Film Review | Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Expectations were high indeed, but against all odds J.J. Abrams has managed to resurrect George Lucas's beleaguered space opera for a new generation, while more than paying homage to its beloved predecessors 

New kids on the (desert) block: Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega inject a fresh lease of life into the iconic franchise… with some help from the trusty BB-8
New kids on the (desert) block: Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega inject a fresh lease of life into the iconic franchise… with some help from the trusty BB-8

It has been a long time coming. I don’t mean that this particular installment of the Star Wars franchise – that would be Episode VII in a ping-ponging array of space opera episodes with a liberal approach to chronology – has been all that long in gestation.

All things considered, it hasn’t been that long since J.J. Abrams (Lost, Super 8, the Star Trek reboot) was announced as the de facto torch-bearer to the newly-retired George Lucas.

In fact, it was only in 2012 – not that long a time for such a pop culture bombshell to settle – that Lucasfilm declared that Abrams will spearhead the new trilogy of the saga, continuing some years where Return of the Jedi (1983) left off.

What’s been a long time coming is a decent Star Wars movies that pays adequate tribute to the spirit of Lucas’s original saga, while also setting it up for future generations. Many believe Lucas himself betrayed his own babies with the much-maligned prequel trilogy (1999-2005) which went back in time to tell the backstory to the trilogy we fell in love with a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

Despite his somewhat nonsensical lightsabre, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is a worthy successor to the saga’s enduring villain figure, Darth Vader
Despite his somewhat nonsensical lightsabre, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is a worthy successor to the saga’s enduring villain figure, Darth Vader

To be fair, the weight of expectation on the prequels was always going to be unbearably high, and the countless moans of how Episodes I through III “raped the childhood” of myriad Star Wars fans worldwide now feel a bit overstated, if not downright silly.

For all their Peter Pan-like appeal to our inner child, the Star Wars movies remain modernized fairy tales – or rather, silly pulp adventures given increased cultural currency through Lucas’s shrewd use of classical storytelling structures, as well as an aesthetic mash-up of everything from the seminal samurai films by Akira Kurosawa to Flash Gordon.

Rather than being aggressive betrayals, the sin of the prequels lay in Lucas’s over-reliance on digital technology and a cack-handed approach to scriptwriting – he was wise enough to hire help for the latter two chapters of the original trilogy – which undercut his (declared) attempts at devising an epic-scale ‘tragedy’ depicting the transformation of novice Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker into the nefarious Darth Vader.

This is where Abrams’s film distances itself from the prequels right off the bat. Aided by the scriptwriting skills of Lawrence Kasdan – who is in fact a Star Wars veteran, having worked on both The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi back in the day – he succeeds in crafting a loving tribute to the films we know and love, and much in the same spirit as the original movie: a devil-may-care pulp adventure that makes no apology for its childlike silliness and sense of awe.



It’s been 30 years since the Galactic Empire was felled by the rebel alliance but, making good on the claim that evil never sleeps, its splinter factions have now joined together to form a new and equally deadly threat – the First Order – who are busy picking off the Resistance, run with robust aplomb by General Leia Organa-Solo (Carrie Fisher). And echoing the spirit of Darth Vader – whom he admires and seeks to emulate – they have a powerful dark side of the Force user in their arsenal, one Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

But though Ren’s vengeful mercilessness is matched by the military prowess of his superiors – among them the ever-sneering General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) – a few chinks in their armour may just prove to be a ‘new hope’ for the galaxy. These come in the form of defecting Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and young orphan scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), who stumbles upon a tiny droid – the adorably rotund BB-8 – carrying a game-changing piece of cargo for its Resistance pilot owner, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).

But the real lynchpin here is the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), whose disappearance has every element of the galaxy – from the good to the bad – in something of a tizzy. And turning Luke into the effective MacGuffin of the piece is the first wise move on Abrams’s part, since it not only gives the story its main impetus, but also helps confer mythic status onto Luke Skywalker. This isn’t a reaching analysis: Rey even refers to him as such at one point.

So really, the new characters view the ‘old’ characters through the same lens as we do – a genius feat of audience identification that the grandiose prequels failed miserably at.

In fact, perhaps the best thing about The Force Awakens is the simple fact that we’re made to care about the characters first, the world-building second. Now of course, don’t expect any psychological depth – Star Wars was always about archetypes – but coupled with some very game performances from the young leads in particular, Abrams succeeds in humanizing the dizzying alien landscape of the saga once again.

Relative newcomer Daisy Ridley is excellent as the vulnerable but resilient Rey. Like many elements in the film, her story is an homage – in this case, it follows the trajectory of Luke Skywalker perhaps too closely. But luckily, she doesn’t have the young Hamill’s whiny drawl, and she gives us an identifiable heroine who goes some way to solving the saga’s female deficit.

But it’s the incredibly likeable John Boyega whom you’ll remember. The young actor – who sort-of cut his sci-fi teeth on British ‘hoodie space invasion’ action-comedy Attack the Block (2011) – has energy and charm to spare, contributing both comedy chops and poignancy to the story.

Though the ever-reliable Isaac gets very little screen time for now (like Gandalf, he spends a lot of time adventuring off-stage), we can trust him to take centre stage come Episode VIII in 2017.

In a tight spot: Boyega and Oscar Isaac have charisma and humour to spare, humanizing the space adventure
In a tight spot: Boyega and Oscar Isaac have charisma and humour to spare, humanizing the space adventure

The new gang is completed by their dark side variant: Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. Though he’s got big – black leather – boots to fill, he’s aided by yet another clever move on Abrams and Kasdan’s part. Where his predecessor, Darth Vader, was an unassailable evil force from the word go, Ren is granted some conflict – rooted in a key revelation that I will not spoil – which gives him his own journey of self-discovery.

And he’s no less formidable for it. If anything, his lightsabre-powered – and spaceship-furniture-devouring – hissy fits make him seem like a ticking time bomb, where Vader was all controlled menace.

Of course it’s also a pleasure to see the old gang back in action, and the re-appearance of beloved smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his ‘walking carpet’ Wookie side-kick Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) delivers some of the most enjoyable fan-service within pretty much two-and-a-half-hours of the same.

This may seem like a damning fact, but it’s only so to a point. It should be taken as something of a given by now that Star Wars is less of a series of films in and of themselves, and more of an ‘event’. Like James Bond… and indeed, like the Christmas panto, any return to the Galaxy That Lucas Built needs to signpost a few things for the pleasure and reassurance of longtime fans.

However, did the First Order’s key threat really need to be, essentially, yet another even ‘bigger and badder’ Death Star? Did the key transition point of the story really have to take place in what is essentially a stand-in for the infamous Mos Eisley Cantina of the series’ first offering? Abrams is an able pastiche artist in the realm of science fiction and fantasy cinema, and his prowess at marshaling such large-scale projects is what’s at the root of the ultimately successful rebooting effort that is The Force Awakens. But one hopes that, come Episode VIII, its director – rising star Rian Johnson – will skip the nodding and winking and just get on with it.  

For all this, however, the fact remains that Star Wars fans have been given an early Christmas present, and that even newcomers to the saga will feel welcome to what is essentially a fun adventure romp set in space. Abrams directs with both visual flair and dynamism – the promise to ditch CGI for the most part is honoured – and also keeps things light and funny: there are a couple of gags here that stand as comedy gold on their own.

The final verdict? Even if you may have had a bad feeling about this – as you searched your feelings – or believed the hype may have been a trap into a wretched hive of cinematic villainy, the fact remains that the film more than just has its moments – many of them – but that the Force is strong with it, indeed.