It’s been a long time coming, but in a galaxy far, far away, someone made a new Star Wars film. I saw it, now I review it.
Genre(s): Sci-Fi (Sci-Fantasy for me)
Directed By: J.J. Abrams
Released: December 2015
For the past week or so you’ve seen me talk about the now non-canon Star Wars Expanded Universe. In the middle of writing that feature I went to see The Force Awakens, curious if it would live up to the hype and intrigued as to whether J.J. Abram’s Star Wars would be better than the last time George Lucas went into directing a feature in this universe—or, some might argue, better than J.J.’s Star Trek.
The answer to all of those is, “Yes”.
The Force Awakens takes place thirty years after The Battle of Endor, aka Return of the Jedi. The New Republic is in place but the fall of the Empire gave birth to many splinter groups, the most powerful (if not the only remaining) being The First Order, led by a deformed Dark Side Force User named Snoke, Kylo Ren and General Hux. We only see Snoke in holo-transmissions, so I’m thinking we’ll see him in person for the first time in Episode VIII and he’ll bite the dust in Episode IX.
I can predict that because while still telling a new story with some new characters and a new protagonist, The Force Awakens is essentially A New Hope, Episode IV, following the same overall story flow and hitting the same notes. It’s not a bad thing to do, considering this film is trying to do the same things Episode IV did. It introduces a new universe (or continuity) to the audience, with its own rules and ideas. But it doesn’t play it safe, taking huge risks when it comes to major characters and the story. I approve of that.
The downside is that by following the pattern set by the first Star Wars film, it’s easy for the franchise savvy to predict where it’s all going and what’s going to happen to the characters. I knew what the big twist was before it even happened. Not only did I know it because characters fell into familiar roles, but also the cinematography and performances on the scenes leading up to that moment made it too easy to figure out.
As I said above, we only see Snoke a little bit, spending the rest of the time with Kylo Ren and some moments with Hux. I’ll be honest, I had to look up Hux’s name on Wookiepedia because I never bothered to remember his name. From the moment the film starts to its end, he feels entirely disposable and while he does deliver a fantastic speech, he’s anything but a compelling character. He’s your typical imperial zealot, nothing else about him but that.
And then we come to Kylo Ren and while I wanted to like him, because I like villains sometimes more than heroes, I have to say Kylo is a weak one. At the film’s opening he has the looks, the intentions and everything about him screams “strong villain.” But as the story unfolds, we peel back the façade and see not Darth Vader 2 but Anakin Skywalker 2, mopey and whiny. I understand that’s the point of the character, to show that while he tries his best to be as strong as Darth James Earl Jones, he isn’t. But while it builds the character it undermines his role as a villain, especially with such a forgettable partner in crime in Hux. I love the characterisation though and I’m keen to see where they take the character. I sincerely hope it doesn’t go as I suspect it’s going to go though.
As it follows from earlier films in the saga, there are hundreds of little nods to the franchise. From Han taking on Obi Wan’s role as the mentor and the guy explaining that The Force and everything is real, to Darth Vader’s mostly melted helm in Kylo Ren’s collection. The Millenium Falcon of course shows up and it’s the same rust-bucket it’s always been, but flies beautifully. The name of the main villain base is a nod to the original Star Wars Episode IV script.
The performances are top of the line, from both familiar faces and newcomers alike. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as Rey and Finn are fantastic. They keep the film grounded, and even when they’re spouting technobabble it feels real and believable. I liked Finn’s story arc a lot. His character comes in with clear goals, and while those change as the story unfolds, his personality and drive remain the same and I loved it. Rey, our main protagonist, is still coming to terms with the reality around her so her story arc still needs some work, and will develop over the course of the next couple of episodes.
When it comes to Rey, my problem with her isn’t in the acting but the writing. She’s too good. She’s a mechanic and also a natural super-pilot and while no one has ever trained her, she has an almost instinctive grasp on the Force. She’s never in jeopardy as everything she does comes off brilliantly.
The Force itself, the powers and such are back to the grounded levels they were in the original films, and it makes sense as there aren’t many Jedi or Sith Masters around to teach the kids the really weird stuff. So they all go about with their mind tricks, telepathy and telekinesis. I can dig that, it makes this new continuity consistent with the established—and official—lore from other media.
Finally, The Force Awakens has the best Lightsaber fights in nearly forty years of Star Wars. While the prequel saber fights were spectacles of choreography, light and magic, it takes only a close look—and not the unhealthily close examination I’ve done—to realise the fighters aren’t going for killing blows but just swatting their sabers to make it look real but also drag it on. In The Force Awakens, the fights look like real sword fights, with overhead swings, blocks, parries and feints. It’s brilliant and again, it makes sense in continuity because the remaining Lightsaber-jockeys in the universe, Luke included, are terrible fighters.
If there is one issue I have with Star Wars The Force Awakens is that the timeline makes very little sense to me. But I can’t blame the film for that.
Star Wars The Force Awakens is a fun film. It follows a blueprint set down by the first film in the saga, Episode IV and uses it to deliver a new story to a new audience. There are some predictable elements and the villains could’ve used some fibre in them, but it’s still a great movie.
4/5 – Exceptional