Principal Cast : Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow, Kenny Baker, Tim Rose, Gwendoline Christie, Simon Pegg, Greg Grunberg, Warwick Davis, Kiran Shah.
Synopsis: 30 years after the defeat of the Galactic Empire, a new threat rises. The First Order attempts to rule the galaxy and only a ragtag group of Heroes can stop them, along with the help of the Resistance.
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. THERE WILL BE NO FURTHER WARNING.
Return to the Galaxy far, far away.
Hard as it is to imagine, but it’s been a decade since the last Star Wars film was vomited upon us by George Lucas, with 2004’s Revenge Of The Sith, a turgid, self-congratulatory and utterly asinine third film in what has become known as the Prequel Trilogy (featuring sidebar films The Phantom Menace and Attack Of The Clones) closing the chapter on Anakin Skywalker’s levelling-up to Sith Lord, Darth Vader. Love them or (like me) hate them, the Prequel Trilogy filled in the backstory to the Skywalker mythology, expanding on the world Lucas created way back in 1977 with the original Star Wars – now subtitled A New Hope. Through the array of Special Edition tinkering, multiple DVD and BluRay releases, a “Han Shot First” campaign, multiple animated series bearing the brand, and the lack of a genuine “original version” release for the first three films in the saga – Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, as well as the original film – fans of Star Wars have had to contend with Lucas seemingly riding roughshod over the films that birthed not only ILM, but THX, the Skywalker Ranch and a slew of other industry icons.
Cue The Force Awakens, the seventh feature film bearing the gold standard of sci-fi-fantasy labels, and directed by Hollywood wunderkind JJ Abrams. Abrams, fresh off the commercial success but fanboy-hatred of Star Trek Into Darkness, was tapped to direct the first of the Disney produced Star Wars films, and while initially met with a thunderstorm of applause, gradually gave way to mild optimism – the Star Wars brand is one of the most beloved in the world, and it remained to be seen whether Abrams’ rack-zoom-lens-flared approach to Trek would carry over into Lucas’ universe. Would the new film adhere closely to the established aesthetic of the original trilogy? Would it bear the scars of a modern, CG-filled prequel trilogy? Would Jar Jar Binks appear? The fretting, the worry!
Plot synopsis: Decades after the events told in Return Of The Jedi, Luke Skywalker – the last Jedi – has disappeared. A new remnant of the old Empire has risen, known as The First Order, and commanded by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who directs his two agents, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Sith apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to hunt down and capture the missing Jedi. Confronting the First Order is the Resistance, led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher), who sends her best pilot, Po Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to obtain a key to a map showing Skywalker’s location. Captured, Dameron is taken aboard a First Order vessel, only to escape with a Stormtrooper who refuses to obey the commands of Ren’s deaths squad. Landing on the desert planet Jakku, Dameron is feared dead, while the survivor, Finn (John Boyega) arrives at the local scrap dealer, where Rey (Daisy Ridley) scrounges a living in the sand. Po’s droid, BB8, contains the missing portion of the map, and with the First Order hot on their heels, Rey and Finn escape Jakku in the Millennium Falcon (obtains nefariously by Rey’s junkyard dealer boss), and eventually running into Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who end up helping them return the droid to the Resistance.
The Force Awakens is a triumph of adventure and action: it’s a genuine descendent of Return Of The Jedi, both thematically and aesthetically. Instead of the cool, awfully dated green-screen wizardry of George Lucas’ computer boys circa Y2K, Awakens pulses with depth and life, a grounded, earthy realism enhanced by state-of-the-art visual effects rather than founded on them. Abrams recaptures the look and feel of Star Wars as older fans know it, setting aside much of his Star Trek rack-zoom jitter in place of a smooth, frantic, bombastic film that is acclimated to modern sensibilities, yet retaining the charm and wonder of the franchise’s halcyon days. Although set many years after Jedi’s final bow, Awakens feels like a natural progression for the saga, something Lucas’ shiny CG-fest couldn’t achieve, no matter how much digital Yoda he threw at the screen.
Awakens harkens back to A New Hope a lot, perhaps more than I’d have liked, but I get that Abrams was beholden to the mythos of the saga thus far, as well as setting us up for future adventures; in this respect, perhaps some extravagant fan service was required if only to say “hey, we’re starting again, but we’re not completely avoiding the history of the Skywalkers here”. There are numerous echoes of A New Hope threaded throughout the film, specifically at a narrative level, which isn’t so much a concern knowing that now Abrams and Co have got the fan service out of the way, the next episodes in the saga can begin to pave their own path.
First, the characters. The key new players, Finn and Rey, provide the film’s younger crowd with an “in”, delivering some nice little character beats we’ve yet to see in the franchise. Rey’s abandonment by her parents (something I assume will be worked through in upcoming films) provides a sense of longing in the young woman – she’s both hopelessly devoted to waiting for her parents to return to save her from a live of scrounging, but also desperate to escape her life and leave the planet. Jakku, which looks like a distant relative of Tatooine (it might as well be the same planet, for all the difference it makes) is a dust-bowl, a Saharan desolation of sand, dunes and remnants of the Empire – crashed Star Destroyers and Rebel ships dot the landscape, a parallel between the old and the new, and the shadows of the Empire’s legacy shrouding the Galaxy still.
Rey’s almost slavish existence echoes both Anakin Skywalker’s childhood, and Luke Skywalker’s acutely insular existence on Tatooine – both characters wished to break free of their lives in their respective journeys, and Rey is no different. She’s a brawler, and by all accounts holds the legends of the Jedi, Luke and the fall of the Empire in high regard, such is her enthusiasm when meeting Han Solo in the flesh. Although her emotional journey is different than Luke’s was in A New Hope, the character of Rey is one that audiences can appreciate in that she’s both beholden to her birth-world, and desperate to leave it – it’s an age-old feeling for adolescents (I assume Rey is a teen, or at least just into her twenties) and Awakens nails that superbly. If nothing else, she’s a modern Luke Skywalker equivalent, making her an easy access point for new viewers.
John Boyega’s Finn, a former Stormtrooper who “turns good”, after his first mission to wipe out a village of innocent people at the command of Kylo Ren leaves him with a crisis of conscience, is to my mind the soul of Awakens’ passing of the baton. Rather than the prototypical hero looking for salvation, he’s a former villain (at least by Star Wars standards) trying to make good with the Galaxy, and Finn’s embarrassment at his previous occupation is natural and appropriate. Boyega makes a solid fist of his blockbuster début – you can check him out in a smaller role in Attack The Block – and his performance is the one I engaged with most. In fact, of all the characters in the film, his is the one I’m most keen to follow to its conclusion.
Returning stars Harrison Ford, as Solo, and Peter Mayhew, as Chewbacca, provide the film’s bulk of fan-service, slipping into their roles like a comfortable pair of slippers, and frankly the franchise has missed them. Even Chewie’s cameo in Revenge Of The Sith (which, let’s face it, was f@cking useless to everything) seems a distant memory, and the character work on Ford, particularly his repartee with his constant co-pilot, is superbly written. Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia is back, although commanding a lot less gravitas now than she did back in the day – her verbal sparring with Ford’s Solo is genuinely moving at times, so Abrams’ work with both of their characters has been faultless along the journey. Chewbacca’s growling, roaring performance is once again hilarious, and the late-show appearance of C3PO provides the film with plenty of “classic trilogy” humour.
The film’s villains, Kylo Ren and First Order’s General Hux, provide a dynamic byplay between them for the attention of the all-CG Snoak, performed by Andy Serkis. Ren’s back-story is the crux on which the entire film hinges, at least in terms of its emotional investment in the returning Han and Leia, and for what it bodes for Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker. The fact Abrams chose to make Ren a conflicted villain – his link to Han Solo provides us with two of the films most shocking moments of revelation and… er, execution – rather than a straight-up asshole like Count Dooku or Emperor Palpatine, gives weight to the premise that Luke left because of him, and Han and Leia separated for similar reasons, and adds a surprising amount of conflict to the characters in this movie.
I also have to say, Adam Driver’s performance in The Force Awakens borders on Oscar-calibre, it’s that good. Kylo Ren is this film’s Anakin, torn between doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, and giving himself over fully to the Dark Side. Driver personifies the torment poor Hayden Christensen was unable to bring to the role of Anakin with such dexterity, such ferocious screen presence, he makes Ren feel like a wholly rounded, developed character instead of my expectation of a singularly one-note villain (coughDarthMaulcough). Driver’s Ren is the Anakin we should have had sixteen years ago.
Domhnall Gleeson’s Hux is less obvious in the film; he’s the new trilogy’s Peter Cushing, a leader commanding thousands of troops, yet subservient to an omnipresent overlord (Snoke). He obviously resents Kylo Ren’s presence within his ranks, as the pair of them come off as squabbling siblings in front of a malevolent parent when they’re together. It’s obvious they’re working for the same ends, but it’s the achieving of them that causes friction. Ren’s abilities with the Force, although scarily powerful, don’t appear to provoke the same reaction in Hux that they do in their various underlings, and Ren’s temper tantrums display the impetuous of youthful arrogance and frustration, yet Hux’s seeming disdain for Ren intimates some manner of jaded resignation to his presence. Gleeson is workmanlike in the role, but he feels somewhat uncomfortable at times, like he’s unsure of exactly what his role entails; yet, in the iconic uniform of the Empire (those funny hats, you see…) he cuts an imposing figure. Oh, a sidebar: Gwendoline Christie’s role as Captain Phasma, a chrome-plated Stormtrooper officer, is largely forgettable, with a few throwaway moments and one key scene that amounts to… well, nothing. Here’s hoping the character returns in the next film and has a moment to really shine.
Yet, this is a film of surprisingly genuine humour; not in a “nudge nudge wink wink” kinda way, but the fun that stems from characters actually talking and behaving like real people might – take notes, Lucas, you freakin’ hack – and the dialogue, particularly from the film’s chief villain, absolutely sparkles with as much mirth as it can. Much of the humour is derived from two elements: the first, the byplay between humans and droids, specifically BB8, who proves himself a worthy ascendant to the throne of iconic franchise mechanoids. R2D2 makes a small, minor appearance, and C3PO’s appearance is a welcome one during the film’s darker moments in the final act. The second area the film draws humour in is character. These people, these inhabitants of the Star Wars galaxy, are entirely human, and behave as you or I would in any given scenario. Heroes with their witty riposte to the villain at a crucially angsty moment, the “no, f@ck you” moments, are scattered throughout, and plenty of laughs are had with Solo’s banter with the incomprehensible Chewie.
At a technical level, The Force Awakens ticks every box. Masterfully shot by DP Dan Mindel, a gun cinematographer who lensed Abrams’ own Star Trek films, MI3, a number or Tony Scott films, as well as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 for Marc Webb, Awakens’ visual palette is sublimely earthy. There’s a grounded grittiness here, which made the original trilogy so vibrant as a fully-realised world of its own – and held up against the prequel films you can see the stark difference between a practical, standing set, props and actors, and entirely computer generated ones. In saying that, though, one key character – Lupita Nyong’o’s all-CG Maz Kanata, a tint bespectacled creature whom I suspect is a subliminal nod to Yoda in some respects – does stand out. Maz’s design is well conceived, yet is obviously a CG creation that still doesn’t quite fit into Abrams’ film. You can sense the actors acting to nothing – or maybe Nyong’o in a grey mo-cap leotard – and it kinda dulls the emotion of the scenes she has with Finn, Rey and Han in the middle of the film.
The rest of the film’s visual effects are superb; the X-wings, TIE fighters, First Order star destroyers, even the Starkiller planet, look amazing on the big screen. Abrams blends the visual effects with the practical with tremendous grace and care, a skilful nod to the model-work of the original trilogy but with the modern wizardry of Hollywood’s elite computer craftsmen. This is a film that feels lived in, a film that feels alive within itself, an “old world” sci-fi fantasy that elicits the same emotional responses I get even now when I watch the original trilogy. The ache of the film’s epic sense of action is hammered home by John Williams, the Yoda of Star Wars themes who delves deeply into his archive box to rip out some classic themes (the Han/Leia love theme, the main franchise fanfare, et al), and interject some new ones. Williams’ score might not have the all-out punch of, say The Phantom Menace’s ripping orchestrations (I still say “Duel Of The Fates” is the best piece of Star Wars music outside of the Emperor’s March), but he hones in on the honest, emotional wallop of a given scene and draws the energy out even further with some scintillating music.
I can’t go to the close without mentioning some of the issues I had with the film, however. Awakens follows A New Hope so closely with many of its structural foundations; the film begins “in the middle of a story”, as we’re thrust into the search for BB8 and Poe Dameron’s map MacGuffin, and follows a traditional quest motif through to the film’s inevitable “last desperate mission to destroy the enemy’s vast space weapon by flying a suicide run at one of the weapon’s key weaknesses” narrative, which echoes both A New Hope and Return of The Jedi. It echoes them a little too closely for my liking, although Abrams wisely gives us grand spectacle in the hope we’ll overlook it. I suspect this will become a nagging issue in future revisits to this film. The Tatooine bar sequence in the original film is mirrored here as Han, Chewie, Ren and Finn arrive at Maz’s speak-easy bar to obtain information, and while no new dance tracks were forthcoming, I suspect a more than a few DVD pause buttons will be getting a workout in the future as people start finding new cosplay ideas. A New Hope’s surprise killing of a central character, Alec Guinness’s Obi Wan, is also reprised here with the death of Han Solo, a moment earned through Kylo Ren’s family link to the scruffy nerf-herder, and capitalised on enormously to send the film headlong into its denouement.
Of all the Star Wars films so far, it’s Han’s murder at the hands of his own son that resonates so succinctly as everything the franchise is built on – family, the betrayal of family, and the extent of the Force’s lure of the dark side. More than even Vader’s revelation to Luke in Empire, more than Vader’s eventual return to the light in Jedi, Awakens strikes at the very heart of the Skywalker dilemma, the element of responsibility. Given Han’s son, Kylo Ren, kills his own father, this takes the franchise in a new direction when you consider Luke tried to save his father (Vader) only to watch him effectively commit suicide to save the Galaxy. Redemptive qualities aren’t a strong suit in Ren, however, using a moment of choice – to kill his father or leave the First Order, an organisation he struggles to fit into even on a good day – as a catalyst for what I’d term the “easy way out”.
The final issue I had was with the “surprise” overlord of the First Order, Snoke. Snoke is a fully CG character again, but projected as a hologram into the HQ of the First Order’s Starkiller base; where he fits into the Star Wars universe I’m not sure, and the film seems to indicate he might be another risen Sith Lord (he mentions completing Kylo Ren’s final bit of training, so it’s a Master/Padawan thing going on here somehow) which would seem worrisome considering we’ve not heard of him before now. Snoke’s motivations appear cloudy, which is indicative of Abrams and Co not wanting to give away the franchise’s masterplan too early; my gut feeling is that Snoke will turn out to be the thought-dead Emperor Palpatine, now a living corpse held together purely by the dark side of the Force (well, we never saw his body at the end of Jedi, we only assumed he died in the destruction of the Death Star…. okay, it’s a reach, but that’s all I’ve got). I felt this plot-line was a tad too reminiscent of the Palpatine/Dooku duopoly from the prequels, and I truly hope the payoff is worth the investment in this sidebar, because I so want this new trilogy’s Big Bad to be just as iconic as Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine.
Abrams gets that this is supposed to be fun, not deadly serious, and Awakens is everything about being fun, while providing some thrills and moments of excitement amidst the laser blasts and throwaway characters. While it suffers from perhaps too much fan-service in servicing its story, the balance between the new characters and the old favourites is handled with enough grace and modern-day momentum to override minor concerns whilst watching. There are shocks aplenty, some laughs, some sizzling action sequences and an utter disregard for the Millennium Falcon’s well-being in this movie, and I for one think it’s a breath of fresh, fabulous, Force-ful air. To bastardize a line from another film; this is the Star Wars sequel we deserved, and it is glorious.
And not a Jar Jar in sight.