Director: J. J. Abrams
Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams, Michael Arndt
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow
Runtime: 135 Minutes
There is something irrefutably optimistic about the presentation of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. At least speaking from a nostalgic perspective, the ways of old regarding filmmaking, bulky sets and animated characters of action, it not only stands in stark contrast to the sterile, insipid methods of the prequels, but as an embracement of the old in the celebration of the new. This retrograde journey in the past looks to the future, and it’s everything that Star Wars could and should stand for in the modern age.
Reintroducing us to a galaxy far, far away was always going to be a tricky endeavour considering its more recent history. But what Abrams and co. have managed to pull off is nothing short of extraordinary; an exciting, spectacular, funny and emotionally stirring space adventure that assuredly carries on the story three decades after we left off.
Welcoming back the faces of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and others in spoonful doses to usher in a new generation without alienating those who grew up on their escapades, it’s so thrilling to once again experience to companionship of Chewbacca and Han Solo as they once were – as well as the numerous other winks and references to the original trilogy without feeling overbearing or paying too much homage, it’s the best that the fans could have hoped for.
While the appearance of old faces is an appreciative addition to the roster of this latest instalment, it’s the new blood which is the finest draw to The Force Awakens. Daisy Ridley is so remarkable as Rey that you’d hardly believe that this was her first feature film performance. The heroine of this new story, her quest to find her own destiny is a drive that makes her not only as active a champion as the originally plucky Luke, but a core of kindness and ingenuity that keeps her running with the punches that the story throws her way.
John Boyega’s Finn is a fascinating, unrestrained twist on the formula; a nameless Stormtrooper who in the heat of battle undergoes an existential crisis, discovering where his heart truly lies and fleeing the First Order in desperation to redeem himself - and Boyega channels this fury and excitement beautifully through strong physical coordination, and holding an incredible tenderness and humour to his character.
Poe Dameron is the dashing, heart-of-gold hero of the Rebellion; a man of sturdy morals, striking wit and bravery and is performed excellently by Oscar Isaac. BB-8, the newest droid to the cannon, is a fantastically simplistic design of incredible emotional range and personality that’s around just long enough to be cute and memorable without becoming irksome.
However, the show stealer without a shadow of a doubt is Adam Driver as the series latest villain, Kylo Ren; a revelatory character of significant function within the new generation’s story, undergoing his own conflict of interest that brims at the surface of Driver’s performance. He’s an actor who can portray so much inner pain through expression and physicality alone, at once one of the most fearful, dangerous people in the galaxy, and one who is desperately struggling with the immense expectation that has been placed upon his shoulders from more than one source.
Beneath the guise of his 'bad-ass' attire is a frighted and lonesome adolescent, prone to tremendous temper tantrums with a lightsaber should things not go his way. His First Order support lie in various forms; Domhnall Gleeson’s hamming, raving mad General Hux, Gwendoline Christie’s menacing (if underutilised) Captain Phasma, and Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke, the new Emperor-like figure of questionable design, but will surely come into his own as Ian McDiarmid’s character once did.
J.J. Abrams work on the Star Trek reboots may have had a controversial outcome to begin with (changing it from science fiction to science fantasy), but it’s an aesthetic and directorial position that works better with Star Wars than many may have hoped. What Abrams might have lacked in his former projects in terms of auteurist style (mostly emulating the styles of other filmmakers), he makes up for with his no-nonsense approach to direct, immediate storytelling with this. Simple, non-showy and to the point sequences shot with sturdy, bold ability by Star Trek collaborator Dan Mindel – this is arguably the best looking Star Wars film ever made. John Williams’ score is as loud and emotional as ever, and the sound design maintains the same level of consistent ingenuity and clarity that is to be expected of the Lucasfilm staple.
On a screenplay level, it’s great to see colourful characters old and new forming alliances and enemies on the go, with a pace that rarely lets up but allows us time to become invested in their own inner struggles concerning self-worth and purpose. It’s a fairly familiar structure when it’s all boiled down, in many ways almost too reminiscent of the plot of its original predecessor - galactic coincidences and so on. But sometimes a familiar and perhaps safer approach to storytelling is needed when you are launching the biggest franchise in the galaxy into realms unknown, laying the groundwork for the larger story ahead with ease and certainty.
As a direct sequel to Return of the Jedi, there is already a sense of lived-in history with this world that comes across both visually and narratively. From the wreckage of Star Destroyers encompassing the landscapes of Jakku to the rickety multicultural charm of Maz Kanata’s castle, this is as old and comfortable a universe as ever before, and the aid of an abundance of creative, practical effects seamlessly blended with state-of-the-art CGI is technically gorgeous filmmaking of the highest calibre. As far as the story is concerned, much like the characters and journeys of the original trilogy have fallen into the customs and consciousness of popular culture, they too have become the mythology of their own environments; emblematic icons of a forgotten age that are slowly being remembered as history begins to repeat itself in the same violent cycle (to quote a genius, “It’s like poetry, sort of. They rhyme”).
But where the prequels wallowed in this iconography for the sake of visual recognition alone, The Force Awakens is actually trying to weave together its own ideas from the DNA of its predecessors. It’s no mistake that the First Order dress and act exactly like the Empire, they are upholding the virtues of not only the expectation of their character paradigm, but the culture that refuses to let them go as symbols of the black and whites that they represent. It’s a doomed practice, but one that will possibly be learned from as time goes on.
There is the nagging sensation also that by the film's end, many character arcs and storylines have been left in some way unfulfilled in its duty as a singular feature, but these are criticisms that would take a lot from an otherwise underdeveloped movie – not Star Wars. The Star Wars franchise since Empire has been one that has proudly touted the ‘Saga’ title, openly embracing the serialisation of its storytelling into grand narrative arcs that converge when the time feels right to do so. The reassurance that these shortcomings will be shortly rectified only adds in bringing a textured, furthered density to the lore of this universe, and that even the smallest of introductions might lead to something far greater somewhere down the line grants a feeling of great anticipation.
The Force Awakens is undoubtedly the best instalment in the series since The Empire Strikes Back, one of the best works of the series to date, and one of the most outwardly enjoyable cinematic experiences of the year.