After months of endless speculation since its release date was announced, Colchester 101’s Andy Oliver was one of the very first to see the Christmas blockbuster. Here’s his review.
The Force Awakens is a sprawling, expansive, space-opera epic that will have Star Wars fans leaving the cinema with huge grins, empty pockets and a sense that their franchise has been rescued from the mire of the unsuccessful prequels. There’s huge star-ships, alien worlds, straight-arrow good guys, dark as night villains, laser guns, light sabres, a sense of humour, exciting battles… and a sense of familiarity that is both its strength and its weakness.
There’s a new Death Star in this movie. Starkiller* Base is not a space station this time but an entire planet, seventeen times larger than those seen in earlier movies. When I tell you this, I don’t mean it as a spoiler but a clue to where The Force Awakens sits, it’s as much a complete reboot of Episode IV: A New Hope as it is a sequel, played on a vastly expanded scale. There’s lots of familiar plot beats, but with a twist on them: There’s not a princess hiding a secret in a droid, but an X-Wing pilot; the central hero lives on a desert planet but she’s not happy about leaving it; there’s a Stormtrooper dressed as a rebel; there’s a villain dressed all in black who’s… well, that would be telling.
There’s also moments you’ll recognise from Episodes V an VI (Empire and Return of the Jedi): A small group of rebels have to knock out a shield generator so the main force can attack the Super Death Star; there’s a cantina scene; a forest planet; an ice planet; stuff too spoilery to go into. Some of the scenes feel more like forced attempts to crowbar in familiar concepts and conceits than an attempt at organic story telling. The sense of magic, of discovery that the original movies shared is missing here. Whilst some may welcome this forced familiarity, those looking for new, weird worlds to explore will probably be mildly disappointed.
But, while the plot feels rather under-nourished and a bit “been there, seen that”, the characters deliver on a massive scale, especially the new ones and they are the best reason for revisiting this series again. Like Luke, Han and Leia in the original trilogy, Rey, Finn and Poe are the reason you’ll want to come back. For every too-on-the-nose callback to the originals there’s a great character moment from one of these guys that make you smile from ear-to-ear at how magical and alive these characters feel.
Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davis and Ex Machina) is the first of the new heroes we meet. Dameron is a straight-arrow good guy, an X-Wing pilot version of a Nicholas Sparks leading man: he’s good to his friends and robot and probably sands down boats with his shirt off. A lesser actor might seem a little Dudley Do-Wright in the role, but Isaac plays him with just the right balance of a square jawed man of action and vulnerability; a good old-fashioned, two-fisted pulp hero.
Attack The Block’s John Boyega plays Finn, a character cursed to give a damn. Finn is originally FN 2187, a Stormtrooper who refuses to do the wrong thing and finds himself turning from The First Order (as the successors to the Empire are now called, I don’t know why, hey, I thought the rebels won at the end of Jedi) and fighting for the Rebel Alliance. He’s equal parts heroic, terrified and full of bluster and steals the majority of the film’s funny moments.
If the original trilogy made stars of relative unknowns Hammill, Ford and Fisher, then Daisy Ridley (as Rey) emerges as the new star of The Force Awakens. Rey is very much the emotional centre of the movie, abandoned on the backwater desert planet, Jakku, as a child by her family and terrified to leave in case she misses her chance at reunion. It is her compassion and the compassion she receives from others that sets her free. She’s the movie’s single-most capable and self-sufficient character and, although her story arc feels a little rushed, you feel the whole saga will pivot upon her. Ridley is great and her on-screen chemistry with John Boyega is worth the ticket price alone.
Of the returning characters Harrison Ford has the lion’s share of the screen time and looks like he’s finally having fun again. Han and Chewie are back in the smuggling game but the Empire and The Force are not done with him yet. Carrie Fisher’s General Leia is basically reduced to standing at the central command console at the rebel base, which is a shame and a waste. The first line of the usual screen-crawl states, “Luke Skywalker is missing”, so don’t expect too much of Hammill and what there is is eye-rollingly predictable.
But it’s Adam Driver (another Llewyn Davis alumni and Frances Ha) as the central bad guy, Kylo Ren, who really steals the show. Where Rey, Finn and Poe feel like Star Wars characters, written with bold strokes, Ren is psychologically underpinned in complex and thrilling ways. He’s a man drawn to the dark side of The Force, praying to Darth Vader to resolve the conflict within him; he wants to be consumed by darkness but the light won’t let him go. He’s petulant; his confidence is illusory, a mask behind which his lack of self-esteem festers. He’s a furious ball of emotions, scary and sympathetic and, when the mask is off, he’s a cauldron of conflict. Where George Lucas failed with Anakin in the prequels, Driver triumphs.
Director JJ Abrams keeps The Force Awakens moving along at a cracking pace, but ultimately it is the dearth of new ideas that holds it back from being a great movie. Too often it riffs on the original trilogy’s action and emotional beats and refuses to be its own beast.
Ultimately, how you feel about The Force Awakens will depend on how invested you are in Star Wars lore, die-hard fans will probably love it, but there’s a little too much fan service for the casual viewer.
*George Lucas’ original name for Luke Skywalker was Starkiller, apparently