Review: Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens

StarWars_TheForceAwakens
It’s weird to finally be writing this…

“Will it actually be any good?”

That was the question on everyone’s lips when Disney announced that, as the first order of business following its $4bn acquisition of Lucasfilm, it would produce Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

You wouldn’t know it from all the positive buzz and critical acclaim surrounding the film, but at the time, this was a very valid query. The Star Wars franchise circa October 2012 was in a comatose state, the result of the brutal bashing dished out on creator George Lucas’ prequel trilogy by critics and fans alike.

Whilst the tie-in media – books, cartoons, video games and action figures – was still doing decent business, many doubted whether Star Wars would ever be able to recapture its popularity with moviegoers jaded by three mediocre films in a row.

Fast forward to the present, and not only do these concerns seem laughable, but the answer to that opening question stands answered in the affirmative.

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.

Funnily enough, just as the real-life story of The Force Awakens began with a question, so to does the film itself, namely: “Where’s Luke Skywalker?”

It turns out that Luke (Mark Hamill) is the MacGuffin of the tale, as both the major powers in the galaxy far, far away – the Resistance (formerly the Rebel Alliance) and the First Order (the neo-Empire) – are quite keen to track him down.

Early on in proceedings, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) manages to get his mitts on a major clue to Master Skywalker’s current whereabouts.

However he is summarily scooped up by Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Renn (Adam Driver), forcing him to stash the information in droid BB-8.

When BB-8 ends up in the possession of scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and AWOL stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), the bad guys come knocking at their door and the adventure really begins in earnest, especially when a certain legendary smuggler and his wookiee companion enter the fray…

The Force Awakens is on the whole a good film, and occasionally a great one. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt have come up with a solid story, one that evokes the feel of the classic movies.

Despite how positive that might sound to fans still reeling from the prequels, the tendency of Abrams and co to borrow from the original trilogy (particularly Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope) does mean you’re left with a plot that feels a bit like Star War‘s greatest hits.

There’s giant planetoid-based death rays, droids bearing top secret data marooned on desert planets, and plenty more of your favourite beats, all present and accounted for.

To be fair, perhaps that’s what was needed to steady the ship, and from this stable platform, it’s highly possible that incoming director Rian Johnson will be able to move the franchise to a more ambitious place when he takes over the reins for Episode VIII.

The screenplay is also a little clunky at times.

There’s more than one instance of outright plot dumping, contrivances litter the middle act (the most outrageous involves the sudden appearance of a long-lost relic from the saga’s past), the climax feels incohesive and the structure of the final act seems a bit off.

Not that this matters much, as Abrams has filled the film with a great roster of characters who paper over any cracks in the narrative.

As with all the best episodes in the Star Wars saga, these characters suck us into the story because we can relate to them on a level that belies their alien surroundings.

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 lastly Kylo Renn 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.

This relatable characterisation is as much down to the acting as it is to the writing.

The newcomers are all strong in their roles. Boyega and Ridley prove likeable leads 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.

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, so here’s hoping he comes into his own in the sequels.

Rounding out the cast are the old hands, and Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher step back into the shoes of Luke, Han Solo and Leia Organa so effortlessly it’s as if no time has passed since Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi first opened in 1983.

A special shout out here to Ford, who not only lends the film a scruffy brand of gravitas and warmth, but also helps to tether The Force Awakens to the original trilogy simply by virtue of his iconic presence.

All of these performers are guided well by Abrams, who seems more comfortable playing in the Star Wars universe than he did at the helm of the Star Trek franchise.

Speaking of the Star Wars universe, it’s looking rather brilliant in The Force Awakens. 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.

Supporting them is cinematographer Dan Mindel, who captures their work beautifully, and his sweeping camera conveys the scope and energy that a Star Wars adventure demands.

The visual effects by ILM are also top notch; and despite the occasional bit of CGI overkill, the filmmakers’ emphasis on practical effects over digital wizardry results in a world that seems refreshingly tangible compared to the synthetic environments commonplace in modern blockbusters.

This vibe carries across to the action choreography, which feels less over-rehearsed and stylised than what was seen in the prequels. This leads to space battles which feel more authentic (for want of a better word) and lightsaber duels that have a more primal, tense quality to them.

All these elements, coupled with a fine 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.

Like that film, there’s a lot to the subtext of The Force Awakens, so much so that it merits multiple viewings.

LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!

One of the main concerns in the movie that really stands out is identity.

All three of our lead characters is having a major crisis on this front when we meet them, and how each of them resolves their individual issues drives the film as much as Luke’s absence does.

Finn starts things off as a faceless, nameless grunt trained to kill on command, only to learn this disagrees with his true nature.

He spends the next two hours or so trying to learn who he is, going from self-serving mercenary type to self-sacrificing hero, progressing from the dehumanised soldier designated FN-2187 to the fully realised individual Finn.

Moving on to Rey, when we meet her, she thinks of herself as a no one.

It’s not until the third act that she unlocks her Force potential and discovers she’s very much a someone (just who exactly is up for debate).

When we leave her, she is about to enter the tutelage of Luke and has transformed from cast off to fledgling Jedi, making it clear that her sense of self-worth and purpose should dramatically increase in the films ahead.

Unlike either of these two, Kylo Renn spends the whole of The Force Awakens in a downward spiral.

After all, he’s not much more than a screwed up kid desperately trying to be someone else (in this case, Darth Vader).

Even in the face of all he’s done – and that includes decimating Luke’s original Jedi Academy – Renn still grapples with the urge to embrace the Light Side of the Force.

He’s a character constantly at war with himself, and the adoption of the Kylo Renn name and masked persona is little more than an effort to submerge an identity he may never escape.

Whereas Finn taking on a name made him more human, Renn renouncing his birth name, Ben Solo, connotes an effort to strip himself of his humanity, something he hopes to fully achieve when he kills his own father, Han.

This dovetails neatly with the concept of choices, as several of our characters old and new are responsible for making some pretty bad ones. More often than not, these decisions are made by a desire to run from the past, rather than embrace the future.

Finn, Rey, Han, and Renn – heck, even Luke – all of them are guilty of this behaviour, and that brings with it another key point in the film, which is that growing old doesn’t automatically mean you have all the answers or do the right thing.

As Kasdan so succinctly put it in an interview with Entertainment Weekly:

Age does not necessarily bring wisdom; it just brings experience.”

This is pretty evident in Han, Leia and Luke.

Han and Leia lost their son to the Dark Side in spite of the fact that both were older, supposedly wiser people, and they also drove themselves apart because they had no idea how to cope with what had happened.

Luke also wasn’t prepared for his failure with Renn, and this betrayal led him to exile himself rather than deal with what his nephew has become.

It’s fitting that family should come up here, as in a lot of ways, the Star Wars saga is a story about love and family, and The Force Awakens is no different in this regard.

Think about it: Finn was taken from his family, Rey was left behind by hers, and Renn turned his back on his.

These are all terrible things, and yet the story itself still emphasises love above all else.

Finn may not have grown up with love, but he now has the chance to make a family, populating it with the likes of Rey, Poe, Chewie, BB-8 and the rest of the gang.

Even though Rey grew up without knowing her parents, she seems likely to find out about her heritage soon (if she doesn’t know already!), and she at least got to briefly experience having a (surrogate) father, thanks to her time with Han.

Even Renn’s story is one of familial love.

Neither Han or Leia ever stopped loving him despite his descent into evil and they never will (watch as a dying Han caresses his son’s cheek), and it’s clear that for all his talk, Renn still harbours positive sentiments towards both his mom and pops.

Expect this to last theme to develop further as the sequel trilogy goes on and things look worse for our heroes, because if we’ve learned nothing else from Star Wars, it’s that love is the answer to the darkness.

THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!

The Force Awakens is proof positive that Star Wars is not only back, but here to stay.

While it’s not a perfect film, JJ Abrams and his team 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 series – although fingers crossed we’ll get something a little bit more fresh next time around.

Has The Force Awakens resurrected Star Wars? What did Abrams get right? What did he get wrong? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook!

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Review: Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens

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