Review: With The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams has reawakened the Star Wars franchise itself

“But will it be good?” This was Star Wars fans’ biggest question when Disney announced that, following its $4 billion acquisition of Lucasfilm, it would produce a new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. At the time, this was a very valid query. The franchise circa October 2012 was in a comatose state, the result of the brutal bashing dished out on Star Wars creator George Lucas’ prequel trilogy by critics and fans alike.

Fast forward to today, and not only do these concerns seem laughable, but the answer to the question “Will The Force Awakens be good?” is a resounding “Yes”. Indeed, with this latest entry in the series, director J.J. Abrams and his cast and crew have not only re-awakened the Force, but the entire Star Wars franchise as well.

What is Star Wars: The Force Awakens about

Fittingly, just as the real-life story of The Force Awakens began with a question, so does the film itself, namely: “Where’s Luke Skywalker?” It turns out that Luke (Mark Hamill) is the MacGuffin of the tale, with both the major powers in the galaxy far, far away – the Resistance (formerly the Rebel Alliance) and the First Order (the neo-Empire) – eager to track down the last remaining Jedi Master.

Fortunately for the good guys, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) has unearthed a major clue to Skywalker’s current whereabouts. Unfortunately, Poe is accosted by Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), forcing him to stash the information in droid BB-8.

Cast adrift on the desert planet Jakku, BB-8 is found by scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and AWOL stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega). This unlikely trio soon find themselves on the run from Ren and his forces, and before they know it, they’re fighting alongside familiar faces like General Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford), with the fate of the universe hanging in the balance…

An engaging (if familiar) Star Wars story

If I haven’t made it abundantly clear already, The Force Awakens – albeit not an overly original one. The story by Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt does indeed evoke the feel of the classic Star Wars trilogy, however, the downside of this is that you’re left with a movie that basically amounts to Star War‘s greatest hits.

From giant planetoid-based death rays to droids bearing top secret data marooned on desert planets, virtually all your favourite plot points from earlier films are present and accounted for. To be fair, perhaps that’s what was needed to steady the ship, and thanks to this stable platform, incoming director Rian Johnson can now take the franchise in a more ambitious direction when he takes over the reins for Episode VIII. Still, a big part of what makes Star Wars so appealing is seeing something new, so it’s disappointing we rarely get that here.

The Force Awakens screenplay is also a little clunky at times, too. Multiple scenes amount to outright plot dumping (admittedly nothing new for the saga), contrivances litter the middle act (the most outrageous involves the sudden appearance of a long-lost relic from the saga’s past), the two action set pieces that make up the climax of the third act feel oddly disconnected.

So how come the movie works? Mostly because Abrams papers over The Force Awakens‘ narrative cracks with two great new heroes and one heck of a new villain. These three characters suck us into the story because we can relate to them on a level that belies their alien surroundings – largely because The Force Awakens is a ultimately movie about the universally understood search for self-identity.

Finn is us when we’re disillusioned, when we realise the type of life we were raised to aspire to isn’t at all what we want for ourselves; he’s us trying to figure things out. Rey is us at our most isolated, when we feel abandoned by those we love and lose sight of our own self-worth and purpose. And Kylo Ren is us when we’re conflicted; when we’re torn between the idea of who we think we should be, and who we know we really are.

Ridley, Boyega and Driver are the saga’s brightest new stars

Of course, this relatable characterisation is as much down to the acting as it is to the writing. Boyega and Ridley prove likeable leads more than capable of carrying a blockbuster of this scale on their young shoulders, and they handle the action sequences and emotional moments equally well. Similarly, Driver is exceptional as the villain of the piece, radiating menace and instability even as he suggests a hidden fragility that adds depth to his portrayal of Kylo Ren.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux and Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke. The former isn’t given much to work with – coming across as a one-dimensional baddie – whereas the latter seems a little too over-the-top in the few glimpses we see of him (here’s hoping he comes into his own in the sequels).

And then there are the old hands: Hamill, Ford and Fisher. Happily, these Star Wars veterans slip back into the shoes of Luke, Han and Leia so effortlessly it’s as if no time has passed since Return of the Jedi opened in 1983. Of the trio, Ford deserves particular kudos, for lending The Force Awakens a scruffy take on the gravitas and warmth Sir Alec Guinness brought to A New Hope.

Old school and cutting-edge filmmaking techniques come together in spectacular fashion

Starkiller-Base

The Star Wars universe these performers inhabit has never looked better, either. Production designers Rick Carter and Darren Gilford, along with costume designer Michael Kaplan, have done a fine job replicating the gritty, “lived-in world” aesthetic that originated with the classic films. Cinematographer Dan Mindel captures their work beautifully, and his sweeping camera conveys the scope and energy that a Star Wars adventure demands.

The Force Awakens‘s visual effects by ILM are also top notch. Sure, there’s the odd bit of CGI overkill, however, Abrams’ emphasis on combining practical effects with digital wizardry results in a world that seems refreshingly tangible compared to the synthetic environments commonplace in modern blockbusters. This old school-friendly vibe carries across to the action choreography, which feels less over-rehearsed and stylised than the set pieces in either the prequels or most other contemporary action flicks.

All these elements, along with yet another timeless score by the always-amazing John Williams, combine to make The Force Awakens the best Star Wars experience that most fans will have had since Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

Star Wars is back and here to stay

The Force Awakens is proof positive that Star Wars is not only back, but here to stay. True, it’s not a perfect film, but J.J. Abrams and his cast and crew have crafted an entertaining story that will make you cheer, laugh and maybe even cry. Most importantly of all, The Force Awakens does more than enough to build excitement for the next entry in the Star Wars saga – although fingers crossed we’ll get something a little bit more fresh next time around.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.