Have you watched The Force Awakens yet? If not then it’s probably a good idea to go and do so before reading this review as some of it could be considered mildly spoilerific…
I should first declare that I have a significant vested interest in this film. I have been watching Star Wars since before my memory begins. There is literally no time in my life that I can remember when I didn’t know the story of Luke Skywalker and his comrades. Unfortunately, this also means that I was there for the horror of the prequel trilogy! There is a Moon family tale about how I literally refused to speak to anyone for at least two hours after “The Phantom Menace”. That is how much Star Wars has meant to me throughout my life, and how much that particular movie frustrated me. So, when I say that the chance to see a Star Wars movie where I had literally no idea where the plot was going to go (I had some suspicions in the Prequels because of hints from the Original Trilogy) it was a really massive thing for me, you’ll hopefully understand where I’m coming from. After 33 years I’d finally get to know what happened to Luke and Co.! Excitement barely even touches it!
At this point I’ve seen The Force Awakens twice and I’m very glad that I did. The first time I saw it I was so wound up by the hype, combined with being so paranoid that it would be a repetition of the prequels that I couldn’t allow myself to relax and enjoy the movie for what it was. So when I came out of that first showing all the little picky things that worried me were magnified to the point where they almost ruined the film for me. Luckily, on my second watching I was still picky (as any true fan is) but all those points that I had worried about before with didn’t stop me from enjoying the ride and, subsequently, proclaiming this episode to be the strongest outside of the original trilogy. The Prequel Trilogy is dead, long live the Original Trilogy (and the sequels so far!)! At this point I am going to repeat that any part of the review from this point onwards should be considered spoiler territory. If you’re looking for an idea of what I think about it without specifics, I will say that I recommend that you all go and watch it, Star Wars fan or no, but that is about all. From this point forward, although I’m not going to actively discuss major plot-points, there will be moments where I talk about stuff in the movie that is important and may affect your viewing if you read them first. So, if you want to go in and watch the movie clean, as I did the first time around, then you should stop reading now….
Still here? Seen the film? Good! On we go:
First things first, I should say that this movie is a rehash/reimagining of Episode IV. Plot-wise it hits exactly the same beats as the original film. This is both the film’s major strength and weakness. The familiarity of the plot line allows it to rattle along at a fair pace without having to worry about focussing in on specifics. This gives the new cast a chance to air their characters out and give the audience time to get to know them before the action really kicks off. Unfortunately it does mean fans of the series so far are left with a lot of slightly repetitive scenes, whereas newcomers will often be left out by references that go back to the original trilogy and even in a few cases; the prequels.
That being said, although this is a movie that has a lot of references in it, you shouldn’t worry as all the new characters still manage hold their own without being drowned in a flood of nostalgia. Daisy Ridley quickly secures her place charismatic new focus for the sequel trilogy as the lonely scavenger Rey, with John Boyega providing enthusiastic support as her turn-coat stormtrooper side-kick. However, I should point out that, although they have terrific chemistry together, they both fade into the background a little any time that Harrison Ford is on screen, which happens a lot throughout the film. Han Solo is back, and he’s back in style. This film shows you that Ford is a movie star for a reason. His scenes are always filled with humour, style and panache that others try to ape with varying levels of success. That is not to say that the new characters aren’t the focus of the film, as I have said, they have real charisma and chemistry. It’s just that Ford is so much better at it than everyone else. His experience shines through and he steals every scene he is in. This is one of the film’s major strengths, until Leia shows up. Carrie Fisher does a fine job of bringing her character back to the screen, but the difference in the level of acting experience between her and Ford is unfortunately clear in most of the scenes that they share. This is often a real pity, as the characters tap into a serious and sincere history that is left unspoken but is one of the highlights of the film. These moments left me wishing that they would touch on that background more often, but this is a minor concern when compared to the fact that after thirty years Han and Leia are back on the big screen together where they belong! On the side of the Resistance, Oscar Isaacs also deserves honourable mention as Poe Dameron, the X-Wing pilot who, although he only turns up for about fifteen minutes of the film, has a habit of stealing all the scenes he’s in. Keep your eye on him, as I suspect he’ll be turning up more in the following movies! Another real standout is BB-8, the new Astromech Droid that accompanies Poe in his opening scenes. Although he is not much more than the classic R2-D2 head on top of an orange and white sphere (and an impressive physical effect for most of the film to boot, no major CGI!), he has more character when he is on screen than pretty much everyone outside of Ewan McGregor did in all three prequel films put together!
At this point it is only fair that I should mention the adversaries that our heroes are up against. During the opening scroll we find that the Empire may well be dead after the climatic events of Return of the Jedi, but from the ashes of that fascistic regime has risen The New Order. For anyone who doesn’t get the blatant symbolism; this is a re-united Nazi Germany in space. From the vicious and faceless stormtroopers to the SS uniformed High Command, embodied by Domhall Gleeson playing the sneering General Hux, who is at his best shouting vitriol in front of huge red and black idealistic flags, these are the bad guys who make the Empire look rather fluffy in comparison. Luckily it’s not all black and white as Star Wars has moved with the times and there is an element of grey in this sea of darkness in the form of Kylo Ren, the latest in the line of Dark Side Force users. He may or may not be a Sith, like the Emperor and Darth Vader before him, but his methods are certainly a brutal, unfocussed, and possibly more powerful, reflection of theirs. This lack of finesse is nicely shown in his regular, petulant tantrums, surprisingly violent use of the Force and the unrefined and slightly sadistic design of his lightsaber, which looks and sounds positively horrific whenever it is ignited. The blade is not the crisp, solid beam we are used to, but a spitting, crackling extension of it’s master’s need to hurt his victims. This is a creature who is obsessed by Vader’s legacy, or at least what he thinks Vader’s legacy should be, and is determined to follow in his idol’s footsteps by any means necessary. You should not mistake him for a standard black and white “bad-guy” though, as he has a complexity that cannot be discussed fully without going into complete spoiler territory. Either way, this is a truly sinister and threatening character for our heroes to face off against. A new Dark Sider wouldn’t be complete without a mysterious master to command him though, who, in this case, comes in the form of Supreme Leader Snoke, played (through motion capture) by the incredibly talented Andy Serkis. Although Snoke may not get a huge amount of screen time in this movie he is clearly a mover and shaker at this time in the Star Wars universe and he has enough malevolence to make me look forward to finding out more about him in the rest of this trilogy. I suspect he will make a worthy replacement for Emperor Palpatine in the coming films.
This gives us heroes who are a joy to watch, villains who are interesting to be around and a plot that is familiar enough to sit back and enjoy. Some films would have all this and still sag in the middle, but not so the Force Awakens! Three of the places where this film can compete with the originals is in its action sequences, special effects and overall sense of humour. Although a lot of them mirror things that we have seen already, there is enough kinetic camera movement and visceral impact in the reimaginings of the action scenes to keep you utterly glued to the screen. The effects also reminded me that a good blend of physical locations and props combined with CGI is always better than the weightless CGI battles that everyone loathed so much in the prequels. This is also a Star Wars that clearly does not suffer from budget restrictions, as seen in the abundance of aliens and background creatures per shot. The only problem with this is that Abrams seems to have decided that we should not see any of the established species in any of the scenes (an issue that I admit is only really a problem for die-hard fans of the originals). I also found that a lot of the new creature design reminded me more of things that came out of Jim Henson’s workshop than a Star Wars movie. This isn’t a major problem though as the Henson Shop does amazing work and the original Yoda, one of their finest creations, is still one of my favourite characters of all time (and that’s before you remember that he is basically Miss Piggy in disguise)! It also bears mentioning that this is a Star Wars film that is clearly written with humour in mind. I’m not talking about the blatant slap-stick of the prequels (sorry to keep banging on about them, but Jar Jar… eurgh!) or the situational laughs of the original, but actual scripted quips. The entire cast deliver them with timing and skill that makes the laughs feel natural without getting in the way of the scenes they are plugged into. A particular favourite of mine has to do with temperature. You’ll see what I mean when you watch it! Don’t worry though, the humour doesn’t override the momentum of the film, and overall comes from character beats rather than the demand for laughs which made the “funny moments” in the prequels fall so flat.
Overall my only complaint would be that on occasion there was a little too much going on in one frame to follow, which is a common thing as special effects get better by the year and directors have less and less restrictions on their vision, but that is a minor issue as it adds to overwhelming spectacle that everyone goes to a Star Wars movie expecting. The other thing it suffers from slightly is that is a story that clearly knows it is the first in a trilogy, which is something that none of the original films seemed to know they were ( mainly because no one knew if the first two would make enough money to make another). This is partly because of the fact that film-making trends have obviously moved on since the late 70’s, but it does mean that certain scenes have a slight element of “set up” for the next episodes. For example; this movie does leave us wondering exactly who the Knights of Ren are? But even this sort of loose end is a small sin when compared with a lot of modern movies that sacrifice a lot of storytelling time for teasing the next movies in the series; the Marvel movies, since the first Avengers, being the current main-offenders on this front.
So, what does this leave this particular Star Wars fanatic thinking? This film is better than is has any right to be when you consider the sheer weight of expectation that is levelled against it. I should say that, in my mind, it is still not quite as good as the originals, but I struggle to see how any new movie would ever match up to them after nearly forty years of establishing themselves as a foundation of pop-culture. So, altogether this movie is a triumph that should satisfy both old fans, if they can let go of their expectations from the originals and disappointment from the prequels, and new in equal measure. I can only hope that the rest of this new trilogy can keep up the good work!
Four Moons out of Five. Very good!