star wars: the force awakens review
© Film Frame / Disney / Lucasfilm

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Dir: J. J. Abrams

A New Hope

And so, the time is finally upon us. Time to open what feels like the most widely anticipated Christmas present of all time. Expectation simply could not be higher for J.J. Abrams’ reinvigoration of the Star Wars universe, the most fondly regarded of all movie worlds.

It’s a full decade since Revenge Of The Sith (2005) offered its climactic setting up of 1977’s trailblazer. Until you remember that he sold the franchise for a trifling $4 billion, it’s possible to feel fleetingly sorry for George Lucas. New owners Disney roundly rejected the original creator’s story ideas for episodes seven to nine. Instead, fresh blood director Abrams is joined by another Star Wars stalwart; Lawrence Kasdan, co-screenwriter of Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). After the slow-paced, ponderous groundwork laying of Lucas’s CGI-heavy and widely derided prequels, their task was always to re-establish this new (ad)venture in the used, ‘real world’ feel of the first trilogy. To restore the spirit, the excitement, the verve. The unparalleled thrill.

What we get is an orgy of homage: a fizzing, joy-filled romp through a familiar and much-loved galaxy. And a galaxy as infinitely rich as Lucas’ initial inception now offers seemingly endless delights. Constructed from the elemental building blocks of the originals, the iconography and references just keep on coming. From the awe-inspiring slow crawl of the star destroyer in the opening shot, all the recognisable motifs are updated, regenerated, renewed. BB-8 is a refined, even cuter take on R2D2, a mascot who perfectly epitomises this new incarnation: distilled, honed …speedier! Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is superbly menacing as this instalment’s primary villain. Echoing the importance of Vader’s voice to his fearsome presence, Ren’s seething speech is genuinely unsettling. And that he might be at least a little unstable is entirely logical within the plot. It’s one example of perhaps the film’s neatest trick. Each familiar and celebrated Star Wars trope is justifiably reaffirmed by the tale Abrams and Kasdan have chosen to weave.

The greatest delight is the welcome return of a humorous touch. And crucially it’s the dry, self-aware mockery of the initial trilogy, not the misplaced and obtrusively childish ‘funnies’ of The Phantom Menace (1999) et al. And best of all, this includes the baddies. The First Order are a next generation of dark side, worshipping and vainly wanting to be acknowledged alongside the Sith of yore. They are, then, a fanatical faction, a band of radical extremists. In Kylo Ren’s unrestrained anger, and in General Hux’s (Domhnall Gleeson) overzealous address to the massed troops, we witness the extremity of their beliefs, and it carries a feint hint of the ridiculous. With clear current relevance, surprisingly it brings to mind the expert satirising of the violent fanatic’s absurdity in Chris Morris’ Four Lions (2010).

Of the new characters, Supreme Leader Snoke is the only weak link, a motion-capture creation reminiscent of Potter’s nemesis, Voldemort. With Harrison Ford passing 70, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is the heir to the hotshot fighter pilot hotseat. But while the film’s raison d’être is to repackage and redeliver the fundamental essentials of what made the first films so enjoyable in a contemporary form, its new stars deliberately reflect a society that has advanced light years in the intervening decades. Daisy Ridley’s Rey is a dynamic, suitably awe-struck fortune hunter, and John Boyega’s Finn is finely frenetic as the First Order fugitive. Both are excellently energized by this new surge of the force.

This is a film that fully understands the weight of expectation on its shoulders and there are wry nods to the awesome scale of the task throughout. It’s neatly reflected in the title itself. It encapsulates both the central tenet of the plot, and the uniquely huge cultural impact of this singular cinematic event. That it does cling so tightly to the formula of the originals is the only criticism possible. In a cold and dispassionate light, its symbolisms and plot conventions blatantly reheat the classic trilogy’s ingredients. But when this is what the fans so desperately wanted, can this be held against it? Lucas’ maligned prequels, by carving a template that was ultimately rejected, are therefore as much of an influence on this episode as the holy trinity of the initial three.

Abrams delivers what was newly hoped for, and then some. The result is a film that has a unique potential for impact and enjoyment. For a certain generation; for those who have the groundbreaking thrills of Star Wars etched into their DNA at the most formative age, the two hours in which The Force Awakens feel like the most entertaining movie experience currently possible.

★ ★ ★ ★

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