LUCASFILM LTD. / WALT DISNEY STUDIOS MOTION PICTURES (2015)
Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow, Gwendoline Christie

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

 

J.J. Abrams has managed to ride the incredible sea of hype, expectation and demands from fans and moviegoers alike, and transports us back to the classic world of Star Wars with The Force Awakens. He hits the beats on the majority of points – the visual aesthetic of the picture is incredible and retains everything that makes Star Wars what it is. The storytelling is great and finally reincorporates humour back into the saga – something which was sorely missing from the Prequel Trilogy. Most importantly, the character development of the new cast is wonderfully handled.

The Empire has fallen and finally, there is peace in the galaxy. But of course, it won’t last.

 

Luke Skywalker (Hamill) has disappeared and fallen into myth and legend. As the head of the galaxy’s isolated military operation, the Resistance, General Leia Organa (Fisher) is desperate to find her brother and add his talent to their roster. Trouble is, the evil First Order (the new Empire) is also attempting to find Skywalker and end him once and for all. Instructed by the shady Supreme Leader Snoke (Serkis), dark side acolyte Kylo Ren (Driver) is tasked with locating the missing Jedi Master. Elsewhere, a stormtrooper, FN-2187 aka Finn (Boyega) has seen the First Order’s atrocities first hand – including their massive system destroying Death Star, Starkiller Base - and decides to defect, with assistance from ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Isaac) though their crash land on the desolate, desert planet of Jakku isn’t quite ideal – especially after Dameron had just escaped Jakku having dispatched the map to Skywalker in his droid BB-8 to safer pastures.

 

Within the desert planet, a desperate scavenger, Rey (Ridley), dreams of the galaxy outside of her planet and how exactly she fits into it. An encounter with Finn soon sets her on her path to an awakening – with help from some old faces, namely a smuggler and a Wookiee.

 

By the end of the film, I wanted to continue following the path of Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo and I cared for the characters – this achieved in just over two hours. As well as the newcomers, integrating the classic characters into a new story and making the progression feel natural was vital, and J.J. and the team pulled this off with aplomb. Harrison Ford returns to the role of Harrison Ford and, thankfully, reprises it perfectly – it isn’t a case of Ford cashing it in. He retains the smuggler's charm and wit of old and leads with the new cast effortlessly. Carrie Fisher now plays the role of General Leia, promoted from mere royalty, and has less of a part to play in this Episode, but handles the scenes well enough. We even see Darth Vader! Kind of…

 

Daisy Ridley, as Rey, is the breakout star of the movie. Taking on your first major film role – as a lead – in the return of one of the biggest and most beloved franchises in the world, and after the disappointment of the Prequels – and landing such a great performance is an amazing achievement. Her quiet scenes are handled with a deft vulnerability, and action scenes with a fire in the eyes. There is a confidence about her performance which is highly reassuring for future installments, especially given her chemistry with fellow actors, especially John Boyega. The two bounce off each other seamlessly, and Boyega provides a compassionate performance and makes certain the humour is not lacking from the piece. His performance of a conflicted Stormtrooper plays out well throughout the movie and, again, leaves interesting questions for the next installment.

 

Adam Driver was tasked with possibly the most thankless mission of the cast – taking on the mantle of the new Star Wars villain, potentially Darth Vader Mk.II. He provides a commanding performance of a man steeped in the Dark Side of the Force, yet battling the call from the Light Side – something his master, Supreme Leader Snoke (Serkis) senses significantly. Ranging from intimidating to petulant, and everything in between, it is refreshing to say a bad guy with layers, as opposed to the bad guy who is bad, well, just because.

 

If the filmmakers were looking to create iconic shots and images with The Force Awakens, then they certainly achieved it. The visuals are breathtaking, with practical effects and locations bleeding effortlessly with CGI (no Jar Jar Binks here) to create the magnificent lived in galaxy that we are all used to. The shot of the TIE Fighters silhouetted against the burning sun (Apocalypse Now style), the lightsabers in the snow, Han and Chewie entering the Falcon, to simply name a few – you leave the movie with images scorched into your brain, which is exactly what they intended to do. In terms of the sheer number of simply memorable images, The Force Awakens possibly tops all of the previous Episodes.

 

Star Wars wouldn’t be what it is today without the seminal scores by John Williams, and he returns for his seventh outing with another illustrious soundtrack. The new character themes are dazzling (see Rey’s Theme) and the refreshes of old themes are a welcome addition to a fitting musical accompaniment.

 

On the flip side to all this, however, is the overriding feeling that aspects of The Force Awakens have been seen before in previous instalments – the desert planet home to someone with adventure in their head, the superweapon (Starkiller Base), destruction of planets, the wise old sage Maz Kanata (Nyongo’o) strikes a chord similar to Yoda – these, along with other examples, prevent The Force Awakens from really breaking out by itself. While there are original elements, of course, it does at times feel too familiar. The pacing of the movie is breakneck at times, as if J.J. wanted to fill in as much as he can now knowing that there were two future films to complete the story (which of course leaves a lot of unanswered questions, which Rian Johnson has the unenviable task of patching together in Episode VIII) For me, the pacing just stays in control, however, with the inclusion of a few additional scenes I believe this could’ve been rectified and also added to certain key plot points.

 

Did I have a bad feeling about this? Slightly. Due to the lukewarm reaction to the Prequels, the question of whether Star Wars still had “it” was prominent. Fear not, Star Wars still has it. The return of the franchise is triumphant and was handled masterfully by Kathleen Kennedy at Lucasfilm and J.J. Abrams. The ensemble performance was spectacular, and the movie delivered on the key moments that it had to, leading to a goosebump-inducing finale. If Episode VIII can expand on The Force Awakens, we’re in for a hell of a journey.

 

The Force is very strong with this one.

August 15th 2016

© 2016 Matt Hudson / What I Watched Tonight / Essex

follow us
contact us
hear us