Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, dir. J. J. Abrams), henceforth referred to as The Force Awakens, is the first feature-length outing we’ve seen from the Star Wars franchise since the 2005 finale of the prequel trilogy, Revenge of the Sith. The less said about the prequel trilogy, the better. It is the seventh episode in the epic space opera that millions (billions?) have grown to know and love since A New Hope premiered in 1977. As a result, it goes without saying that The Force Awakens has received a considerable amount of hype. The film’s synopsis is as follows:
Three decades after the defeat of the Galactic Empire, a new threat arises. The First Order attempts to rule the galaxy and only a rag-tag group of heroes can stop them, along with the help of the Resistance. (source)
As someone who experienced the height of her Star Wars fandom in childhood (before those silly prequels were released), I was so pleased and delighted when watching this in the cinema. It felt like a brilliant return to form for the series. The Force Awakens is thrilling, mystifying, exciting, and makes you feel all manner of emotions. But most importantly, it fits in perfectly within the context of the whole series, and doesn’t feel like a clunky add-on like certain other films (here’s looking at you, The Phantom Menace). The Force Awakens strikes the perfect balance between nostalgia and starting a new path for this strange and expansive world. The whole film is peppered with Easter eggs from the previous films, but it doesn’t overshadow the story on display.
We have three new protagonists – Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, and Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron. Rey is a scavenger on desert planet Jakku, Finn is a “retired” Stormtrooper, and Poe is a member of the Resistance and a pretty ace pilot. Each of these characters is introduced in a natural way and we never feel ‘forced’ to get to know them. By the end of the film I genuinely loved and enjoyed watching all three on screen. At times I felt Daisy Ridley’s acting was a little wooden, but other than that, I loved her portrayal of a strong female character (as well as her interactions with a certain other strong female character). By the end of the film I also loved Finn, even though at the beginning I thought he was a bit annoying. It’s so refreshing to genuinely enjoy watching new characters in an established and well-loved franchise, rather than feeling like we’re obligated to get to know them. At the same time, it’s so much fun to see some old friends on screen as well.
We also have a new group of antagonists – the First Order. I won’t reveal much about them here as I don’t want to spoil the story. However, I will say that Adam Driver as masked villain Kylo Ren almost stole the show for me. Even with a mask covering his face, he dominated the screen. Like John Hurt in The Elephant Man (1980), he acted right out of that mask to the point where it almost felt like the mask had facial expressions, which is impossible. It is very interesting to see the way that the film humanises its villains. Gwendoline Christie also features as Stormtrooper Captain Phasma, her voice immediately standing out as powerful and feminine. Her character felt a bit underused and I hope we see more of her.
Also, even though I feel relatively confident that the little droid BB-8 features so prominently in the film solely in order to drive merchandise sales, he is so cute and lovable that you can’t help but enjoy all of his screen time. Even when he breaks the fourth wall at least twice. This is a distinct difference to the most hated Jar-Jar Binks from the prequel trilogy; forcibly introduced in The Phantom Menace, one of the most annoying characters in film history, and possibly the biggest villain of the series overall.
The film is shot beautifully, with some gorgeous shots of landscapes and space action, and one particularly on-the-nose reference to Apocalypse Now (1979) which elicited a gasp of delight from my partner. The action and fight sequences are so exciting to watch on the big screen, and when the lightsabers come out you may find yourself holding your breath. J.J. Abrams appears to be the master of making sure that all sci fi/space opera series’ are represented beautifully on screen. Cinematographer Daniel Mindel makes use of vibrant colours throughout the film which ensures that it is a constant visual delight. Certain fight scenes set in the snow are a particular highlight in terms of direction, editing, and cinematography all together. George Lucas’ post-release visual mess-abouts with the original trilogy are nothing less than sinful, but the visuals on display in The Force Awakens are stellar.
My criticisms for this film are quite few, but they do exist. Firstly, the score by John Williams isn’t very memorable. Of course, the main theme music is all there, but if you think to the iconic Imperial March that accompanies Darth Vader’s every move, there isn’t really anything that matches that kind of aural gravitas for this film’s group of antagonists. I would have loved to have heard something like that. Secondly, you can almost tell that a lot of material has been cut in order to maintain a runtime of less than three hours. Some parts feel a bit chopped up, but these parts are few and far between. Lastly, Domhnall Gleeson puts in the campiest and most cartoonishly villainesque performance as General Hux of the First Order. During his scenes, with his outrageously nasty manner of speaking, I could almost hear people laughing.
Ultimately though, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a beautiful return to form for the Star Wars franchise. I would describe it as the Star Wars film fans have been waiting for for a long time. It is a film that walks confidently along the line of nostalgia and modernity; that is able to negotiate between the somewhat campy humour and effects of the original trilogy, and nowadays’ modern technology and standards of humour; that is able to introduce new characters and ideas in such a masterful way that they feel like they naturally fit in with the series as a whole. I really enjoyed this film, and the Star Wars nerd child in me didn’t want the film to end. I cannot wait for the next installment.
Is it worth paying for a ticket?: Yes, even if you’re not a previously established fan of the Star Wars franchise.
Watch the trailer here.