Following the tantrum-inducing menace of George Lucas’ Darth Vader: The Younger Years trilogy of car wrecks, the most beloved film saga of them all strikes back in glorious fashion.
Anyone nervous that Episode VII might fail to live up to the enormous weight of expectation unfairly heaped upon its shoulders can rest easy; The Force Awakens is about as far removed from The Phantom Menace in terms of sheer, unadulterated grin-inducing entertainment as Jar Jar Binks is from, well, pretty much any other character committed to film.
Watching The Force Awakens, it becomes clear very quickly exactly why J.J. Abrams was brought on board to direct (and co-write). His Star Trek (2009) skilfully managed to walk the tightrope of reminding us of why we cared about the franchise in the first place, while at the same time flipping the switch to offer us something completely new.
In the case of Star Wars, Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan consign midichlorians and trade blockades into the sarlacc pitt and instead return to what made film fans fall in love with the saga in the first place; namely a simple story about disparate characters coming together to stop a seemingly insurmountable enemy.
Criticisms that The Force Awakens too readily retreads old ground, particularly A New Hope, are missing the point. Abrams, just like in Star Trek, gives us something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue (does the lightsaber count?).
The story picks up 30 years after the events of Return Of The Jedi, with both the Resistance and the evil First Order in search of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last known Jedi Knight. Droid BB-8 seemingly holds the key to Skywalker’s whereabouts and into the fray steps scavenger Ren (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper who has deserted the First Order.
Having emerged from the ashes of the Empire, the First Order employ similarly fascistic tendencies (not least of which a penchant for Nuremberg-esque rallies) and are led by the Kool Aid-guzzling General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), unpredictable Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and a mysterious dark lord (I won’t spoil it).
It’s often said that bad guys are the most interesting characters in cinema and that’s certainly the case with Ren, a figure beset by bouts of petulant rage who is both terrifying and childishly vulnerable at the same time. Performing behind a mask for much of the running time, the fantastic Driver gives Ren a unnervingly measured tone that threatens to crack at any moment.
Boyega too is excellent; at first tortured by the horrors he is expected to participate in before growing into the hero we rejoice in cheering on. Ridley also impresses in what is perhaps the most underdeveloped character, but the journey she goes on will no doubt pay off in spades beyond The Force Awakens.
It says an awful lot about the strength of the new cast that we don’t rely too heavily on the very welcome reintroduction of Harrison Ford as everyone’s favourite scruffy-looking nerf herder Han Solo, Carrie Fisher as the sadder, more world-weary General Organa, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 among other old guard.
That said, it’s a joy to see them back on the big screen and Abrams and Kasdan give each character plenty of choice dialogue as well as well-woven story arcs.
While it’s hard to say whether the original band got back together, it’s nevertheless wonderful to see and hear John Williams is back. Williams’ score promised much in the trailers and truly delivers with a soundtrack that splices well-loved refrains with new material that perfectly complements the action on screen.
Speaking of action, Abrams’ resistance to the CGI-heavy set pieces so beloved on Lucas circa Episodes I-III really delivers, with dogfights that you can follow and care about the outcome of, while a shoot out on a forest planet (the look Han gives Rey when she says “I never knew there could be so much green” is wonderful) is effortlessly staged.
With The Force Awakens, we’re indeed home. Thank you J.J. Abrams; thank you.