In 2009 filmmaker J. J. Abrams successfully rebooted the aging Star Trek franchise with a fresh and vibrant film that took the best of Trek and updated it for a modern generation. So when in 2012 Disney acquired Lucasfilm, and with it the rights to make more Star Wars films, it seemed only logical that they turn to Abrams. A life-long fan of the franchise Abrams was reluctant to take the reins, but having drafted in Empire Strikes Back co-writer Lawrence Kasdan he quickly set about ensuring that the franchise return to the roots of the first Star Wars. With the series meaning so much to so many could he pull off the impossible and deliver a Star Wars film for the ages?”
Set some 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens takes place in a universe that has witnessed the fall of the Empire and the restoration of the Republic. However, not every vestige of evil has been eradicated from the universe, as the remnants of the Empire have coalesced into the sinister First Order. Backed by the Republic the Rebel Alliance have morphed into the Resistance and have made it their mission to end this new evil. Enter Poe Dameron, the finest pilot in the Resistance, who is sent on a secret mission, only to encounter the evil Kylo Ren. Sensing trouble he sends his droid BB-8 on his own mission, which brings the tiny tottering robot to Rey, a scavenger who lives alone on the desert planet Jakku. Meanwhile Finn, a First Order stormtrooper, has started to question his training, and sets about finding his own place in the universe.
The Force Awakens does a lot with the newcomers, but it also treats the familiar faces with respect. Harrison Ford slips back into the role of Han Solo with ease, adding the weight of years to his portrayal and making Han more weary and battle-scarred, but still as swaggering and charmingly roguish as ever. Likewise Carrie Fisher brings the wisdom and weariness of age to Leia, making the tough princess a battle-hardened general. Their scenes together have the palpable feeling of a relationship that has grown and changed over time. Mark Hammill also returns, but to say more than he sports a fantastic beard would be to say too much. Conversely the non-human characters, namely Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, and Kenny Baker as R2D2, by that virtue have not aged, and resume their great supporting roles. Of the new characters Rey and Finn are given the most screen-time, with Daisy Ridley inhabiting her reluctant hero role with a maturity that belies her cinematic inexperience. Rey is a properly feisty character, with a touch of naïvety but a will of iron, and Ridley gives it her all. Similarly John Boyega gives a good account of himself as Finn. Too easily could he have been a passenger to the story, but instead he makes Finn a rounded and enigmatic character. Oscar Issac is a fine actor and he shows good comedic sensibility as the rakish star-pilot Poe Dameron. Irish star Domhnall Gleeson is solid as General Hux, although quite why he needs an English accent (other than bad-guys are always English) is unknown. Adam Driver is fine as Kylo Ren, but the character is like a weaker version of Darth Vader. He just doesn’t carry the same menace. Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie is underserved as the First Order’s Captain Phasma, but Lupita Nyong’o has a lot of fun as Maz Kanata.
Star Wars has a very distinctive look and feel, and Abrams nails these from the opening. Fans of the franchise will feel a warm rush of nostalgia from the first moments, and newcomers will experience a fine example of what Star Wars is from very early on. John Williams, composer for the previous six films, returns to compose the score and does a wonderful job of utilising the classic pieces and newly composed material. Cinematographer Daniel Mindel shot on 35mm film, and this coupled with Abrams’ insistence on using practical effects where possible gives a tactile feel to the film. Yes there is a digital sheen, and a competent 3D post-conversion, but the film sits more easily with the original trilogy than the all-digital prequel trilogy does. The film shot on a number of locations, including the Irish island of Sceilig Mhichíl, and each one offers a distinct look and feel to the universe. What weaknesses there are to the film lie in some of the character development, some unconvincing dialogue, and the need to service the larger picture for the new trilogy. That being said the film does a fine job of having a neatly contained central sub-plot, even if that adheres a little too strictly to the framework laid down by the original Star Wars (Episode IV). For fans there is a lot of fan-service, which newcomers may find overwhelming. This follows a similar path to that walked by Jurassic World earlier this year, but manages to avoid the major pitfalls and emerge as its own film.
It’s safe to say the J.J. Abrams has delivered a Star Wars sequel that is worthy of being part of cinema’s biggest sci-fi saga. The Force Awakens is a marvellous technical feat, and an example of how to return to a familiar environs and to tell a new tale. In cooking terms it has taken a winning recipe and put just enough of a twist on it to make it fresh again. The fact that it did so without having to deconstruct and rebuild is admirable and makes the achievement all the more pleasurable. This is the Star Wars film that fans having been waiting for, and for everyone else this is a fine way to enter the universe and to see what all the fuss is about.