It’s been 32 long years since the release of Return Of The Jedi, and at last the eventual fates of Han, Leia and Luke are revealed alongside the introduction of a whole host of new characters. Star Wars: The Force Awakens may be the most anticipated movie ever released – a heavy burden for any film to bear.In order for The Force Awakens to succeed (narratively that is, its financial success is all but assured) it has to juggle a lot: provide a fitting follow up to the original trilogy, effectively wash the bad taste of the prequels away, serve the returning iconic characters well and introduce compelling new ones to carry the series forward.
While it’s not perfect, it’s a huge relief that The Force Awakens delivers on all fronts. In fact, it’s a total blast that’s imbued with a breakneck pace and a sense of fun and looseness that’s been missing from the Star Wars movies since the 80s. Director J.J. Abrams honours the OT (sometimes slavishly), restoring much of the practical effects and tactility that was missing from the sterile prequels. It’s a corrective in many respects, and if anything its only downside is being overly devoted to what’s come before.
The Disney marketing machine and J.J. Abrams’ mystery box (basically a theory that prizes a love of the unknown above all else) have done a remarkable job of keeping the plot details of The Force Awakens under wraps leading up to its release – a huge feat in today’s everything now society. That approach allows unspoiled audiences to experience the movie completely fresh – something I’d urge everyone to do before trolls leak the big reveals online. I’ll tread lightly here, but be forewarned when idly scrolling Facebook or browsing Buzzfeed – everyone seems in a rush to blurt out Star Wars‘ long kept secrets.
When that iconic John Williams score bursts out and the opening crawl starts, it’s near impossible not to immediately love The Force Awakens. Call it Pavlovian conditioning or a finely tuned sense of nostalgia, but the building blocks of the Star Wars universe simply work. As George Lucas originally imagined it, Star Wars is a mishmash of various influences – samurai films (particularly Akira Kurosawa’s), Flash Gordon-like spacefaring adventures and Joseph Campbell-dervied hero’s journeys. Those elements are all present in The Force Awakens, given a shiny new coat of paint and an injection of modern filmmaking technique (which thankfully doesn’t get too frenetic). It continues to work here and the main takeaway is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
After the destruction of the Empire’s Death Star at the end of Jedi, victory seemed assured for The Rebel Alliance. 30 years on, and it’s now The First Order (an even more overtly Nazi-like collective of bad guys) versus The Resistance (still led in large part by General Leia). A welcome twist comes in the form of the two new leads: Rey (Daisy Ridley), a lonely scavenger on the Tatooine-like desert planet of Jakku, and Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper with a conscience who defects once he’s witnessed the horrors of war.
Through a series of extreme coincidences (a Star Wars tradition, pushed to its breaking point in the prequels), Rey and Finn find themselves working together to return a key piece of info to The Resistance that could turn the tide of the war. In the first of many plot points borrowed from 1977’s Episode IV – A New Hope, the MacGuffin is hidden inside a plucky droid (this time out it’s the adorable and roly-poly BB-8). What’s so important that both sides would do anything to obtain it? A star map leading to the location of missing Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).
Luke’s absence looms large over the movie and the search for him forms the narrative spine of a fast-paced journey that rarely slows for a moment. And even as many of the story beats are familiar (or re-mixed in self-consciously clever ways), the returning and new characters bring a huge sense of joy and discovery to The Force Awakens.
Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is the Vader-like villain this time out – a black-masked force-user who wields a vicious three-pronged lightsaber. He’s the best new addition and something that’s rarely seen in a Star Wars movie – a nuanced bad guy. While he can be an imposing badass at times (stopping a laser blast mid-stream), he can also be rash and petulant, thrashing his bedroom in a fit of rage like an angry teen. He’s given to worshipping the long-dead Darth Vader and is trying to carve out his own path among The First Order. Driver brings intriguing shades of grey to the role and Ren’s journey is thankfully fresh.
Ridley’s Rey is a more straightforward hero, a girl who’s been waiting years for her absent family but is now thrust into a larger conflict. She wears heroism well, especially in her scenes with Boyega’s Finn – a guy who’s trying to shed his past and finds his own sense of purpose. Finn is actually hilarious, providing many of the film’s best lines as he feels most like the audience surrogate. He’s amazed at the world he finds himself in and is just trying to keep his head above water; when asked if he’s ready he responds “Hell no” but charges in anyway. The reveal of his Stormtrooper duties is classic as well.
Oscar Isaac plays another key role as Poe Dameron, an ace Resistance pilot whose fast friendship with Finn provides more shading to an already bustling movie. But what really sells the movie is the return of Han Solo – arguably Harrison Ford’s best role ever. To see Solo on screen alongside Chewie (and eventually Leia) is a thing of joy, made better by a fully engaged and present Ford turning in his best work in years. His crinkly smirk and don’t-give-a-shit attitude were always a much-needed counterpoint to many of the stiffer Star Wars characters, and his dialogue (co-written by Lawrence Kasdan) shines here.
J.J. Abrams’ influence in most keenly felt in the movie’s breathless pace, a tactic seemingly used to spackle over plot holes before you have a chance to really think about them. In that sense The Force Awakens feels similar to Abrams other relaunch of an iconic sci-fi franchise – 2009’s Star Trek reboot. Both movies share some weaknesses (weird CGI monster chases, endless lens flares and some contrived plot conveniences) and strengths (incredibly casting, well-realized characters and excellent action).
The Force Awakens does a lot of heavy lifting to make Star Wars good again, but in doing so Abrams heavily leverages the past (the movie ends with battle against a Death Star-like weapon, the third time in a seven-movie series this has happened). There’s enough newness though to look past the familiar, as the movie’s thrilling lightsaber showdown proves. There’s even a few stand-up-and-cheer moments that can warm the heart of the most jaded fan, and those outweigh nearly everything else.
Beyond those moments lie what’s likely the movie’s biggest strength – not being crushed under the weight of expectations. The Force Awakens may be indebted to the past but in the end it’s positioned to look towards the future as the new (and excellent) characters are here to stay. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away is an exciting place to be once more and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Runtime: 135 minutes