Film review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

by James Robins / 17 December, 2015
Film critic James Robins heads once again to a galaxy far, far away to see if the Force is strong with the new man at the helm, JJ Abrams.
Films are rated out of 5: (abysmal) to ••••• (amazing).

Star Wars
Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Spoiler alert: Contains some plot details.

In 1977, as word spread that George Lucas’ Star Wars was the must-see movie of that summer, Sir Alec Guinness went on the talk show Parkinson. Asked by the host what drew the great stage thespian to star in an apparently schlocky fantasy, Guinness noted that the script’s dialogue was “pretty ropey, but I had to go on turning the page”.

“[It has] a marvellous, healthy innocence, great pace, wonderful to look at … no horrors, no sleazy sex and a sort of wonderful freshness to it … People are going to read too much into it. It’s simple stuff for all ages.”

There, in those few sentences, Sir Alec captured what makes the original Star Wars trilogy so astonishingly, edge-of-the-seat entertaining over repeat visits. It is simple pulp science-fiction shot with frenetic energy and dazzling special effects informed not by historical moralism or even tangible human struggles but old archetypes of battles between good and evil clearly defined – a timeless fable that enchants our imagination.

Thankfully, The Force Awakens honours this central idea, sticking very precisely to a formula that has borne so many doting fans, hopefully banishing from their memories Lucas’ bloated, poorly-acted prequels, squished in the Death Star’s trash-compactor.

The opening title sequence, with its iconic golden text and John Williams’ even more iconic theme music, swells over you like a comforting blanket. Director JJ Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (who also wrote the two best Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) rely heavily on this all-enveloping feeling of nostalgia, the weight of the original trilogy forming so much of The Force Awakens’ otherwise rather thin narrative.

Thirty years on from the defeat of the Empire, we meet our two heroes. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a scavenger on a desolate desert planet living in the wreck of an AT-AT Walker – those monstrous long-legged weapons –  staring off into the sunset (as Luke Skywalker once did) wearing a battered old Rebel pilot’s helmet. She’s heard about the mythology of the Jedi, the great battles which took place before her time.

High above the planet, stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) is having a crisis of conscience about the First Order, an evil organisation that rose from the ashes of the Empire. Rey and Finn meet up and narrowly escape the clutches of our villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), taking with them a droid that has vital information stored inside it. Sound familiar?

Swiftly, we’re introduced to what feel like old friends: Harrison Ford as roguish smuggler Han Solo and his co-pilot Chewbacca, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, the Millennium Falcon, X-Wings and Tie Fighters. There are lovely nods to old props and plenty of self-reverential jokes.

Indeed, much of the film’s plot feels somewhat secondary to the welcome re-treading of old settings and relationships. Familiar planet landscapes are revisited (snow, forest, sand etc), the Mos Eisley cantina scene given a retrofit. Ford and Fisher’s tender encounters carry some hefty emotional punch, made all the more bittersweet by a central twist in the story.

Crammed between recurring stars are new characters, some more rounded than others. Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis and Gwendoline Christie are mere bit-players, while Lupita Nyong’o’s delicate voice is lent to a charmingly rendered alien who helpfully steers one character towards The Force.

The astonishing newcomer here is Adam Driver’s Ren. A helmeted, caricatured villain to begin with, the moment of his unmasking is revelatory and inventive. Driver brings a palpably sinister edge to the role, vulnerable and humanised in ways Darth Vader (more machine than man, remember) ever could be.

As if in compensation, Abrams doubles down on the latent Nazi imagery awarded to the Empire in the original trilogy. One sequence, in which the First Order tests their superweapon, is shot with more than a knowing glance at Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous propaganda piece Triumph of the Will.

A personal disappointment is the starfighter dogfights. George Lucas pilfered unashamedly from World War II films like Battle of Britain, but this aesthetic goes largely unhonoured – more video game than historical homage, and somewhat marginalised given the principal role pilots played in A New Hope and Return of the Jedi.

Many questions remain at the film’s close, leaving plenty of room for our new heroes to expand outside the nostalgic framing of The Force Awakens. We now, as Sir Alec Guinness put it at the beginning of this immense saga, “go on turning the page”.

Abrams and Kasdan have conjured up a thrilling and entertaining addition to the Star Wars canon that indulges every fibre of a universe that has been such a presence in the lives of its fans. There is no better testament to the power of these stories than having Abrams, a fan himself, restore our beloved space-opera to a sacrosanct corner reserved for cinematic marvels.

Above all else, this feels like Star Wars ought to. It feels like being a kid again, grinning from ear to ear. ••••


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