Review: Star Wars The Force Awakens

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterStar Wars opens with the iconic image of a Star Destroyer flying overhead into the frame as it dwarfs a tiny spacecraft. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (the seventh episode in the series) opens with a whole planet being overshadowed by a ginormous spaceship. The Force Awakens makes it clear from the opener, and beyond, that it’s not only restaging familiar elements of the series but going bigger without the need to re-purpose the material into something new as its gains are only incremental. The Force Awakens may cause bouts of déjà vu masquerading as ‘fan service’ as it plays in a toy pit of nostalgia, but it’s essentially a joyous resetting of the table that’s aggressively serviceable, yet it excels at the generational shift to new characters and the prospect of new adventures.

Three decades after the events of Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished. The First Order (the new Empire), led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), wants to destroy Skywalker and his ties to the Jedi. Racing against The First Order are The Resistance (the new Rebel Alliance), led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), who sends her best pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to the desert planet Jakku to retrieve a map leading to Skywalker. The mission goes badly and the map is entrusted to a BB-8 droid that falls into the hands of a lonely scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley), and an AWOL First Order Stormtrooper, Fin (John Boyega).

If droids getting given maps and loners on desert planets sounds all too familiar, it’s because it is. Co-writer and director J. J. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt manage to condense and reshape the story beats of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi into The Force Awakens. The prospect of ‘new Star Wars’ is a tiny ruse because this feels like the fourth ride on the same roller-coaster. But it’s still a thrilling ride with Abrams packing so much wonder and excitement into each set piece with a little extra ‘pew’ in every ‘pew pew pew’, plus John Williams’ score does so much heavy lifting to give a pure Star Wars rush. And despite being the seventh film, it acts like a fourth because of the way it’s wedged between the original trilogy and the prequels when it comes to quality. Yes. The Force Awakens may be the youngest, but it acts like a middle child—it’s the Jan Brady of Star Wars. You get the sense that Abrams and his team are at odds with their franchise siblings for attention but there is a deep love for the material; there’s charm to the mimicry. It’s fascinating that 2015 has had multiple seventh entries in long running franchises with Creed and The Fast and the Furious 7. To pull out Creed for a second as the closest comparison to The Force Awakens in execution, it managed to accomplish the familiarity and nostalgia trips gracefully but still remembered to progress the story for its core characters. The Force Awakens stalls a little on nostalgia and gets caught in its own reflection for the sake of setting up the pieces for an eternity of new films. And it’s perfectly adequate that way with nothing but vigor for its escapism.

Where The Force Awakens comes alive is in the introduction (and casting) of new characters. On the dark side is Kylo Ren played like a spoilt brat by Driver (his conditioned locks of flowing hair are reminiscent of film interpretations of the Sheriff of Nottingham from Robin Hood). The genius of Kylo Ren is how his character is at odds with the past, in particular, his obsession with Darth Vader, which comes across as a brilliant allegorical take on modern fan culture for pop culture entities like Star Wars. Kylo Ren has a great sense of entitlement that is met by blind rage whenever he doesn’t get what he wants. It’s hard not to see the comparisons to angry Star Wars fanboys in a post-prequel world. Kylo Ren is the ideal villain for a franchise striving for something new(ish) and he’s threatening and unpredictable enough to challenge the protagonists.

On the light side there are three new heroes representing the new guard—of fandom too—and push the film’s generational shift of hope. Ridley is a revelation as Rey and shares a lot in common with 2015’s other female champion, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) from Mad Max Fury Road. Rey’s journey is where The Force Awakens optimistic little heart beats perfectly and she’s the character who gets the moments to remind you of the spark that makes the battle between good and evil in Star Wars worthwhile. Rey’s sequences are where it feels so damn good to have Star Wars back and there’s a cracking feminist drive to her story arc that shatters the lightsaber ceiling. Boyega’s Fin is neurotic yet wholeheartedly charming in his search of identity after realising he’s on the wrong side of history as a Stormtrooper. There’s a scene where Boyega delivers a line when questioned about why he switched sides and he says, “It’s because it’s the right thing to do.” We’re so familiar with the hero tropes in pop culture but it’s rare to get genuine honesty for a desire to do good and it’s Boyega’s performance that sells that sincerity. The dynamic of Rey and Fin together also extends to the gender equality of the two in their power for good without the cliché of romantic entanglement as an eventuality—even though they are like watching lightning strike when they are together. Rounding out the trio with swagger, amazing hair, and the spirit of old-school Hollywood, Isaac’s Poe Dameron is the ultimate flying ace and is deployed magnificently in the heat of the action.

Returning as Han Solo, Harrison Ford holsters his blaster, boots and vest like over 30-years hasn’t passed and his presence is the ‘welcome’ mat of the film as well as an inclusion that establishes the personal stakes for episodes eight, nine and ten. All the supporting characters from the original trilogy appear for that nostalgic buzz—especially Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Leia—or an ‘I think that’s someone important’ moment for the uninitiated (the difficulty scale for jumping into the series is relatively low).

There are odd moments with digitally motion captured characters with Lupita Nyong’o hidden under the pixels of an alien barkeep (which seems like a crime) and Andy Serkis’ puppet-master villain, Supreme Leader Snoke, looks like an unrendered stale burrito. Despite a few shaky digital effects, Abrams does give the film its lived-in aesthetic in the form of his mashup of digital and practical effects that make it all feel like classic Star Wars.

Look, being a middle child is tough but The Force Awakens jolts the series back to life with such joy that it can be forgiven for laziness. There are so many amazing characters waiting for a new story to meet them. It feels like coming off a round of speed dating in hopes there’s a chance to get to know them better. Abrams has set the table, now we wait.

Cameron Williams

The Popcorn Junkie