I don’t think anybody really believed that 2005’s Revenge of the Sith would be the last Star Wars movie we’d see. As film franchises only became bigger and bigger in the ten years since its release, it became increasingly inevitable that Star Wars would make a return to the big screen in some form or other. And now Star Wars is upon us once more, the most hotly anticipated movie of the decade arrives amidst an apparent wave of collective amnesia for last time this happened back in 1999.
The Force Awakens does have an advantage over The Phantom Menace however, in that its makers know what a terrible Star Wars movie looks like and what fans’ reactions to it were. At the same time, it arguably has a more difficult task ahead by being a sequel, it has to continue the story of the central characters beloved to millions, while setting up a new one for the next few planned movies. In this sense The Force Awakens goes for the more obvious approach; it wishes to replicate the original Star Wars, (or A New Hope if you’re so inclined), and uses it very clearly as its basis.
Star Wars was always inspired by a number of different sources; most famously the old Flash Gordon serials and Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress with some Western troupes, but George Lucas combined things he loved into something that felt creative and original. J.J. Abrams, The Force Awakens’ director, is just being inspired by Star Wars, this property is now driven by nostalgia for itself.
I was somewhat unimpressed when Abrams was announced as the new Star Wars director, he seemed like the least imaginative choice possible. “Who should we get to make the new Star Wars? Oh, let’s get the guy that just did the new Star Trek”. J.J. Abrams is a director who, in his films at least, just tends to take something from his youth, put a shiny coat of paint on it and re-release it back to the world. Even his sole original screenplay Super 8 just felt like him recycling what he loved about old Spielberg movies, albeit with the blessing of the man himself.
The Force Awakens is essentially everything I’d expect from a J.J. Abrams Star Wars movie. His affection for the material is clear, but his goal seems primarily to replicate what’s come before. The film uses A New Hope as it’s template throughout, adding in little bits from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi at times, the major story beats are nearly all taken directly from what’s come before.
The most important thing for Abrams to do is try and capture the spirit of the original Star Wars, and to that end, he largely succeeds. This is a welcome return to a familiar galaxy, far far away. Despite the triumphant conclusion to Return of the Jedi thirty years prior, The Force Awakens emphasises that not much has actually changed since then. The new bad guys are called The First Order, but function in many of the same ways The Galactic Empire had before. Opposing them is The Resistance, which likewise serve a similar function to The Rebel Alliance.
This logic also applies to the older characters we know are going to return in this movie, namely Han Solo and Princess Leia. Abrams, along with veteran Star Wars screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan appear to have consciously decided to have them still be in essentially the same positions they always were, though Leia (Carrie Fisher) is a General now. Harrison Ford, famously the actor most resistant to returning for more Star Wars appears to be having a great time reprising his star-making role. He truly commits conveying that this, while older, is the very same person and he’s a great deal of fun in the movie when interacting with characters both old and new. The Force Awakens can’t just be about the adventures of a septuagenarian Han Solo though, the other challenge facing Abrams is in creating a new bunch of characters that could be embraced as the originals were, and he pretty much hits that out of the park.
The first of our two new leads is Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. She’s a scavenger scratching out a living by herself on the desert planet of Jakku. She comes into possession of a droid named BB-8, whose previous owner hid a secret map in that The First Order wishes to obtain. She soon crosses paths with Finn (John Boyega), a former storm trooper who’s deserted his post after having a crisis of conscience. They end up having to escape together after the planet is attacked, kicking off their epic adventure.
As a franchise, Star Wars has never relied on big name stars to sell movie tickets, and in that sense Abrams has really done the right thing in casting two relative newcomers as the leads (personally I knew Boyega from Attack the Block but hadn’t seen Ridley before). The character of Rey, and the film in general also goes some way to addressing the weird imbalance that exists in the Star Wars universe, where men seem to vastly outnumber women. Rey is not a Princess, she’s (quite obviously) taking on the same role that Luke Skywalker played in the original. She’s always portrayed as extremely competent, and is never the damsel in distress she could have been (an early encounter between her and Finn subverts this troupe quite amusingly). She is the new hero the Star Wars universe needs, and Ridley is consistently excellent in the part. In general, the film is commendably committed to more diverse casting across the board, including of course, the co-lead.
Boyega does a similarly great job as Finn, an inexperienced storm trooper who becomes concerned he may be on the wrong side in the opening scene. His backstory is a little different from characters we’ve seen before, but once he leaves The First Order he exhibits the same strong moral code of the series’ obvious good guys, yet knows he’s in way out of his depth. The film appears to be setting up a romance between him and Rey and if so, (who knows, maybe they’ll turn out to be siblings?) it’s a good job the two actors work so well together, as the script doesn’t give them anywhere near enough scenes to establish such a connection.
The rest of the new cast includes Oscar Isaac as a hotshot resistance pilot in the Han Solo vein. I’d originally thought he was another lead but he’s very much a supporting player. Isaac’s natural charm and charisma are on full display, but he’s not given a great deal new to do. The same could be said of his Ex Machina co-star Domhnall Gleeson, who plays an evil general, and an underserved Lupita Nyong’o, who appears briefly as a motion-captured ancient pirate who I think the film wants to sell as a kind-of new Yoda in another scene that shamelessly apes the original trilogy. There are a few other actors who are given the short straw, including Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma, an officer in the First Order with little to do but stand around, Max von Sydow, (who gets about a minute on screen) and The Raid stars Yayan Ruhian and Iko Uwais, who you’d think would have been brought in for a spectacular fight scene but alas.
Arguably the most interesting new character is the chief villain Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver. While his get-up is obviously modelled on Darth Vader, he is, on his first appearance at least, a much more complicated villain (Vader’s character was only really expanded upon in the sequels). Kylo is not just some black-robed force for evil, he’s conflicted about what he does, and he can’t shake where he came from. He’s introduced as a commanding presence but later seen acting like a petulant child when things don’t go his way, and Gleeson’s general has no qualms about talking back to him. It’s not a spoiler to say that his helmet comes off more than once in the film, and we see far more to him in these key scenes, he’s a truly fascinating villain and one of the movie’s strongest aspects.
Even the ‘ball-droid’ BB-8, who at first appears to have been designed purely to sell toys turns out to be quite a charming presence.
All these new characters are introduced in the movie’s first act, which Abrams’s paces very well. He firmly re-establishes the world and sets-up the new characters wonderfully. For the first 30 minutes or so, I entertained the thought that maybe The Force Awakens could be a truly great film, it seemed possible.
As a whole, it’s not though. Make no mistake, this is a decent film, but it’s not any kind of perfect space fantasy epic. It’s quite similar to Abrams’ Star Trek movies in that it moves along fast enough for some of its plot flaws to breeze past you upon immediate viewing but come to light the more you think about them afterwards. There’s not anything as stupid as Into Darkness’s ‘death cure’ but there’s still a lot of explaining to do. We get next to no backstory regarding exactly what’s going on with The First Order and The Resistance, and indeed the film’s central McGuffin. That would the map identifying Luke Skywalker’s location (the opening crawl informs us of his disappearance). These are things that I imagine will be expanded upon in future movies but right now are left unsatisfactorily hanging.
The film squanders some of the good will generated by its stellar opening act in its middle section too, where it starts meandering around for a while without really advancing the plot much. It’s also most disappointing to see that the big threat of the film is, as one character states directly; “another Death Star”. Abrams’ dedication to bringing the fans what he knows they liked the first time around fails him here, where he’s reduced to just giving them a bigger, shinier version of what came before, much like his films in general. There’s also a big emotional moment that – no spoilers – many people, myself included will have correctly predicted, and it just doesn’t have the weighty impact it should.
The spectacle of The Force Awakens is also a bit of a mixed bag, there are a number of space battles that are fine, if unspectacular sequences. It sensibly doesn’t lean too heavily on Lightsabre fights, saving one for the climax that’s very well-choreographed. However there’s also an action scene with a big ugly CGI beast earlier on that’s pretty awful.
In general The Force Awakens doesn’t rely too much on CGI though, a lesson likely learned from the prequels. There are some obviously mo-capped characters (including of course, one played by Andy Serkis) but also a good amount of practical effects. These include a few familiar designs but also some entertaining new ones that fit right in with the Star Wars universe.
John Williams’ scores are another essential element of the Star Wars movies, and he returns here. I was very pleased to hear that his new score doesn’t just continually repeat the most familiar Star Wars cues (the main theme and Imperial march), instead appropriately focusing more on the (superior in my opinion) ‘Force theme’. Of the new material, there isn’t anything that stands out as a potentially new iconic Star Wars cue though, which despite what the rest of the movie was like, The Phantom Menace certainly had.
The Force Awakens succeeds in bringing Star Wars definitively back, and its slavish dedication to replicating the original trilogy will likely prove very satisfactory to fans of the series. This risk-averse approach avoids any potential disasters but also prevents the film from being something fresh, exciting or truly great. Its new characters are the real triumph of the film though, and knowing that the already-filming Episode VIII has a much more interesting director at the helm (Rian Johnson), I hope we have the chance to follow them into some new territory.