Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
As a child of the Eighties, my first exposure to the Star Wars universe was actually via Return of The Jedi (1983) on VHS. Luke was a fully fledged, lightsaber wielding, badass Jedi - the first act escape from Jabba The Hut's lair was a particular highlight - and Princess Leia wore that gold bikini. As a result, it was in some ways a bit of an anticlimax when I eventually got around to watching Star Wars, with Skywalker only a dorky novice, not to mention the oak-like acting from a soaking wet behind the ears Mark Hamill. Thankfully, there was the sinister Darth Vader, the rogue-ish Han Solo, and the wise Obi-Wan Kenobi to liven up proceedings. I was too young to fully appreciate the dark heart of the majestic The Empire Strikes Back (a film I was only able to acknowledge as the classic it is once I revisited it during my later teenage years).
When George Lucas announced in the Nineties that he was making a trilogy of prequels, I was swept up in the excitement as much as everybody else. I see myself as maybe more of a casual fan compared to most others, e.g. it's not the end of the world that Greedo now shoots first (although that adjusted scene does looks awful). However, if one is to be generous, it was a long time ago since George had directed, and the prequels were disjointed to put it mildly. There wasn't enough balance in the Force: despite the good stuff like Liam Neeson, Ewan, Portman, Darth Maul, Jango Fett, ass kicking Yoda; it's impossible to overlook the tedious taxation plot line, Jar Jar Binks, the stilted dialogue delivery, and the eternal charisma vacuum Hayden Christiansen. Forward several years, and the announcement of Star Wars movies that would follow on from Return of the Jedi gave me (a) new hope - finally, here was the chance of an onscreen return of some much cherished characters, and a director who not only re-ignited the Mission Impossible fuse, but whose Star Trek (2009) seemed like an audition tape for Star Wars in all but name.
Fast forward to late December 2015, sitting in the cinema with anticipation, it was impossible not to feel giddy with excitement as the movie's title appeared on the screen, and the immediate crescendo of John Williams' majestic theme kicks in along with the famous scrolling prologue. In that moment i was transported straight back to my childhood. Emulating the original trilogy is a nigh on impossible task as they are a set of movies that belonged to the zeitgeist of a particular time. However, JJ Abrams comes very close, especially in capturing the essence and spirit of adventure of the originals that Lucas didn't quite manage with his slightly po faced prequels - the latter seemed to forget they were supposed to be fun too.
In The Force Awakens, Abrams replicates a formula that he used successfully for Star Trek, delivering a film that is simultaneously a sequel but also feeling like a - for lack of a better word - quasi-sort of-reboot (i know, I know, everyone is ultra fatigued by this concept by now). However, its all done with such great aplomb and affection for the series (and speaking as a non-fanboy) that Abrams manages to get away with it. The film/plot-line may be set many years after Return of The Jedi, but it pays respect to the original trilogy in a series of subtle (and some not-so-subtle) references. Fans will have fun with the frequent callbacks to iconic moments from the original films. One new element that deviates from the originals is taking a character famous for their low status role in the intergalactic hierarchy, and turning that person into a key player - this alternate perspective marking a refreshing twist for the saga.
Undeniably, one of the primary appeals of The Force Awakens is the nostalgic factor. Finally, we get to once again spend some time in the company of much beloved characters such as Chewbacca and Han Solo - Ford still retaining that rogue-ish charm, only with extra added layers of gravitas, and only the head of grey hair giving away the passage of time. Unfortunately, Princess-cum-General Leia doesn't get an awful lot to do except to be the stately leader of the resistance, and speak with authority on cue. The long awaited return of The Millennium Falcon will also have fans doing their best impression of a smiling Cheshire Cat.
The level of detail in the visual effects within the movie is superb, especially in the background imagery of remnants of the fallen Destroyers and AT-AT Walkers in the Jakku desert. Similarly, Daniel Mindel's cinematography is also really impressive - especially the desert sequences on Jakku (which looks amazing on IMAX 3-D) and during the lightsaber duels on the snow planet where Starkiller Base is located. The photography aligned with the visual/practical effects are first rate. Admittedly, I wasn't totally mesmerised by the action set pieces in the film, with particular highlights being Kylo Ren's initial introduction (showcasing his powers) and the aerial battle on Jakku between Tie Fighters and The Falcon. The saber battles suffer a little in comparison compared to those in the Lucas prequels - perhaps it's intentional as they were also lacklustre in the original Star Wars, not really coming to the fore until The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
Of the new cast, Daisy Ridley makes the biggest impression as the scavenger Rey, a tough young lady surviving in an unforgiving, hostile environment. She has some issues of abandonment but has never given up hope of better things to come. Ridley combines feistiness with vulnerability, and is a little reminiscent of a young Keira Knightly (who of course had a small role in The Phantom Menace). As Finn, John Boyega portrays a character with the strength of mind to make a stand against the status quo, refusing to accept his place in the universe, and rallies against the (star) system. Unfortunately, Abrams should really have told Boyega to reign it in a little, as his frequently OTT, hyper-excitable schtick is more suited for Kevin Hart's next opus than Star Wars. I understand it's there for comic relief, but it's often jarring in the context of a scene. Adam Driver is another actor that is unknown to me, and he brings an appropriate blend of. Oscar Isaac has actually been floating around for quite some time - with small-ish parts in the likes of Body of Lies, Drive and The Bourne Legacy - although he's been rather ubiquitous since The Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis put his name on the map. However, The Force Awakens doesn't really allow Isaac to showcase his talents beyond being a cocksure, ace fighter pilot. Domnhall Gleeson does his best "fascist villain" in the Peter Cushing role. Of the non human characters, BB-8 is a decent upgrade whilst a couple of familiar 'faces' also make an appearance. Thankfully, there isn't a Jar Jar Binks in sight.mystique and menace as the unhinged Kylo Ren. However, Driver is a little less convincing when he's not 'being' Kylo Ren. Having said that, I guess the point is that the character is supposed to be a sociopath with clear "daddy" issues, and this has been exploited to the max by Supreme Leader Snoke. He's not yet fully honed as the new Vader; something which I'm sure will be addressed in the next movie.
Ultimately, The Force Awakens doesn't eclipse the original Star Wars trilogy, but perhaps that was never its intention. It surpasses the slightly stiff Lucas prequels in terms of re-capturing the essence of what Star Wars should be about (even if it doesn't have the added depth of Empire). What is the essence? I guess the best way to describe it is that my seven year old son sat in the cinema with me, without once complaining, and completely transfixed at the screen for the entire two hours plus duration of the movie. JJ Abrams will never win any awards for originality, but for the multi-faceted attention to detail that's gone into the production, Episode VII is a clear love letter to the series.