Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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UK Release Date 17th December 2015
Director J J Abrams
Starring Han! Chewie! Leia! Luke!
Runtime 135 Minutes
Certificate 12A
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 27th December 2015

I’m not what you would call a giant Star Wars fan. I think I’m kind of a funny age to be genuinely attached to the original three movies. My first actual movie was most likely Return of the Jedi and to be honest, my memories of the first three entries into the franchise were most likely born our of playing with the toys as a kid. Toys, which if memory serves were always somewhat on the expensive side considering the cheap plastic they were made from. I guess the point I’m making is that my original attachment to this series has very little to do with the actual movies and certainly very little to do with the best one. The three prequels… well, the least said about those the better.

So, the best part of forty years on, we finally get to catch up with Luke, Han, Chewy, Leia and the droids to see what sort of a hangover they had from that ridiculous Endor rave. Turns out, who’d have thought it, light and dark are still in constant opposition across the galaxy. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, was never going to tread too far from the Lucas vision of a universe split neatly into two halves with a supernatural force coursing through everyone in it. Entirely avoiding spoilers is difficult but, in the spirit with which pretty much everyone has taken this, this review is entirely spoiler free.

Suffice to say that we are getting the old band back together but there will be travails along the way and, given that the original cast really should be hanging up their blasters in favour of a nice cocoa and a warm blanket, young blood will be introduced. In many ways, the success or failure of JJ Abrams’ movie hangs entirely on two things. One, how well can he gel vital new, young characters into the universe alongside the old guard and Two, will he be able to entertain the hell out of us along the way? 

To the new characters then and Abrams has done very well indeed here. Three events neatly dovetail (it’s utterly pointless picking out plot contrivance and GIGANTIC coincidences in this series) to bring us in on the action. An ace fighter pilot discovers the whereabouts of somebody important and, in true Star Wars tradition, entrusts a hologram to a droid. When Stormtroopers destroy his colony, he is taken by aspiring Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren so that the whereabouts of the hologram can be attained. During the slaughter, a young Stormtrooper witnesses a colleague’s death (if memory serves, the only blood in any of these films) and starts to have doubts. 

Back on board the First Order’s (the dark side guys that have risen in the 30 years since the Empire was defeated) ship, the young Stormtrooper decides he wants out and, as he isn’t a pilot, helps the ace fighter pilot escape. The fighter pilot refuses to run and heads back to the desert planet they just left. 

On the desert planet Jakku, a young scavenger spends her time picking scrap metal from downed Star Destroyers and eking out a paltry living selling to an unscrupulous dealer for rations, forever awaiting the return of a family we get little information about. Chancing upon a droid in the wilderness, it’s not long before her path crosses with the young Stormtrooper. From here, all hell breaks loose and the soon to be heroes find themselves meeting up with some very familiar faces….

Which is all to say that this is very much a Star Wars movie in the sense of the original trilogy. Young nobodies are pulled out of obscurity, seemingly by unconnected events, to rise and become galactic heroes. In the meantime, a nefarious spiritual leader, advised by a older, creepier force, sits uncomfortably with a militaristic superpower which has, inexplicably managed to build and staff a planet sized death machine inside thirty years.

Of the newbies, Daisy Ridley (ironically for this series, as disturbing close to a Keira Knightly clone as you’ll get) as Rey is the clear standout. Set up as the apparent lynchpin for the remainder of the series, the 23 year old convinces easily as the independent, self sufficient scavenger and her ongoing banter with John Boyega’s Finn (who hilariously keeps attempting to ‘save’ her) is genuinely funny - though it will take some further work to convince of any real bond between the two. Boyega himself makes an interesting character out of not very much. The Stormtroopers by nature have little to offer in terms of personality having being bred for battle and nothing else but he succeeds in making a person out of Finn. Boyega manages to convince as both a wannabe rebel spy, terrified child (as you imagine a released Stormtrooper would be) and a genuine lead in the making for later in the series.

Oscar Isaac is solid as Poe Dameron but here given a relatively small amount of screen time to impress, will presumably feature more heavily in future episodes. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is a difficult one to pin down. Less mysterious and all powerful than Vader, his character both benefits and is penalised by being a more human presence. As a kid, Darth Vader terrified me. The hulking dark (in every sense) presence exuded a total lack of humanity or respect for humanity. His awkward position in the Imperial power structure emphasised this. Rem occupies a similar position but Abrams’ attempts to give him more human side rob him of much of the mystery necessary for such a malevolent force. On the plus side though, Ren’s battle with the light side is far more obvious than his predecessors (I use that word for convenience rather than any sort of spoiler).

And the oldies? Well, it’s kind of weird seeing them back in these familiar surroundings. As a very real life reminder of the horrific speed of passing time, it doesn’t get much bigger than seeing Han back in the Falcon or Leia commanding a rebellion. The warm familiarity I was expecting wasn’t quite there but I suspect that was more to do with my morbid thoughts of looking into some kind of cinematic mirror and wondering just where all those years went. In terms of the movie, best I can say is that the scriptwriters managed to integrate them well with the current story with only a Star Wars level of unbelievable coincidence. 

It is of course on the visuals front that Abrams’ movie comes to the fore. I watched this on an Imax screen, though disappointingly not on Imax projection (a differentiation I feel that shouldn’t have to be made for the price paid) so I got a huge screen but like most will have missed out on the section of the movie that was filmed in 70mm Imax glory. The 3D therefore didn’t add to the experience but as ever on the Imax screen, I don’t think it really detracted either. As a matter of course, I would say if you aren’t seeing this on one of the two laser Imax screens in the UK (yes, if you saw it anywhere other than Sheffield or Leicester Square, you saw it in standard 3D), I would recommended plumping for the 2D, if for no other reason than it will save you unnecessary expenditure.

Outside the vagaries of Imax, Abrams proves that he can ditch the lens flare and provide stunning FX sequences. A decent combination of traditional special effects are merged with high quality CGI meaning that you never get caught up thinking you’re watching the penguins section of Bedknobs and Broomsticks (or is that Mary Poppins? I can never remember). Abrams is more than savvy enough to throw in just about every reference to the original trilogy to have fans obsessing over the Blu-Ray for years to come and to his eternal credit, he does it all with his tongue firmly in his cheek. And the battle sequences are magnificent. There is still something wonderful about the high pitched wail of the Tie Fighters (even if it does defy science and sound a bit like the Jubilee Line) and the battle scenes here will have the hairs standing on the back of your neck.

So where does that leave us after the movie event of the decade (as one punter shouted at the start of the screening)? Well, I would say the highest praise we can level at the Star Wars universe’s new custodian is that he has more than obliterated the festering memory of episodes one to three. Abrams has brought the old team back together but doesn’t solely rely on them to push the story forward. Exciting new leads sit easily with old hats and the universe is bought to life with skill and panache. The script is cringe-inducing in places but genuinely funny in others and is always reverential of its source. John Williams’ score needs no comment and the production design re-establishes a complete universe with ease.

In Short:

Essentially a re-treading of A New Hope, The Force Awakens suffers from all the same faults the original did, but in the eyes of the fans, those were never faults. Lucas’ old school romanticising, heroics and good vs evil are fully intact here, for better or for worse but are now married to a new generation. For those of us who remember being there at the beginning (even if we weren’t) this is good news now and great news for the remainder of the new trilogy. For the newbies, welcome to Star Wars kids, apparently they do make them like they used to.

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