[This review contains spoilers and waffling. Do not read on if you do not wish to find out crucial plot twists or other information about The Force Awakens, as I’m writing here with people who have already seen it in mind. And please come back tomorrow if you have an aversion to general noodling or Star Wars, when I will be posting a concise review of the highly enjoyable Grandma.]
There seems little point in writing a straightforward review of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, the new entry by JJ Abrams in the world’s most popular and enduring franchise, at this point in time. It will obviously become the most profitable (biggest?) movie ever, and will presumably see Disney recoup their recent $4bn investment and budget outlay, or at least a sizeable percentage of it, through tickets sales and attendant merchandise. Therefore what I have to say about it doesn’t really matter in the slightest (and yes: you could say the same thing about every single review that appears on this blog, but let’s keep the facade up for a little longer at least, eh?) My WordPress feed has been saturated with reviews for the film during the past two or three days, and because my own excitement and expectation levels built gradually for so long I’m now at a point where I actually want to take a break from it all to let it sink in rather than spend time analysing it. Despite all of this I feel like I ought to get a few thoughts down here now. Bear with…
As a long-term fan of the series I wanted to add my voice to the many that have praised Abrams for making an immensely fun Star Wars movie, one that obviously reconnects with the original trilogy in a successful fashion while also laying down the groundwork for an intriguing future. From what I can gather the film seems to be satisfying the majority of existing fans as well as any newcomers to the series, and although I’ve seen a bit of nitpicking here and there I think much of it can be discounted when you remember just how difficult a job the director had. Can you imagine the pressure on Abrams due to the weight of public expectation, never mind that coming from those anxious bean-counters at Disney? Can you imagine trying to make a film that has to be all things to all people, from little kids who are unfamiliar with the story that has preceded The Force Awakens to current senior citizens who may have watched with their own children in 1977? Yes I’m aware of his track record, successfully breathing new life into both the Mission: Impossible and Star Trek franchises, but I’m afraid this is the big one, and I think he did a very good job when you consider the big picture: it’s not risky, it’s not unusual, it’s safe and familiar, but surely it had to be so.
There are times these days when I’m watching films and feeling more than a little jaded. Partly it’s my own fault: no-one’s holding a gun to my head forcing me to watch and then write about generic pap like The Gunman or The Gambler, for example, and no-one’s insisting that I go and see ten new films a month in the cinema (or watch so many at home) either. Still, that’s what I do. I’m sure many other bloggers will appreciate this, but the amount that I’m consuming probably means that I’m not reflecting enough on the films that I do see. For example, picking one at random, I’ve barely thought about Crimson Peak since seeing it back in October; it was OK, and it certainly looked very good, but because I watched another film the same day and another 50 since I’ve just not had the time to sit down and properly reflect upon those impressive visual aspects. Rather than doing so I simply focus on the easy option: next week’s releases, coming soon to a multiplex or arthouse cinema near you to be consumed and spat out. That’s the same for nearly all of the so-called ‘big’ releases I’ve caught in 2015. I’m 40 (seems relevant to say so) and I’ve been generally ambivanelt about the blockbusters I’ve seen this year, whether it be those that everyone else seems to cherish (Mad Max: Fury Road, for example, which I thought was good but not great) or those that include sights which really should still be impressing me but don’t (time-travelling cyborgs, rampant dinosaurs, superheroes with magical powers). So I think the fact that a film exists where some of its constituent elements (music, characters, dialogue, imagery) can repeatedly send shivers down your spine, where the logo of the fucking production company is met with unironic cheers, where you sit down in your seat and are constantly reminded about just how (quote, unquote) magical an experience it can be, well that film is something to cherish.
I’m not going to try and make the case that this is one of the best films of the year, or even one of the best Star Wars films; it clearly isn’t, but the important thing is that it’s good enough. I’m not even going to tell you that I felt relieved as I left the cinema, because I didn’t: from the moment I saw the first trailer I knew that this one would be decent, and as such that I’d enjoy it. And yes: it is the film that many of us were looking for, with Abrams adopting both the look of the original trilogy and, just as crucially, the tone, even if he uses many of the technological advancements at his disposal too. He has brought the big screen arm of the franchise into the 21st Century, creating an enjoyably witty and exciting blockbuster that works from the moment we kick off on the Tattooine-like Jakku to the reasonably-hefty (though rather obviously telegraphed) finale. Thank the maker, as C-3PO might say.
It’s a beguiling mix of the familiar and the new. The human characters we meet for the first time are among the film’s highlights, and three of them are instantly just as interesting as the older counterparts many of us have been patiently waiting to see in action once again. The three in question are played with plenty of charisma by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver, and I liked the fact that each is finding her or his way in life, struggling to overcome self-doubts and fears as they are forced to take steps into adulthood, torn between the comfort of the status quo and the possibilities that lie ahead. For Ridley’s scavenger Rey there’s the opportunity to leave her home and see the galaxy, but she has a conflicting instinct, which is to wait on Jakku for the return of her parents (surely Luke’s her father, though I think it would make for a decent story if she is Kylo Ren’s sister / Han and Leia’s daughter). Then there’s Finn (Boyega), on the run from one army gearing up for war and stumbling into another, usnure if he wants any part of it; his disloyalty to the new First Order, risen from the Imperial Empire’s ashes, is soon replaced with loyalty towards the individuals he meets as a free man. And most interestingly of all we have Kylo Ren (Driver), a kind of powerful, spoiled brat who throws his fair share of temper tantrums: more of an Anakin Skywalker than a ready-made Darth Vader or Darth Maul, his fear comes from not being able to measure up to his grandfather, and though it was a risky move to make the character so vulnerable it worked well for me; I didn’t want to see a one-dimensional, all-powerful evil villain, and I’m glad I didn’t get it. I can’t wait to see what happens to the three of them between films: training, increased powers, strenghthened loyalties to the dark side and the light, it all bodes well for the next instalment. I was completely sold on these three, and also enjoyed Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, though it was a shame he felt on the periphery of the plot after the thoroughly-exciting opening twenty minutes.
I was enjoying that first act so much I’d forgotten that the old guard would eventually be appearing. Harrison Ford looked to be having plenty of fun reprising his meaty role as Han Solo, and it was great to see the old curmudgeon back again, owing money to smuggling gangs and quipping or shooting looks at Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), while his scenes with Leia (Carrie Fisher) were briefly touching. Of course we won’t see him again, which is a shame, but I think it was necessary that one of the major characters bit the dust in this one, and he was the most obvious candidate. They moved on from the death a little too quickly and a little too easily, but Star Wars has always been like that: there’s no point being maudlin when there’s entertaining to do. As for Luke Skywalker: well, personally I liked the fact they left him out until the very end, save for one brief flashback. At the very least his greater involvement in 2017’s Episode VIII is something that fans can and will look forward to; perhaps there’s more to his lack of screen time than meets the eye, but I like to think it’s just restraint on the part of Abrams. Nice to see a few other familiar faces back too, but I think the decision to concentrate on the new actors and BB-8 was a good one. As I say, I’m sold and it’s their stories I’m most interested in following now.
There are obviously criticisms to make, but some of them can be discounted by remembering exactly what it is we’re supposed to be watching here. Some of the acting is decidedly ropey (Domnhall Gleeson springs instantly to mind) but generally it’s no worse than any other Star Wars film or any other film for kids (‘But it’s not for kids anymore!’ etc.). I think if you look at the acting purely in terms of the cast’s ability to make the funny moments work, to ensure that people of all ages and intelligence levels latch on to the emotional drama and to make the action sequences believable, then again I think it’s a pretty good job all around. I’m not inclined to go after the obvious plot holes, either, as it should be remembered that this is going to be part of a trilogy and certain nerd-bothering questions – ‘How did Luke’s lightsaber end up there?’, ‘Who the hell is Snoke and why haven’t we heard of him before?’ and so on – may well be answered in future films. And really, if they aren’t, does it actually matter a jot? As for the plot itself, I’d agree that the whole ‘Death Star’ thing has run its course now (it was old hat in 1983), but it’s really just an incidental detail; what we should be focusing on is the relationships between the new characters, and how these individuals fit in to the Star Wars universe, and as ‘origin’ stories go this one did the job well enough. I actually enjoyed the mirroring of the original trilogy, even the replica of the cantina scene, and I think these nods were executed with good-hearted spirit. There’s the right amount of reverence here for what has passed before. No, I’m happy to leave any criticism to one side, as what interests me most is the way that this film, or watching a film set within this bizarre galaxy, makes me feel. I’m hardly on my own when I say this but something about it clicked when I was a kid, and that has stayed with me ever since. The Star Wars movies are no longer my favourite films, as they once were, but I still hold onto them fondly, and to have a new one that slots in nicely next to the original trilogy makes me very happy indeed. I felt like a child at the pictures once again, and although I’m not sure whether that’s something to be proud of or not, it it is quite an incredible phenomenon given the amount of people who seem to be having similar experiences this week. And how great it is to see one of the best female blockbuster heroes in years, at the end of a year that has probably been as notable for them as any other. Tough, sharp, resilient and independent, Rey is the true star of this new chapter and I think it’s terrific that she has been made the early focal point of this new trilogy. I loved her scenes with Finn and BB-8, and imagine the effect it will be having on young girls all around the world will be very healthy indeed.
What a treat to see Star Wars back on the big screen in such great shape; I never thought I’d see the day.
Directed by: JJ Abrams.
Written by: JJ Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt. Based on characters created by George Lucas.
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Oscar Isaac, Peter Mayhew, Domnhall Gleeson, Carrie Fisher, Gwendoline Christie, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow.
Cinematography: Dan Mindel.
Editing: Mary Jo Markey, Maryann Brandon.
Music: John Williams.
Running Time: 135 minutes.