Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Peter Mayhew, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill
Black screen. Blue lettering. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” and then BANG! With the blast of that iconic fanfare and the crawling text, we are once again away. 32 years after we saw Luke, Han and Leia finally defeat Darth Vader and the Empire in Return of the Jedi these iconic characters return to the big screen in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. This most revered of franchises, now under the control of Disney, has been handed on from its creator, George Lucas, to writer-director J.J. Abrams. Abrams showed with Star Trek in 2009 that he has a gift for rebooting storied science-fiction franchises, but this is another level entirely. But faced with the near impossible burden of audience and industry expectations – this is, after all, a movie which anything less than becoming the highest grossing film of all time will seemingly be an underperformance – Abrams and his team have delivered.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last Jedi knight, has vanished. In his absence a new dark power, the First Order, has risen from the ashes of the Empire. Both the First Order, under the leadership of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and the new Resistance, under the leadership of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) are searching for Luke. Ace pilot for the Resistance, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), has found an important clue to his whereabouts. But with the menacing Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) on his tail Poe is forced to entrust the information to his faithful droid BB-8. Wandering through the desert planet of Jakku, BB-8 meets up with an isolated scavenger girl, Rey (Daisy Ridley), who with the help of a defected storm trooper FN-2187, dubbed Finn (John Boyega), sets off to return the droid to the Resistance.
Abrams was born in 1966, which means he was eleven years old when the first Star Wars film came out. He grew up with Star Wars and as a fan he acutely understands what it is that people love about these films. Where Lucas’s much maligned prequel trilogy turned people off by deviating too far from the formula, The Force Awakens returns the Star Wars series to its roots, modelling itself both tonally and aesthetically on the original trilogy. Moving away from the all-digital look of the prequels, Abrams has opted to shoot on 35mm film and employ practical effects and real sets wherever possible. As a result, the world of The Force Awakens has a rustic lived-in quality in place of the shininess of the prequels. Even the light sabre duels are back to the slashing and swatting of the originals rather than the balletic choreography of the prequels. In a delicate balancing of the new and the old, Abrams has updated the franchise without sacrificing the classic aesthetic. The Force Awakens looks at the same time very current and classically Star Wars.
The formula for The Force Awakens appears to be a simple one: do all the things people love from Star Wars, and don’t do any of the things people hated. If a criticism can be made of The Force Awakens it is perhaps that it in following this formula it plays it too safe. This sequel is so reverential to the original that it verges on being a remake. Its derivative narrative follows the arc of the 1977 original: the Jedis all but gone, a rising evil power, a plucky droid with important information picked up on a desert planet by idealistic youngster with dreams of adventure, a giant space station with the power to destroy planets. The beats are all very familiar. What rescues the film, though, is the joyous way it oozes affection for the material.
But The Force Awakens doesn’t just remind us what we loved about the original Star Wars trilogy, it also sets up an exciting future. This is after all a transitional film, intended to hand the narrative over from one generation of characters to the next. The risk was always that with these iconic characters returning, audiences would have no interest in the new additions. But the screenplay by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan (who also penned The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) ensures that while fans get the thrill of seeing old favourites like Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and Luke Skywalker on screen again, the new characters are instantly engaging. Rey, Finn and Poe are quickly established as an exciting new triumvirate to get behind. Rather than simply being equivalents to characters from the original trilogy, they mix and match character traits so as to feel familiar but still fresh. Star Wars films have never been celebrated for their acting, but relative newcomers Daisy Ridley (who has more than a touch of Keira Knightley to her) and John Boyega have great chemistry as Rey and Finn, bringing both youthful excitement and humour to the adventure. This new suite of heroes also takes steps towards addressing the uniform male whiteness that defined so much of the previous six films.
On the other side you have Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. In a black mask and hooded cloak, it is initially difficult not to see him as a slightly inferior Darth Vader. His helmet is not as cool. His physique is not as imposing as that of David Prowse. His voice is not as menacing as that of James Earl Jones. But then you realise that is entirely the point. Kylo Ren is possibly the most nuanced and interesting character to have appeared in the Star Wars series. While obviously very powerful in the Force – exemplified by a fantastic early moment where he halts a laser bolt in mid-air which hangs there for the entirety of the scene until he leaves – he is none the less a young man racked with adolescent insecurity, and suffering from a significant inferiority complex. Rather than measured and assured, Kylo Ren is prone to fits of petulant rage when things do not go his way. He is in obvious pain. Determined to be a powerful dark lord he confesses to struggling with the seduction of the light side, an interesting inversion of a usual character device. In this universe that is so clearly divided between light and dark, good and evil, he is a uniquely conflicted character.
Since 9/11, blockbuster film franchises have almost universally felt the urge to go dark, resulting in many a “gritty reboot.” One of the great pleasures of Abrams’ film is its determination to do the opposite. The Force Awakens is above all else fun. It is a rollicking, old-fashioned adventure tale, charged with idealism and optimism, plenty of good natured humour, and not a drop of cynicism. The Force Awakens is indeed the film Star Wars fans were looking for.
Review by Duncan McLean
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