The first thing to keep in mind about The Force Awakens is that, just like Creed, it wants to remind you of the joy and wonder that you felt when you watched the very first Star Wars film. The same thematic beats exist in this seventh installment as appeared in the first film – a parentless scavenger on a sand planet, a escapee who stores a precious secret within a droid, a giant planet destroying (well) planet – yet, with a fresh coat of paint, a new fresh run of actors, we’re back in the new, yet familiar, galaxy from far far away.
This time our trio of heroes (and one villain) that we follow are made up of Poe Damaron (Oscar Isaac), Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega). Much like Han, Luke and Leia in the first film, these characters go on an expansive journey through space – taking in all manner of different, yet similar, planets and places. There’s a Mos Eisley like market place and bar, a Hoth style ice ‘planet’, green forests that remind of Endor. For all the ‘new’ that’s within The Force Awakens, it does a lot to remind of the ‘old’.
And that’s not a problem. Disney has a four billion dollar beast on their hands, and they want to ease people back into this world. Even though the last Star Wars prequel was a good ten years ago, the stench from them lingers like a cat litter box that hasn’t been emptied in months. Say what you will about the prequels (I’m ambivalent about them), the last thing you want to do when sitting down to watch The Force Awakens is to be reminded of them, and fortunately enough, the first thing that The Force Awakens does is remind you of A New Hope. The time for reminiscing is now, the time for innovation will come in the future.
This is probably why director J.J. Abrams was the perfect fit for bringing this new entry to the world. The master of imitations last big foray into sci-fi sagas brought the exceptionally Star Wars-esque Star Trek (2009), and prior to that he managed to imitate Steven Spielberg well enough with Super-8. Here, he brings his own usual touches (a random zoom here, a well crafted chase sequence there) whilst staying true to what fans like to remember Star Wars as – a fun sci-fi romp with some memorable characters and enjoyable action sequences.
I could go on about Han Solo, or Chewie, or Leia, but we already know and love these characters. Yes, they’re much the same as they were when we left them almost thirty years ago, just with a few more grey hairs and wrinkles. One could complain that they haven’t really grown all that much as characters (Leia is a General now, but essentially no different than she was in Return of the Jedi, Han and Chewie are still owing money around the galaxy and failing on debts), but on the flipside of that, it could possibly have been just a little too much to have these characters deviate from where we last left them to where we pick up with them now and meet these new characters. After all, the future of the franchise will rest on faithful Poe, Rey and Finn – not Luke, Han and Leia.
One of the greatest aspects of The Force Awakens is Abrams desire to use practical effects where he could – again, another nod to try and wash away the ultra-CGI imagery of the prequels. My favourite new character BB-8 is a well rounded character in and of itself, and it’s partially because of the practical effects. When we visit a bar that seems all too similar to the Mos Eisley cantina, I was reminded not only of that early scene from the trilogy, but also the superb use of practical effects in Guillermo del Toro’s marketplace sequence in Hellboy 2. It’s the sort of scene that you want to slow down and pause just to gaze at the great character designs. Lupita Nyong’os’ Maz Kanata is a beautifully realised creature who I hope we get to see more of in future films. This magical blend of practical and digital effects helps make what is a purely fantastical world feel real – feel tangible. Deep down inside I’m hoping that the runaway success that this film will no doubt have will spawn another generation of great practical effects in films (especially with the upcoming possible Gremlins sequel).
The villain of the piece is – in my opinion – one of the first multi-faceted characters in the whole Star Wars saga. (Bear with me and put away your pitchforks). Where Luke Skywalker was Hero in Space and Darth Vader was Evil Man in Space, Kylo-Ren has had years of anguish with fighting with himself regarding place within the force. Kylo-Ren feels like the character that George Lucas was trying to craft with Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. Thanks to Adam Driver’s great performance here, Ren is a villain at battle with himself, with his family, with his past and with his destiny. As a huge Adam Driver fan, I was slightly concerned when Driver was cast in the role, yet he manages to fill it perfectly here.
Kylo-Ren and Rey are the two characters who I’m most excited to see evolve over the upcoming films. It’s a testament to Lawrence Kasdan and co.’s script, Abrams direction and Driver and Ridley’s performances that as an audience, we are left more excited about the possibilities of the journeys these characters will embark on rather than waiting to see the exploits of our old heroes. Which is not to say that by the end of this film we’re entirely done with them – to say any more would enter into spoiler territory.
Whilst I won’t ruin the plot for those who haven’t seen the film, I will say, some of the emotional beats that hit later in the film just didn’t hit strong enough for me. Maybe on repeat viewings they will, but for a first time viewing, after years of theorising and discussing ‘potential plots’, they fell flat for me. Maybe it’s the immediate familiarity with the story that was being told, maybe it was Abrams direction, but the feeling that it was ‘just ticking another box’ felt a little too strong.
Overall, The Force Awakens is a great, entertaining time with new and exciting characters. The comedy moments hit perfectly – even though I have a feeling that some fans may get a little rankled up over some of Finn’s comedy beats – and the action is just as perfect as you’d hope. Bundle this all up with the superb John Williams score and even better visuals, and that ultra-familiar story, and you’ve got what is one of the best entries in the series.
Well, that is until the next one comes along. One of the first things I felt after coming out of the screening was the fact that there probably won’t be this level of anticipation for a film like this ever again. Disney, of course, snaffled up the Star Wars series for a cool four billion dollars, so naturally they’re going to want to create a new film every year – whether it be a ‘saga’ film or a film just in the world of Star Wars, we’ve only just started the onslaught of space opera’s. That makes me sad because for the most part, I was enjoying and loving this film because it reminded me of the past, of the same feeling that I had when I first watched the original trilogy as a kid. Now with a new film each year, we’re never really going to have that same level of anticipation. If the next one sucks, oh well, there’ll be another one in a years time and we can forget about this one. There won’t be the time to build up the love for the series from it being absent for so long. So, maybe I’m a cynical person, but enjoy this feeling of newness and freshness that you’ll get from The Force Awakens, because we’re just getting started.
(Also, this is more a major nitpick than anything else… how do you cast Yayan Ruhian and Iko Uwais from The Raid films and not have them fight in a great Jedi battle?)
Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver
Writers: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams & Michael Arndt