Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone missing. The First Order – an evil junta formed from the ashes of the Empire – is hell bent on killing the Jedi and wiping out the new Republic. General Leia (Carrie Fisher), the leader of The Resistance, dispatches hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to the planet Jaaku to track down a map and find her absent brother before it is too late.
As Poe is captured by the ruthless Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the map falls into the hands of a young scavenger (Daisy Ridley), a turncoat Stormtrooper (John Boyega) and a feisty droid known as BB-8, and the trio flee in a stolen freighter. However, it isn’t long before they are intercepted by the former owner of their ship – the smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his co-pilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) – and end up on an adventure they never expected.
On paper it might not seem such a difficult task to craft a better film than the oft-maligned (but fitfully entertaining) prequels – yet writer/director JJ Abrams had a fairly unenviable job when it came to making The Force Awakens. Walking the fine line between fan-service and building a sturdy base from which to grow the franchise is a tough challenge – but for the most part he has succeeded, crafting one of the most enjoyable Star Wars films so far… From a certain point of view.
The plot of the film is broadly familiar, following a similar narrative arc to the very first Star Wars – a feisty youngster from a dusty backwater planet is plucked from obscurity, joins the rebellion and begins to learn the ways of the force.
For people like me who have seen the original trilogy more times than we would care to count, some elements of The Force Awakens may seem a little too familiar. Cherry picking the best parts from the original trilogy, Abrams and his co-writers (Empire Strikes Back scribe Laurence Kasdan and Toy Story 3 writer Michael Arndt) have peppered the film with so many call backs and recycled plot points that at times it can feel like a greatest hits collection.
In no way does this detract from the enjoyment – this is a film made by a fan, for the fans – but it does lend proceedings an air of predictability. Still, this ultimately becomes a minor gripe given how downright entertaining the film is, and the obvious love and attention that has gone into its making.
Star Wars lives and dies on its characters, and The Force Awakens has a richer and more varied group of rogues, heroes and villains than any other film in the series. So too, the new cast are uniformly sterling, with a notable (and admirable) move towards diversity and inclusivity – the main leads are a woman, a black man and a latino – something that is sadly still noted as “casting against the grain”.
This new “big three” all shine in their varied roles. Daisy Ridley stands out as the star of the show, treading the path Luke took in the original film – investing the role with empathy, innocence and independence. Boyega is given the meatiest role of the heroes, carrying a lot of the humour but also moral weight on his shoulders as a Stormtrooper who suffers a crisis of conscience and abandons his post. Isaac, meanwhile, is the most underused of the core cast, but still does strong work as the archetypal hero. He would be this films Han Solo were it not for…
Harrison Ford – given a surprisingly substantial amount to do – imbues his older Solo with a gravelly world weariness and grit that proves to be a welcome counterpoint to the otherwise innocent and wide-eyed youths he’s accompanying. Carrie Fisher on the other hand isn’t given quite so much screen time, although her scenes with Ford do prove to be gently touching in spates.
However, the award for MVP goes to Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Hidden behind a mask for much of the film, Ren is much more than just a Darth Vader stand in – perhaps even surpassing him in terms of depth and emotional heft. Indeed, it’s easy to view him as a correction to Lucas’ mishandling of the young Anakin arc in the prequels. Flitting along the boundary between the light and dark sides, his villain is terrifying yet also strangely sympathetic. It’s a great performance, and one which will only grow in the episodes to come.
Elsewhere, the film is peppered with a plethora of supporting players, all of whom are interesting but don’t get enough screen time to fully develop. Andy Serkis’ Snoke comes across most vividly as an ominous but slightly distracting Emperor substitute (he’ll surely show up more in later instalments), and Lupita Nyong’o is a wise old landlady whose sole purpose is to deposit some hefty exposition. Gwendoline Christie also makes an impact as Captain Phasma, a cool looking intermediary between Domhnall Gleeson’s pantomime villain, General Hux and Boyega’s loose Stormtrooper. On the light side, Threepio gets one of the biggest laughs in the movie in his sadly limited screen time amongst a host of other aliens and some familiar faces at rebel (sorry, Resistance) HQ.
Speaking of big laughs, this is a surprisingly funny film, with the buoyant script casting off memories of the prequels stilted dialogue. Gone are diatribes about sand, replaced with the more natural repartee from the original trilogy. Indeed, this is easily one of the best written and well-paced films in the saga, the writers crafting a tight story that is never less than entertaining, and at its best offers some of the most enjoyable blockbuster entertainment in recent memory.
Abrams has a kinetic directing style that recalls the work of 70’s and 80’s era Spielberg – never too flashy or obtrusive, the action is always in service of the story. Chase scenes, aerial dogfights and space battles – all the boxes are ticked, and while they are all well-handled, the final reel is tad over-stuffed, with some key plot developments deserving a little more time to breathe amongst the maelstrom. Nonetheless, come the inevitable lightsaber duel it’s hard to grumble, with an admirably restrained affair foregoing the fast paced combat of the prequels in favour of a more rough and ready aesthetic, prioritising character over flashy swordsmanship.
Elsewhere, it’s worthwhile to note the great care that has gone into other aspects of the production, particularly in the design work. This is something that Star Wars has always excelled at – the prequels included- and it’s good to see it continue here. So too, the visual effects are impressive and slot into the film more seamlessly than they did in the latter two prequels. Much was made of it before release, but it is pleasing to see a return to puppetry work and practical sets.
And, of course one of the greatest joys of a new Star Wars film comes in the form of a new John Williams score, and he’s on predictably fine form here. Delivering the requisite emotional boost and soaring strings that you might not notice on first watch, his music is what makes Star Wars what it is. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t have a tear in their eye and a pounding in their chest as the music swells come the beautifully constructed final shot.
So, even though it may ultimately be too reliant on the old tropes to surpass the greatest of its siblings, on its own merits The Force Awakens still offers enough thrills and entertainment to rank among the best films released this year.
From here-on in its all uncharted territory, where these characters go and what they do is anybody’s guess – but at the very least The Force Awakens makes you more than willing to find out. As the opening line of the film fittingly puts it, “This will begin to make things right”…