Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review
A triumphant return to a galaxy far, far away
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: JJ Abrams largely nails Star Wars: The Force Awakens and if that's all you wanted to know then read no further. If you’d like to know more then read on, but rest assured this review will remain spoiler-free.This latest entry in the Star Wars franchise is a wonderful concoction of fun, excitement and romance blended with moments of genuine darkness. It manages to remind the viewer of the original Star Wars, whilst simultaneously banishing the memory of George Lucas’s sterile and humourless prequels. This is the Star Wars sequel we’ve been waiting for since The Empire Strikes Back and although it’s been a long 35 years, it was worth the wait. However it isn’t only a film designed to make fan boys in their mid-forties misty-eyed with nostalgia; it’s a film that’s designed to appeal to all ages.Much of the credit must go to JJ Abrams who was possibly the ideal choice to reinvigorate Disney’s new flagship property. You can understand why he was initially reluctant to take on the challenge; not only did he have to deal with the expectations of millions of fans the world over, but also the responsibility of justifying Disney’s $4 billion investment in Lucasfilm. This isn’t just one film, it’s the start of a new trilogy with additional stand-alone features between each new episode. So if The Force Awakens failed to meet the critical and commercial expectations of both fans and studio, the results would be disastrous.
Well Disney needn’t worry because The Force Awakens delivers on almost every level, following on from the previous trilogy whilst reimagining itself for a new generation. Abrams has been here before of course; he’s already re-energised and rebooted Star Trek despite, by his own admission, being a Star Wars fan. From the moment he got his dream job he began making the right noises, praising the original trilogy and distancing himself from the prequels in terms of both story and production. His Star Wars film would be shot on 35mm film and use full-size sets, practical effects and make-up prosthetics. Old school is the new school as the saying goes, and Abrams would be keeping it real as far as The Force Awakens was concerned.
However he also had very concrete ideas about the screenplay, immediately throwing out over a year of work from Michael Arndt, who had already jettisoned Lucas’s own story ideas. Abrams wisely brought back Empire and Jedi scribe Lawrence Kasdan to help him fashion a screenplay in fairly short order. If the film has any weakness it’s in terms of the script, which perhaps jumps from set piece to set piece without always pausing to take stock. It’s a frequent failing of Abrams, as is his love of mysteries and, whilst there’s nothing wrong with creating mystery, you also need to occasionally provide answers.
It’s obvious that Abrams and Kasdan are setting up plot points for future episodes, and whilst this kind of franchise building is common these days , it can come at the expense of the stand-alone nature of the film. After all, even though Empire ended on a cliffhanger it still felt like a complete story. At times you wonder if the writers could have made more of an effort to fill in the thirty year gap between Jedi and Force, but it’s still a hugely enjoyable adventure that brims with optimism. In much the same way as the original Star Wars was an antidote to the grim realities of the 1970s, so this latest instalment might help take peoples’ minds off their current woes.
This is the Star Wars sequel we’ve been waiting for since The Empire Strikes Back and although it’s been a long 35 years, it was worth the wait.
If Abrams brings the optimism, then Kasdan brings the humour with the kind of snappy dialogue that was sorely missing in the prequels. Of course both Abrams and Kasdan have the advantage that the original cast are returning to their iconic roles, and Harrison Ford in particular seems to relish playing Han Solo again. Ford gets the most screen time out of the originals, although both Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill get their moments as well, but Abrams has wisely chosen to build his trilogy around a new cast, all of whom are excellent.
Daisy Ridley is wonderful as the determined and scrappy Rey, John Boyega’s Finn is seeking redemption and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron could give Han Solo a run for his money in the cocky pilot stakes. In terms of the villains, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren makes for a suitably dangerous and volatile antagonist. He’s ably supported by Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma, Domhnall Gleeson’s over-the-top General Hux and Andy Serkis’s Supreme Leader Snoke. New droid BB8 is a technical marvel but frankly it can also be a little annoying at times. Still, it’s a genuine pleasure to see Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2 again.
The use of real locations is a welcome return and the fact the film introduces various new planets without feeling the need to return to any old ones is a breath of fresh air. The production design and effects are excellent, using the original Star Wars as inspiration whilst reinventing themselves to serve the new story. The film retains an epic scale without ever losing touch with the humanity of the characters, and leaves the viewer both emotionally invested and filled with a wonderful feeling of nostalgia.
The film isn’t perfect of course. For one thing it doesn’t just use the original Star Wars as an inspiration, it actually ‘borrows’ large parts of that film’s plot. It also heavily relies on contrivance and coincidence to drive the narrative, although that’s equally true of all the other films in the franchise. As a result there’s a distinct lack of originality to The Force Awakens, as if someone is going through a checklist of what constitutes a great Star Wars movie. John Williams' score falls into a similar category, replaying all the familiar themes like a greatest hits package but failing to add anything new that felt memorable.
However the film is clearly designed to pass the torch from one generation to the next and in that sense it achieves its goal admirably. Given all that's at stake you really can't blame the filmmakers for playing it safe and there will be plenty of opportunity for greater originality in future episodes and the stand-alone films. In the meantime the important thing is that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is good - really good. Incredibly it nearly manages to live up to all the pre-release hype and, in the process, delivers one of the most enjoyable films of the year.
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