The inevitable result of George Lucas’ $4 billion sale of his beloved creation to Disney, The Force Awakens was a seventh installment that seemed initially unnecessary. When viewed from The Phantom Menace to The Return of the Jedi, The Star Wars Saga tells a complete story of corruption and redemption as the sins of a father are righted by the faith of a son. Can a film seemingly crafted as a corporate exercise with crushingly high expectations ever hope to satisfy both true believers and naysayers?
If you do not want to read anything about the characters or story DO NOT read ahead. Assume minor spoilers & proceed with caution. [Ed]
Roughly thirty years after the Battle of Endor saw the end of both the Emperor and Darth Vader, a new oppressive regime known as the First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire to terrorise the galaxy. A new generation of heroes such as scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and ex-First Order stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) must join forces with the Resistance (formerly known as the Rebel Alliance) and such classic heroes as Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) in order to contend with the might of this evil collective.
That The Force Awakens manages to be a rollicking good time at the movies is at least a minor miracle. Like the similarly excellent Creed, The Force Awakens is the seventh installment of a beloved American franchise from the 1970’s created as an optimistic antidote to the more downbeat, morally ambiguous films of that era. Like Creed, there wasn’t any real need for The Force Awakens to exist. In addition, The Force Awakens was also made by fans, for fans, and both films stylishly justify their existence with an embrace of what made the original films so beloved while simultaneously adopting a much-needed modern sensibility.
The Force Awakens’ reverent respect for the films that came before is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. The film could literally be called ‘Nostalgia: The Movie’, given that it’s absolutely saturated with references to the original trilogy of Star Wars films, from the training remote and holographic game on board the Millennium Falcon (Han Solo’s beloved spaceship) to the appearance of almost every surviving character from the original trilogy. It was these moments that made me grin from ear to ear, particularly the reveal of the Millennium Falcon which borders on genius. For the most part, these call backs work, as they’re unleashed far more prudently than the likes of Christian Bale’s deadpanning of “I’ll be back” in the generic Terminator Salvation.
On the other hand, the film’s almost religious reverence (let’s face it, ‘Star Wars’ is pretty much a religion at this point) for what came before has led to whole plot points being lifted from A New Hope, the very first Star Wars movie. This was most obvious in the final plan to strike back at the bad guys: infiltrate another gargantuan, planet-destroying space station and blow it up using X-wing starfighters. This repetition is reminiscent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s tendency to end their films with a massive structure crashing to the ground. Disney clearly has a tendency to play it safe.
One of the biggest strengths of this film that helps elevate it over several of the previous films is character and dialogue. As Rey and Finn respectively, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are revelations. Both terrific actors with real emotional range and vulnerability, the actors help to sell the fanciful world of Star Wars by being relatable, engaging, and most importantly, just plain likeable. Ridley shines as she gradually learns to accept her talents and her role in the new galactic war. Meanwhile, Boyega convinces as a man who craves a life free from violence and cruelty, yet who braves both in order to protect those he cares about. Plus, he’s funny as hell, particularly in his banter with the always watchable Oscar Isaac as ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron. At one point, Poe asks Finn why he’s helping him, to which Finn replies “Because it’s the right thing to do”. “You need a pilot,” states Poe matter-of-factly. “I need a pilot”, Finn agrees. With one stroke, director and co-screenwriter J.J. Abrams announces his intention to steer clear of the earnestness of the prequel trilogy and to instead embrace sharp-witted (without being snarky) writing. Star Wars hasn’t been this funny in years and I look forward to seeing more Riggs and Murtaugh-esque banter between the two in future movies. Of the returning cast, Harrison Ford is the film’s rock as an older, still wise-cracking Han Solo, now played with an undercurrent of sadness and regret. Seeing him and first-mate Chewbacca on-screen together and getting into trouble again was a real treat.
On the production side, The Force Awakens is a real winner. Abrams directs with confidence and uses some truly spectacular shots in his action sequences. A highlight is the pursuit of the Millennium Falcon over the dunes of the planet Jakku by First Order TIE fighters. Watch as the camera swoops with the ageing spaceship as it swings into a barrel-roll and whizzes past the TIE fighters, the screech of their laser cannons and the wail of their twin ion engines deafening. For a brief moment, I was 12-years-old again, savouring the moment when an expertly crafted special effects makes me feel something we so rarely feel in blockbusters these days: awe and exhilaration. John Williams returns to provide the now iconic score but although all the old favourites are present and accounted for, there weren’t many new additions to the existing musical landscape. Even the much maligned The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones introduced instantly recognisable and memorable new themes.
When all is said and done, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an exhilarating, well-crafted piece of entertainment that does right by the films that came before while providing a much-needed modern facelift. The emphasis on character and dialogue was essential, though it came at the expense of the story given that story elements felt recycled and certain key events were left ambiguous. I wanted to know what some of the characters have been doing for the last 30 years and to know more about what crucial events led to the outcomes we’re seeing in the film’s present. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is equal parts expensive toy commercial and a gripping, essential blockbuster for our times. In other words, it is a true Star Wars film.
By Johnson Hii
Director: J.J. Abrams
Writer(s): Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Domhnall Gleeson
Runtime: 135 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: December 17 2015