Ford got his famous response to a fan in there, “I used to be” in reply to “Aren’t you Han solo?” and he does a lot of the heavy lifting dramatically speaking as well as still being pretty sprightly for a man in his seventies.
This is not the gleaming Star Wars of the Prequel Trilogy. We are firmly back in the territory of a dirty, lived-in sci-fi world, with subtle design touches and little character moments that hint at the workings of the larger world without ever having to sit down and explain it all. New droid BB-8 is a joyous creation and a welcome, expressive and impressively realised addition to the cast.
The film features what is unquestionably the nastiest lightsaber fighting in the series. You really fear for these characters and know that a single mistake means a mortal wound. The battles in general feel like they have more jeopardy – the skirmish that opens the film is brutal, looking like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN under blaster fire, and our heroes actually feel vulnerable in the action for the first time in the series.
Some cast members are sadly underused, though it seems like they are building towards more focus on them in the sequels. There are a few recycled plot elements as well – the generational destiny/cyclical time thing doesn’t bother me so much as there being far more plot ideas to use in a Star Wars movie than flying into something big to blow it up.
Niggles aside, The Force Awakens left me pretty well satisfied as a Star Wars fan. It got right what JURASSIC WORLD got so wrong. If you’re going for a soft reboot of your franchise with reverence to what has come before, then you have to preserve that sense of wonder. While the new Jurassic film had its moments, the callbacks and attempts to pay tribute to what had come before felt hollow. The Force Awakens feels like a work of real love for the material, and ends up being a bold new entry in the galactic saga and a sturdy foundation to build on in the future. SSP