Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Film Review
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley
Director: JJ Abrams
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a trilogy of films ignited a generation with their timeless story of good vs evil, of heroes and villains and of rogues among the stars.
Then 16 years after their original conclusion, a new trilogy arrived and shattered all of those hopes of the first films but galvanised a new generation to fall in love with Star Wars all over again. They didn't care about the bloated script or the reliance of CGI, they fell for the space saga again.
Now, the two generations have spent a decade awaiting the next installment of the 9 film series - and with possibly the most crippling weight of expectation ever heaped on a film, the new Star Wars movie has arrived.
In The Force Awakens, director JJ Abrams has faced the unenviable task of both updating the saga while remaining faithful to the tenets set down by Star Wars A New Hope way back in the 1970s.
Set 30 years after the end of Return of the Jedi when the Empire was vanquished, the story of The Force Awakens is a very simple one. From the ashes of the Empire has come a new threat in the form of the First Order led by Kylo Ren - and they are determined to wipe out the Jedi. And simply., that is all that can be said without drifting too far into spoiler territory.
The slight problem with that statement is that the majority of those parts are taken from the original trilogy of Star Wars films, with fan service and momentary nods (right down to the odd iconic line of dialogue lifted from the original films) given pride of place.
Consequently, as a result, the film at times struggles to find its own voice, as it tries to walk the line between engaging the original fans and the newer generations of fans as well as bathing in the reverence of what made you fall in love with Star Wars back in the 1970s.
That's not to detract from what JJ Abrams and his team have executed even if it is swathed in a large blanket of nostalgia. You want a space cantina / Mos Eisley like you saw in A New Hope? Yup, we've got it. You want a space battle that threatens a world and requires X Wings to spring into action? Yep, we've got that too straight from Return of The Jedi. You want a healthy dose of issues the likes of which we saw in The Empire Strikes Back? Roll up because they're all here as well - and that doesn't even give time to point out a deus (robot) ex machina plot we saw in the opening moments of Star Wars.
But The Force Awakens is still a film that gives more room to its original stars. It's very much Han Solo's piece, with Harrison Ford showing no sign of losing the caddish rogueishness that made him such a star back then; equally his banter with Carrie Fisher's General Leia Organa represents the softer side of the film which allows it to pause when the action stops, and gives it the emotional edge that's needed.
Visually, the film is dazzling. Backdrops are sparingly littered with star cruisers and an immersive universe once again. But this isn't the overkill of the special editions, or the overkill of CGI, this is enough to create a world, inhabit it and make it feel like the universe is expanding out again.
Of the newer characters, the traumatised, guilt-ridden and conscience-struck StormTrooper Finn (John Boyega) treads on very thin ice occasionally as he borders on Anakin Skywalker style outbursts. Abrams is at pains to point him out early on, marking his trooper helmet with the blood of a fallen colleague. Equally, Daisy Ridley's scavenger / Tomb Raider Rey is a little too quick and exposition-laden as the feisty female lead, doused in pluck but only in a once over broad-stroke fashion and given tantalising hints of a back-story that's not quite strong enough to compel you on. Portions of their dialogue feel forced and border on the cheesy rather than letting you feel you're watching something natural ignite and spark.
And unfortunately, Adam Driver's Kylo Ren is no substitute for an iconic villain. He's prone to tantrums where he uses his medieval lightsabre to smash things like a petulant child denied that final cookie. Even if he exudes a degree of menace, some of it is lost in the unmasking; whether that subtlety pays off in later films and investment remains to be seen. Domnhall Gleeson brings a darker edge to a very Nazi-esque updating of Grand Moff Tarkin. Thankfully, Oscar Isaac's timeless and tireless ace pilot Poe Dameron is a solid role and one character you'd want to see again, thanks to his dialogue, energy and gusto.
That's perhaps where The Force Awakens falls down a little - it fails to bring a new edge to the film series, even if JJ hasn't messed it up and re-awoken the ghost of the films past (Phantom Menace, I'm looking at you).
There's no denying the crest of nostalgia being surfed when the iconic John Williams theme kicks in at the start and the words "A long time ago" show at the beginning. But those serve as both strengths and weakness of the film; it feels like old trilogy is being re-created and passions reignited with characters you already know; the newer crop don't quite fare as well and certainly the emotional connection isn't quite there to propel you through to the next film or invest fully in their ultimate fate, something which was never the case in Star Wars.
All of this said, there is much to admire in The Force Awakens from the quips and humour to the perfectly rendered and impressively punchy space battles; there will be no denying this space behemoth as it hurtles toward the box office.
It may be the Star Wars for our generation in many ways, but it does lack the chutzpah to be as brave and as daring as perhaps it should be; its one moment that will define it is so telegraphed that it lacks the power it needs - whether this Star Wars becomes the film that you watch time and time again is yet to be fully determined; one thing's for certain, though, the cultural icon that is Star Wars has been restored and definitively re-awakened - fear not, it's still a Force to be reckoned with.