"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...."
After the prequels more or less managed to strip the gloss off the franchise1, it seems apt that the opening lines of Star Wars: The Force Awakens refer to a sort of redemption.2 This long-awaited, almost mythical follow-up to the Holy Trilogy3 has the added advantage/burden of returning to the three characters we actually care about; namely Luke4, Han, and Leia. It’s smart, therefore, that writer-director/godfather J.J. Abrams5 front-loads the film with the new cast, about whom we will quickly have to feel the same way — and luckily we do.6
On the hero front, we have Finn (John Boyega, Attack the Block) as a conflicted former stormtrooper7, steely yet vulnerable scavenger Rey (newcomer Daisy Ridley)8, and ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis)9. As villains, The Force Awakens serves up prissy demagogue General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson, Ex Machina)10, the chrome-suited Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie, Game of Thrones)11, and, the best of the bunch, Sith Lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, While We're Young)— like Darth Vader with added temper tantrums.12
Even at 135-minutes long, The Force Awakens barely lets up: within twenty minutes of getting the show on the road, it’s already served up a a brutal massacre, a daring escape, a crash landing. Bringing state-of-the-art CGI to classic space adventure scenarios13, it gives us a world that feels at once new and familiar — and unlike George Lucas’ later tampering with Episodes IV-VI, it crucially feels busy rather than cluttered14. As with the best of the franchise it also boils down to what is essentially a mythic family-driven saga… in space!15
Striking a balance between breakneck action16 and moments of serenity17, The Force Awakens gets a lot right before even getting to the original cast. Harrison Ford’s Han is that bit more cantankerous18, his relationship with Leia has an element of sadness to it19, but when John Williams’ magnificent score rises up and rouses the soul all of a sudden its 1983 again20. The film isn’t without originality21, but it feels largely like a riff on what’s come before.22 This is encapsulated in the figure of new droid BB-8 — equal parts R2-D2, Sphero, and Wall-E.23
True, the film skips over more than one important plot beat24 and the second act could be accused of going through the motions25, but as a chance to see a somewhat more grizzled Corellian smuggler banter exasperatedly with a remarkably well-aged Wookie, The Force Awakens is mana from Bespin. Even if the plot is somewhat by-the-numbers26, the film gets the characters exactly right. No politics (for better or worse)27, just pure adventure cinema.28 It’s everything you might hope for, and profoundly satisfying for it, even if there’s nothing truly groundbreaking.29
SUMMARY: Star Wars: The Force Awakens recaptures much of the old magic30, but leaves it to future installments to take the risks. On third viewing31, it gets an 8 out of 10.
1 As with The Two Jakes and The Godfather: Part III, Episodes I-III don’t necessarily taint their successors, but the universe is indefinably ever so slightly worse for their existence.
2 It’s always nice to see Max Von Sydow (The Seventh Seal, The Exorcist) in work and his presence here is less distracting than that of Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Kate Fleetwood (Lady Macbeth to Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth) as one-line extras at Starkiller Base.
3 Whether or not you’re a bonafide fan, it’s hard to argue against Star Wars and Indiana Jones as perhaps the definitive action-adventure series. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, therefore, stands as testament to what can happen when your long-awaited, almost mythical follow-up goes wrong.
4 Though Luke is almost entirely absent from proceedings. Star Wars: Episode VII could equally have been subtitled “The Search for Luke”. When he does finally arrives, though, it’s a doozy.
5 Abrams’ involvement would seem to be akin to that of Joss Whedon’s figurehead role in the MCU. Call Disney unimaginative but they know a good recipe when they see it.
6 It’s to The Force Awakens’ benefit that they don’t simply fall into the archetypes established by their predecessors — hero, rogue, process — but are more like combinations. Boyega’s Finn, for instance, may be a heroic everyman but he’s also got a dark past. It’s a neat twist.
7 This is the closest that the franchise has come to anything resembling racial diversity (Oscar Isaac is Hispanic). Hopefully Finn won’t turn out to be the long-lost son of Lando Calrissian.
8 There’s a recurring theme here of lost family — Rey’s have inexplicably abandoned her on Jakku. Fingers crossed it doesn’t turn out to be Luke and, based on those cheekbones, possibly his mother’s decoy. The Star Wars universe is quite small enough without everyone being related.
9 A secondary character, he’s the closest thing The Force Awakens has to a new Han, albeit with a touch less attitude, a shade more intensity, and open commitment to a cause.
10 A Grand Moff Tarkin who’s upgraded to jackboots rather than carpet slippers.
11 Phasma has already been called the new Boba Fett. Like Fett, she has some cool armour and, like Fett, she doesn’t actually do very much here. Still, there’s always Episode VIII.
12 Driver is magnificent in the role, bringing a compelling undercurrent of anger and shame to a role that could, in other hands, have come across as a self-pitying emo with daddy issues. The film’s not entirely po-faced in its treatment of him either: when he breaks out his lightsaber and proceeds to make Julienne torture chair, two approaching stormtroopers casually do an about-turn. Driver is so convincing that when he and Oscar Isaac shared the screen I almost forgot about this (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lSwO-k-RqNA).
13 The film is essentially a gloss on A New Hope, right down to the accelerated tracking shot through a Mos Eisley-style tavern and a climactic trench run; a fact wryly acknowledged in Han’s line about blowing up what is essentially the Death Star turned up to 11 (“There's always a way to do that.”)
14 This is immersive detail as an element of storytelling as opposed to a sign of insecurity or an excuse for another line of toys.
15 Space… space… space…
16 A sequence where Finn, Rey, Han, Chewie, and two expendable gangs of smugglers are set upon by a trio of toothy, tentacled beasties is entirely surplus to the needs of the plot, but also highly inventive fun that recall the series roots in space adventure serials like Flash Gordon.
17 The little look that Han gives Rey upon her seeing an alien world for perhaps the first time — “I didn't think there was this much green in the whole galaxy” — is lovely.
18 As presumably is Ford himself. It looks like he really cares here, though; that his reprising the beloved role after thirty years was more than a matter of a rumoured $20-something million pay-check.
19 Carrie Fisher is also missing her coke nail from Return of the Jedi.
20 Seriously, has any piece of music better summed up a relationship than "Han and the Princess"?
21 The moment where Kylo Ren stops a blaster bolt and leaves it quivering in midair is very “Whoa”. The giant, cleave-headed Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is more of a “What?” moment. Here’s hoping that, away from the projector, he’s secretly the size of Jiminy Cricket.
22 The film’s opening shot of a Star Destroyer eclipsing a luminous planet is entirely in the vein of A New Hope, but when it’s this luscious and loving it’s hard to grouse.
23 With R2-D2 almost entirely sidelined for proceedings, there’s no way that Anthony Daniels wasn’t kicking the blue-and-white can between takes. “Fuck you, Kenny Baker. I’m an actor!”
24 Four planets are destroyed here by Starkiller Base’s sometime scientifically inexplicable beam-splitter, including the Republic capital, and their passing barely merits a mention. “It’s as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were largely ignored.”
25 Rey’s flashbacks upon discovering Luke’s old lightsaber also feel a bit like a plot dump in a film otherwise devoid of exposition.
26 Or at least archetypal. Joseph Campbell, eat your heart out.
27 The exact distinction between the Resistance and the Republic, and their relationship to the First Order, is unclear, but at least we don’t get mired in any Trade Federation bollocks.
28 And cinema-literate adventure at that. The pull focus on three TIE fighters coming out of the sun is cribbed straight from Apocalypse Now. The Force Awakens rewards geekery on multiple levels.
29 Even — SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER — the tragic death of Han Solo at the hands of his own son, Kylo Ren, recalls both A New Hope (the death of a mentor figure*) and The Empire Strikes Back (only its the son who sends the father tumbling down an air shaft). Doesn’t make it any less affecting, though.
When Han calls out “Ben”, apparently Kylo’s real name, I muttered to myself, “No, you’re Ben (Kenobi).
30 The final battle between Ren and Rey on the wintry woodland surface of the Starkiller planet is haunting, even if it seems unlikely that a total novice like Rey could overcome a trained Sith. Something something chosen one, perhaps?
31 Addendum: Watching the film for a third time the foreshadowing seemed all the clearer. The vision Ren picks out of Rey's mind of an island in a sea of blue is obviously where she finds Luke at the film's epilogue. Having previously been totally against the idea, I'm now sorta okay if Rey turns out to be Luke's kid - after all, she has to come from somewhere, right? Her serenity also contrasts wonderfully with Ren's anger Anger may be a shortcut to power, but it's that much more volatile and harder to control. Also, a 12A, two-and-a-bit hour nostalgia trip is not a fit place to drag an disinterested five year old, random man, even if you are trying to force a bonding experience. My sympathy is all the more limited when you keep rattling your (presumably enormous) keys at random intervals. Still, the fact your kid decided to quietly have a moan at you in the buildup to Ren killing Han was vaguely hilarious. When he then has the freaking audacity to ask why Chewbacca is upset, though, that, that is when you really lose me.