WARNING, PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD!
Director: JJ Abrams
30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, everything regarding the force, the Jedi and the Sith has passed into legend. The sinister New Order are searching for a Luke Skywalker as he has vanished. The Resistance, headed by General Leia are fighting to reach her brother first.
Star Wars fans have been waiting for the next great chapter from the saga since The Empire Strikes Back way back in 1980. Due to the disappointment of the prequel trilogy and the lesser disappointment of Return of the Jedi, the hype surrounding The Force Awakens has been monumental. There was no way the new installment would be a failure in the financial side since there was no doubt The Force Awakens was going to be the biggest box office hit of the decade so far, however, fans of the franchise (myself included) needed the film to deliver on a much more intimate level. JJ Abrams has managed to create a film that not only feels like a Star Wars episode but also has exceeded the many expectations fearful fans had. Despite this, the film isn’t perfect by any means: there are problems, but these problems do not get in the way of its excitement and enjoyment factors.
The goosebumps that sprung up as the Lucas Film logo appeared, followed by the iconic ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’ didn’t subside for the duration of the film – which was over two hours long. As the first five minutes passed there was a collective sigh of relief, and the overwhelming feeling of ‘we’re back.’ This film has the feeling of the first two episodes in the saga, albeit a lot funnier than any Star Wars film that has preceded it. Abrams has turned back to the location shooting, practical effects and puppets that made the original trilogy so iconic and stays away, when possible, from the heavy use of CGI and green screen shooting that made the prequels lifeless and disengaging. The sets are spectacular; in particular the planet of Jakku which, shot in Abu Dhabi, looks extremely similar to Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine. Jakku is where we meet our lead, Rey, played superbly by British newcomer Daisy Ridley.
Rey’s story is one of the most enigmatic beats of the film. We know she was abandoned as a child on the planet, but we are never given any information as to whom her parents are (speculation is rife). This will obviously be explored further in Episodes 8 and 9. Ridley is exceptional in her role, giving fans a strong female lead that high budget blockbusters have been lacking and have failed to address. Rey is never sexualised or has any need for a love interest; and her relationship with John Boyega’s Finn is one of friendship, something neither of them have experienced before. Rey, however, is not the first of the new leading newcomers we meet. During the opening scene we are introduced to The Resistance’s best and most trusted pilot, Poe Dameron, played by one of the brightest up and coming actors in the industry at the moment – Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex Machina). During this sequence we also have our first encounter with the highly marketed yet relatively unknown antagonist, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The character of Kylo Ren is an extremely interesting one; he’s the kind of villain we have never seen before in Star Wars. Everything from his costume design to his motivations are brilliantly judged and make him by far, in my opinion, the most interesting villain the franchise has ever produced. Ren is unpredictable, unable to control his emotions, and not yet fully trained as a Sith. As such, his unpredictability makes him a more formidable villain than Darth Vader. As previously mentioned, John Boyega is Finn, a character who was taken from his family at an early age and raised to be a Stormtrooper for the First Order. Finn’s abandonment of the First Order is one that makes sense and adds an emotionally accessible aspect to his character. A mention has to be given to the new droid that will surely be the most sought after toy this year, BB-8. Everything from the design to his noises and the use of his gadgets puts him on a par with R2-D2.
Abrams has done an incredible job at casting his new leads, with relatively new and unknown actors, much like the original trilogy did with Mark Hammil, Carrie Fisher and of course Harrison Ford. Abrams brought back the old guard for this film, which I was originally worried about. This is the kind of gimmick that can distract audiences from new characters and can feel forced into the plot. However, the original cast never feel forced, they are relevant and needed and vital to the movement of the story. One of the major plot points of the film circulates around the relationship of Han and Leia; this gives the film real heart and ups the stakes in terms of finding our main characters in mortal peril: an aspect the prequels have lacked.
This film had much to accomplish. Abrams had to fill in the 30-year gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, whilst still setting up the main outline for the new trilogy. This is where the problems with the film arise for me. Certain plot points feel very rushed and not given as much attention as I would have liked. Rey’s apparent force ability is something that appears out of nowhere and she harnesses her abilities exceptionally quickly, where it took Luke three films to fully learn how to use the force. If this were intentional, then Rey would be on a trajectory to becoming one of the most powerful force users we have ever seen on screen. Also, certain new characters played by relatively big names are given little to do. One of these characters is Captain Phasma, embodied by Game of Thrones actress Gwendoline Christie. Pre-release marketing hyped up the character of Phasma, leading many to expect her to become the cult icon Boba Fett became in the originals. However, her character is given nothing to do except a couple of lines of dialogue and to be tackled by Chewbacca. Another is the character of Maz Kanata, motion captured by Oscar winning actress Lupita N’yongo. While there is something very interesting about Maz, she is never fully explored. She has Annikin’s lightsaber which we haven’t seen since Luke had his hand cut off by Darth Vader in Empire, but we are never told how she came to possess such a sought after relic. Also it is hinted at that she was some sort of mentor to Han Solo in the past. Hopefully this character will be explored further in future films (possibly the young Han Solo project).
While all of the practical effects and the space dog fights are brilliantly crafted and throw you straight back into the magic of the originals, the CGI used in certain places feels out of place next to the practical approach. One scene in particular sees 70 something year old Harrison Ford running from creatures that look like they have been pulled straight from a 1950s Sci-Fi B-movie. The appearance of Supreme Leader Snoke (motion captured by Andy Serkis) is another area that didn’t quite hit the mark. Snoke is the leader of the First Order and in turn Kylo Ren’s boss. Snoke appears on screen in a couple of scenes and is presented as a 30 foot hologram. While this portrays the apparent power Snoke has over his descendants, the CGI of the character is a little distracting. Although he wont be 30 feet tall when we meet him in person, the design of him is rather inconsistent to the rest of the film. However, the majority of the effects are brilliant: the use of lightsabers, for example, was perfectly orchestrated. Completely moving away from the choreographed dance routines that the prequels implemented, there is real weight and force in this new film. The fights live up to every soaring expectation; characters on the black foot just blocking for their lives and the aggressor swinging his saber as hard as possible to cause damage.
Overall, The Force Awakens is a hugely successful attempt at re-igniting an iconic franchise. The film gives us just enough meat to characters’ stories to satisfy its audience while also leaving you with the dread of having to wait 18 months for the next installment. Going back to using practical effects allows the world originally created by George Lucas to feel real and substantial again. Casting is something that shouldn’t be overlooked in any film, particularly a franchise that will need their audience to care about characters going forward into future films. This is something the prequels failed miserably at. Jake Lloyd as young Anakin Skywalker was insufferable with his bursts of ‘Yippees’ and then the cardboard acting of Hayden Christensen in the following two as older Anakin may have been more difficult to endure. The new cast here give life to their characters, they mean something to us already, and we care about their fate. The film has huge amounts of heart to it, and its almost impossible not to be excited about where Star Wars is heading. The groundwork has been laid and now its time for Rian Johnson to expand this universe in the weird and wonderful manner which befits him.
The Force Awakens is a film made by a fan, for the fans.