- Author Stephen Graves
- Published December 21, 2015
Review… Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Is The Force Awakens good? You bet it’s good. But how good? Find out here
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…
On a desert planet, a young hero-in-waiting dreams of a destiny beyond their humdrum life. They’re drawn into a vast galactic adventure, when they stumble on a robot carrying vital information – and have to get it into the hands of the brave warriors fighting a tyrannical regime. They’re pursued by a black-clad antagonist with sorcerous powers, and helped in their quest by a motley crew of rogues, scoundrels and an aged mentor.
Of course, Star Wars has always traded in archetypes; it has done since George Lucas first leafed through a copy of The Hero With A Thousand Faces. The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams has a difficult juggling act with the latest instalment of the sci-fi saga – to create a story that surprises and delights new audiences and jaded fans alike, while adhering to the familiar structures of the Joseph Campbell monomyth that underpins Star Wars. Oh, and he has to kickstart a new franchise, justifying Disney’s $4bn investment in the galaxy far, far away.
For the most part, he succeeds.
Abrams is helped by the fact that 30 years have passed since the original Star Wars films – the stars of the ’70s and ’80s have aged to the point where they can take on the mentor roles played by Obi-Wan and Yoda, passing the torch to a new generation of heroes. Wisely, Abrams places the film’s new cast members front-and-centre, limiting Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia to brief crowd-pleasing appearances and focusing on the journeys of young Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren.
Happily, they aren’t playing carbon copies of Luke, Leia and the gang; like jazz musicians, Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt have riffed on familiar themes to create new, unique personalities. And they have personalities, unlike the somewhat stiff and formal warrior monks and monarchs of Lucas’ prequel trilogy.
There are little tics that suggest an inner life; character progression that feels organic and natural, and the occasional surprising twist that makes these characters seem human and relatable. When Daisy Ridley’s Rey kicks back in her miserable little homestead and puts on a flight helmet to fantasise about piloting a spaceship, you learn more about her in 30 seconds than you did in three films of Anakin Skywalker’s pouting. Rey may live in a desert, but she’s no Luke Skywalker; abandoned in a much more emphatic way, she’s been forced to grow up fast and look after herself. No whinging about power converters here. And when she finally does get off-world, she wants nothing more than to get back – hoping for a long-awaited reunion. Life, or the Force, has other ideas.
Oscar Isaac, meanwhile, channels the matinee heroes of old as fighter ace Poe Dameron. Charged with a secret mission, he’s always ready with a quip and gives the impression that he’s having a whale of a time, like the entire galactic conflict has been put on for his benefit.
John Boyega and Adam Driver are given perhaps the meatiest material to chew on. Boyega’s Finn is a Stormtrooper-turned-conscientious-objector, who wants nothing more than to get as far away as possible from the front line, even as his moral compass compels him to get involved. It’s not all weighty stuff, though – he also gets some of the film’s best comic material, riffing off Harrison Ford’s world-weary Han Solo and the adorable droid BB-8. Yes, this film is funny – bringing a sense of humour back to the Star Wars galaxy after a decade of the prequels’ leaden jokes.
Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, may sport a black cloak and a mask, but he’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Driver plays the Knight of Ren as a Darth Vader wannabe – a pouting adolescent who’s given to temper tantrums and locking himself in his room with his collection of memorabilia, in a not-so-subtle dig at obsessive fans. A half-formed, unpredictable villain, he’s very different to the imposing Sith Lords he idolises; when he first doffs his helmet it’s almost comical. And his sparring with Domhnall Gleeson’s barking fascist General Hux is a highlight, as the pair of them jockey for the favour of Supreme Leader Snoke. His path over the following films should take us to some interesting places.
And that’s the highest praise you can give The Force Awakens: it leaves you wanting more. The state of the galaxy following the events of Return of the Jedi is hinted at; you feel the weight of the years as the returning cast members sketch in the twists and turns in their characters’ lives with the lightest of touches. A single glance and you’re left wondering how a familiar character came to be in that place, doing those things; what changed them so much?
The Force is familiar
One thing that hasn’t changed is the look of the film; this is recognisably Star Wars. The production design harks back to the original trilogy, with TIE Fighters and X-Wings, wedge-shaped Star Destroyers and blocky droids that look like they’ve wandered in from the 1980s. Abrams hews close to the directorial style established by Lucas in the first film, too – a style he’s obviously comfortable with, having paid loving tribute to the ’70s movie brats with his Spielberg homage Super 8.
He adds a few modern flourishes, though: the Millennium Falcon’s swoops and dives are now fluid tracking shots, with the odd Battlestar Galactica-style crash zoom, while an alien watering hole is introduced with a Steadicam shot that echoes Goodfellas. And there’s no shortage of stunning imagery – a lightsaber fight in a fairytale forest, with flailing blows lopping off branches around the combatants, is a highlight.
For the most part, though, Abrams isn’t interested in rocking the boat – and therein lies one of the film’s few problems. While the new characters are compelling, The Force Awakens plays things very safe in terms of its plot structure. It hews so closely to the first Star Wars film that it’s almost a beat-for-beat remake – which makes the storyline, oddly, more predictable than that of Lucas’ prequel trilogy.
In places, The Force Awakens feels like a Greatest Hits collection – a criticism that’s been levelled at other recent nostalgia-driven revivals, like Jurassic World and Abrams’ own Star Trek. Rejected call to action? Check. Mentor figure? Check. Journey into literal and metaphorical cave? Check. There’s even a droid hiding vital information and a planet-destroying superweapon with a single weak spot (though Starkiller Base is at least solar-powered – nice to know the villainous First Order is keen on renewable energy).
Abrams can be forgiven for indulging in a bit of familiarity, though – he’s fulfilling the dream of every kid who bashed his Kenner action figures together. And he’s performed the seemingly-impossible feat of making us care about the fate of a gaggle of young ’uns, in a film which features Harrison Ford reprising the role of Han Solo.
The Force is strong in this one. Roll on Episode VIII.
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