Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill
Release Date: December 17th
Remember back in 2009 when JJ Abrams directed the first of the Star Trek reboots and it essentially felt like a Star Wars movie? Ironically, moving away from the franchise he freely admitted he “didn’t get”, he’s now made a Star Wars movie that feels exactly like that Star Trek movie that felt like a Star Wars movie. Paradoxically referential and progressive, attempting to warp into the future while still anchored to the past, and in the process Abrams may have just made the best Star Wars movie yet…for those who aren’t particularly big Star Wars fans. For those that are, prepare yourselves for two hours of vague deja vu as you’re presented with A Slightly Newer Hope.
After talk of David Fincher, Guillermo Del Toro, Matthew Vaughn and Brad Bird taking the helm, Abrams seems like the safest pair of hands to course correct the franchise after those prequels, and in masterfully righting the ship into a direction that other, more interesting directors can take further with the future entries, Abrams (and his co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt) almost tie themselves up in knots by cramming as many references as possible. The Force Awakens is impossible to be considered a stand-alone movie – and maybe it shouldn’t be – but to that end, it’s difficult to imagine younger audiences being slack-jawed and engrossed by what’s happening before them when, if they’re brand new to series, they’ll be constantly asking ‘Who’s that guy?’ and ‘What’s funny about Han Solo saying “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”?’
We start off with another desert-planet bound hero, a droid with an important message, a cock-sure pilot, a villain dressed in all black with a scary helmet. The bad guys are still essentially Space Nazis and they’re plotting doesn’t seem to have progressed any in the thirty years since Return of the Jedi. There’s even another cantina with weird music! What makes it all work and not feel wholly stale is the new young cast, at least on the good guy’s side; Daisy Ridley is a revelation as the bo-staff handy heroine, Oscar Isaac injects enough likeable swagger to steal the show, while John Boyega is given the most to do within his role and wins us over as he transforms from a weakling jerk to someone we’d genuinely want on our side.
What doesn’t work quite so well is guys and gals on The Dark Side. Most of the time is devoted to the new big bad played by Adam Driver, who delivers a Darth Vader-esque performance but is shackled with Anakin Skywalker-esque character motivations. This means that the likes of Domhnall Gleeson and Gwendaline Christie are mostly sidelined, hopefully given more to do in the sequels two and four years from now. Abrams has also brought over some of his lazier storytelling aspects from his Star Trek days, as characters seem to constantly fall serendipitously ass-backwards into a new setting with new people, each one uniquely important for the plot to move incrementally forward.
Perhaps knowing that he’s not going to be able to break any new ground with the story or characters, Abrams goes all out on the action scenes, and it’s here that the film really flies. You’ll hear over and over again how great it is that the all-pervasive CGI of the prequels has been rectified by an abundance of practical effects here, but up on the big screen that small change makes a big difference. Lightsabre duels and massive shoot-outs crackle and pop with realism (or at least as much realism as a film called Star Wars will allow), while the X-Wing vs Tie-Fighter dog-fights are proper white-knuckle rides, complete with the kind of peerless visual and sound effects we’d come to expect from ILM.
However, the one thing The Force Awakens is missing is, controversially, George Lucas. There was always an impression that Lucas never truly knew what he had on his hands with Star Wars – turning a Flash Gordon rip-off into something about trade disputes takes some doing – and in the end, Star Wars was his Frankenstein’s Monster, ruining him forever. What Lucas did bring a certain sense of awe and magic to the movies – This was Star Wars! That was a Death Star! That guy was a Jedi! – but in The Force Awakens everyone is a smart-ass, everyone is vying to be the next Han Solo, and most importantly, everyone seems to be aware they’re in a Star Wars movie. Every tiny role is filled with a famous face, every reveal is done so with self-aware grandeur. That sense of wonder is gone, replaced by space-age cynicism. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – change is necessary, especially when seeking out improvement – but in making Star Wars relevant again, Abrams has taken away one of the things that made it Star Wars in the first place.
As pure blockbuster entertainment, The Force Awakens can stand proudly as one of the best of the year. Abrams should be proud of the achievement of making such vast improvements and corrections on a franchise that should never have gotten so out of control, and unlike The Phantom Menace, we’re not going to have any Reviewer’s Remorse down the road and wonder what exactly we were thinking being so generous to something so bad, blinded by nothing but hope and a want for the movie to be good. The Force Awakens is good – very good, in fact – and here’s hoping the next one is more The Empire Strikes Back and less Into Darkness.