Six years ago JJ Abrams put a certain other stellar franchise back on the cinematic map after years in the doldrums; with energetic direction and a heavy focus on character interaction (something desperately lacking in the Star Wars prequels). The question was, could he do the same for Star Wars after years of prequel inspired cynicism? And did we dare to hope he could he craft a sequel that would live up to the promise of the original trilogy? The answer to both, thank the maker, is a resounding yes. Is it the best Star Wars movie ever? That might be pushing it, but its certainly worthy of consideration for the title.
The good news is JJ once again plays to all his strengths; delivering a film that is about character first and story second. In that respect he’s gone the opposite way of Lucas, and while that should come as no surprise given the prequel backlash, it absolutely pays off for audiences hungry for old school star wars. The Force Awakens is a fantastic triumph in all the areas where the prequels foundered. Here is a tangible, real, believable universe; not a sterile computer generated dream-world. Here is a fast paced adventure story, rather than a dull political treatise interspersed with digital set-pieces. And most importantly by far, here are real characters, with energy, charisma and chemistry; rather than awkward dialogue dispensers sitting in circles.
And despite the welcome inclusion of original trilogy favourites Han, Chewie, Leia, C3PO and R2-D2, it’s the new cast that are the stars here, and boy do they shine. The three young leads (four if you count a certain antagonist) are an absolute revelation. Daisy Ridley arguably steals the film as Rey, an orphaned scavenger from the junk-planet of Jakku, giving a performance that’s both feisty & brave, yet also human and vulnerable, making her inarguably the most engaging female star wars character to date. Also making a considerable impression is John Boyega’s Finn; who is both noble and conscionable, yet develops a goofy and at times misplaced cockiness that shows he’s in way over his head. Poe Dameron too, while having a smaller role than his co-stars, hints at greater things to come with a distinctly roguish personality, yet he also brings a casual amiability that sets him apart from the more sarcastic and hostile Han Solo as he was in the originals. Think Maverick with a heart. His early buddy-mission with Finn is an absolute delight; and in fact all three characters have an instant chemistry that confirms some extremely savvy casting. Adam Driver joins them as the other primary young character, and his arc as tortured acolyte of the dark side with deep connections to the original cast has massive repercussions for the saga going forward; he’s basically the character Anakin Skywalker should have been. It wouldn’t be right not to include ‘new-droid-on-the-block’ BB8, which again is fantastic creation. As a friend of mine remarked, BB8 is a lesson in how to create a genuinely loveable child-friendly sidekick. He’s adorable, unobtrusive (unlike a certain floppy-eared character, best not named) and hugely relevant to the story. This is another nod to the original star wars (more on that later). In short then, The Force Awakens has done as good a job of establishing characters as A New Hope did in 1977, maybe even better. I care about these people, and what’s going to happen to them. Another critical distinction between The Force Awakens and the prequel trilogy; the protagonists here are constantly in peril; out of their depths, outmatched and frequently on the brink of defeat or capture- raising the stakes far higher than that of the prequel protagonists who always seemed omnipotent; confident supermen facing inferior foes without even a hint of fear.
Talking of action and special effects (the selling point of any star wars film) these too are every bit as intense and thrilling as one could hope. While you could argue that tight, stand alone set pieces (eg The Pod Race) are infrequent; action and excitement is peppered throughout, with thrilling chases and escapes, intense dogfights and blaster battles aplenty. It’s no spoiler to say that there is, of course, a lightsaber duel; and while it raises some plausibility issues, its an instant classic. It’s not a battle between masters of the force, or a skillfully choreographed ballet of sabre twirling goodness (as seen in the prequel trilogy), but it replaces that instead with an emotional intensity we haven’t seen since Luke’s battles with Darth Vader. Pristine swordsmanship and acrobatics have been replaced with furious melees; objects being impaled and cut down left right and centre; and spine tingling revelations that change the dynamic of the combat. Some might prefer the visual majesty of Darth Maul’s twin bladed three way engagement in The Phantom Menace. Me, I was infinately more invested in the driving force between the duels than the technique.
The dogfights and fighter chases are also fantastic; intense and visceral, and giving us more Millenium Falcon, X-Wing and TIE fighter action than ever before. Arguably the best of these is a stunning chase across the Jakku desert through the rusting hulls of vast Star destroyer wrecks; and also a dogfight over the snow-covered enemy base. These are mostly aerial battles however; Some fans, including myself, might lament the scarcity of an actual, honest to goodness ‘space battle’ between starships. Lets hope that’s still to come. There’s also a Han Solo-based scene that might seem reminiscent of Guardians of the Galaxy, but its perfectly in keeping with the character’s pirate origins.
The effects and worldbuilding here also fulfill the promise of keeping to practical techniques as far as possible. Everything feels real, and you really notice the difference. The storm troopers for example, look so much more tactile than their completely digitised clone counterparts in episodes II and III. Indeed, the realism of The Force Awakens can sometimes work against is when it comes to the two entirely digital characters of the film; Maz Kanata, and Supreme Leader Snoke. Don’t get me wrong, they are excellent creations (more Gollum than Jar Jar) but the obviousness of the graphics means they stick out ever so slightly amongst such an otherwise real-looking production. That said, both are interesting characters that play a role in driving the narrative forward.
It wouldn’t be right to talk about star wars without mentioning luminaries Ben Burt and John Williams, who again peerlessly bring the saga to sonic life. The latter’s score might take a few more listens before it can take its place amoung the classics, but its still thrilling to hear a new Williams Star Wars score.
The negatives then: The story, as you’ve probably already heard, plays like a very loose remake (or remaining) of Star Wars: A New Hope. The story beats are hugely familiar, and conclude the penultimate act of the film in predictable fashion. What’s less predictable, happily, is how they get us there; the film is constantly taking twists and turns that don’t follow what the trailers led us to believe, which is to JJ’s eternal credit. But it still adheres to a well-worn template and many might see the ‘mcguffin’ of the film to be a bit silly, especially in the light of what’s come before. This ‘super weapon’ plot device also leads to a finale that seems rather rushed, although to be fair it turns out to be incidental to the character drama going on elsewhere. The use of the force in the movie is also a bit on the random side, leading to some curious plot-holes that require a little extra suspension of disbelief. Other niggles include the underutilisation of certain characters; Max Von Sydow’s Lor Sen Tekka and Gwendoline Christie’s much anticipated, action-figure-selling Captain Phasma are two of the casualties of what was undoubtedly an over populated production. That said, there is a rather fun anonymous cameo to look for. It also feels mean to say, but I wasn’t particularly enamoured with Carrie Fisher’s Leia reprise, and if pressed I’d say she’s the weakest link amoung the old guard.
Another criticism, for me the only important one, is one that George Lucas’ prequel trilogy actually did manage to get right. In his efforts to strip everything back, JJ has sacrificed some of the grandeur and scale of George’s films. The majesty of Coruscant or Cloud City, or the eerie atmosphere of Dagobah, or the transcendent beauty of Empire’s Asteroid field chase, have been eschewed in favour of more familiar environments. Consequently there’s a slight sense that the Resistance in particular is a ’pitiful little band’ rather than the military wing of the vast civilisation depicted in the prequels. Some would argue however, that star wars always worked best on the frontier, and against the odds, but still I’d like to see some more exotic locations next time.
When all’s said and done though, The Force Awakens gets the important stuff so right, in ways that are so satisfying, that it becomes easy to forgive its occasional missteps. It's thrilling, dramatic, emotionally satisfying, and also remarkably humorous; creating a tone that makes for plenty of rewatch appeal. The film also leaves us with a ton of unanswered questions, and now we have some truly wonderful new cast members to explore them with in the next two films. Abrams has succeeded in reawakening the Star Wars universe even better than he did with Trek. The Force truly is strong with this one.