“A long time ago, in a Galaxy far, far away…” these are a small assembly of words that mean a great deal to many people. Star Wars began as a wild dream in 1977, by George Lucas and a crew that veered from being frustrated to feeling tormented by what seemed to be, at points, a certain failure in the making. Until something special happened and in the following years, with Irvin Kershner’s even greater sequel The Empire Strikes Back and Richard Marquand’s story closing Return of the Jedi, Star Wars became way more than a series of films, it became a phenomenon. Star Wars is a modern cinematic myth, for many it is a way of life and even in the controversial and turbulent times of the franchise (the prequels remain an avid source of debate), these films have influenced cinema unquestionably and impacted culture unshakably. So when Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, after (for all intents and purposes) the final film Revenge of the Sith came out in in 2005, and announced that the story would continue, it created a bigger bang than a thermal detonator in a Mustafar volcano or a proton torpedo down an exhaust port. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is indeed an awakening.
Not content with attempting to continue a story concluded back in 1983, this sequel re-unites certain cast and crewmembers of the original trilogy and places them next to new faces. Director J. J. Abrams, fresh off a rough trek with Star Trek Into Darkness (which led to huge fan backlash) is the man tasked to try and ensure the survival of a saga in these changing times. “Do or do not, there is no try”, so the big question you all want to know is one we can actually answer without spoilers. Does J. J. manage it? Yes…yes he does. The Force Awakens is a shattering, exciting, engrossing and at times even tiring (in the best possible way) experience that marries the old and the new to create something that is really quite magical. The opening crawl and ever-masterful John Williams score accompanying it was met with applause at our screening and the beautiful final shot of the film and closing credits were likewise applauded. Believe us, this will be a universal occurrence.
The plot, well what we can tell you of it, sees Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) missing and ace resistance fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) hides vital information to his whereabouts on his loyal droid companion BB-8 but when the dastardly First Order, led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), comes calling BB-8 must flee. BB-8 soon meets a scavenger called Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Dameron meets First Order stormtrooper “Finn” (John Boyega), who struggles with his dark duties and attempts to escape, fate naturally brings Rey, Finn and BB-8 together on an unexpected adventure in a fight against an ever growing galactic darkness. Ok, there are some details there but we have kept it as condensed and vague as possible (honest) because The Force Awakens is a journey best left for you to discover yourself. It embraces the successes, the flaws and the beloved moments of all that came before to deliver a film some may well accuse of fan service or rehashing A New Hope but which actually takes the familiar flourishes of the series and uses them to create a brand new exciting direction for Star Wars.
Kasdan, Abrams and Arndt’s screenplay plays out simply but boasts a sense of joy, heart and brewing darkness in equal measure. The story has multiple tangents and twists and the central plotline is unexpected, emotional and ripe for advancement across what will be a new generation of Star Wars lore. The biggest draw of The Force Awakens may be its nostalgic implications and indeed the film constantly nods to and references what many viewers will see as the franchises glory days. However these classic tropes of the narrative serve a greater purpose in helping to establish an all-together new course for Star Wars. While not forgetting its past, Abrams’ film looks to the future and leaves audiences eager to see potential arcs and characters introduced in this film, develop later. The script, like the direction, retains the franchises core elements of action, comedy and romanticism and adds an epic sense of progression in scale and themes. This is a refreshing film, one that continues the Star Wars binary opposition of good and bad constantly in battle to balance out the force but which is boosted by a sense of innovation. From updated colloquialisms to the prominent female presence in the film, this is another case of Sci-fi being a gateway for leading the way in cinematic development and the overall film feels fresh and exciting as a result. In fact the film often feels drawn from years of expanded universe developments and almost like it was made in conjunction with fans…which it kind of was.
The less said about the cast and characters the better but needless to say seeing Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Peter Mayhew and Anthony Daniels back in the roles they made iconic is stirring and often heart swelling for viewers brought up on a healthy dose of bun haircuts and Chewbacca impressions. They all have major roles in this story but of the original cast, it is perhaps most appropriately Harrison Ford who most stands out. His Han Solo here is a changed man, his outlook has changed and with every passing year so has he. Ford excels in showcasing this brilliant development in the Solo character. Yet through it all, he remains the gun-slinging rogue that won our hearts back in that cantina in Mos Eisley. The nostalgia value may be undeniable but The Force Awakens is far more than a reunion of old mates and the new leads are exceptional proof.
Ridley is a likable, well developed and a very strong role model as Rey and her chemistry with John Boyega’s Finn is immediate. Boyega too takes the opportunity to showcase a range of emotions and is a lead you can relate to. Though they are made to bring their best thanks to the impeccable creation that is droid BB-8, who looks superb in design and is a blissful scene stealer worthy of taking over from R2-D2 in the cute, character-filled and expressive droid department. The new cast all bring their passion to this project, be it the authoritative Domhnall Gleeson or the cool as ice Oscar Isaac, if anything there are too many characters to choose from who have an important presence in the film. Although the show stealer is Adam Driver’s new big bad Kylo Ren, who is a mesmerising presence in the film, played with seething rage and emotional turbulence by the ever-exceptional Driver. Ren pursues the darkness psychotically and obsessively to give the Star Wars franchise one of its most unstable and compelling villains (and that is saying something). Ren is the best bad guy of the year, in one of the best films of the year.
The Force Awakens also marks a welcome return to the days of practical effects and props and while there is an integration with a great deal of CGI (which is reliably brilliant), the film has not overstuffed the digital side of things and this is to its benefit. The sets are intricate throwbacks to behold, whose hidden treasures will undoubtedly benefit from repeat viewings. However when we speak of visual grace, it would be foolish not to mention Dan Mindel’s cinematography, which is possibly the greatest of the franchise, with the set pieces proving big, explosive and exciting and the locations being picture perfect for them. The Skellig Michael filmed closing moments of the movie in particular are a change of pace for Star Wars scenery and breathtakingly beautiful. Then you have Williams’ scoring that once again strives to strike the perfect tone and succeeds, with the occasional cheeky use of an iconic Star Wars riff, inevitably making the hairs on your arms stand to attention- especially in the dark closing lightsaber-filled action set-piece.
From old joys to fresh twists, this is a unique blockbuster experience that celebrates the franchise whilst also expanding it. There are shocks, there are thrills and at times it takes a few moments to absorb what you have seen in this vast, enthusiastic and sometimes overwhelming experience. Fans of Star Wars are well served here (as are non-fans to be honest) and will likely get emotional themselves at Abrams’ accomplishment. Bottom line, this is glorious, involving and top-notch entertainment. This is both the Star Wars you know and the Star Wars you don’t but it is also the Star Wars you love, The Force Awakens is calling out to you, just let it in…
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: J. J. ABRAMS / SCREENPLAY: LAWRENCE KASDAN, J. J. ABRAMS, MICHAEL ARNDT / STARRING: DAISY RIDLEY, JOHN BOYEGA, HARRISON FORD, ADAM DRIVER, OSCAR ISAAC, CARRIE FISHER, MARK HAMILL, LUPITA NYONG’O, ANDY SERKIS, DOMHNALL GLEESON, PETER MAYHEW, ANTHONY DANIELS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected Rating: 9 out of 10