A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a Californian filmmaker named George Lucas created the most successful and enduring film franchise of all time. Star Wars changed the movie landscape like nothing before or since. Over 38 years since the first instalment it is back with the most highly-anticipated release in cinema history, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m not revealing any massive plot points, but still: READ NO FURTHER IF YOU WANT TO AVOID ALL SPOILERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
OK. It is with great pleasure and a little relief that I can say The Force Awakens is a brilliant film. Fast, funny, melodramatic and shiver-inducingly exciting, it is everything you would want a new Star Wars to be.
Three decades have passed since the demise of the second Death Star and the Galactic Empire, and a new power has risen in its place. The First Order is intent on destroying all opposition to gain complete control of the galaxy; this means hunting down the last Jedi, the long-disappeared Luke Skywalker. Led by General Hux and heir-to-Vader Commander Kylo Ren from Starkiller Base, they are sending troops far and wide in a search of a droid who may hold the key to Luke’s whereabouts.
That droid falls into the hands of Rey, a poor scavenger on the arid planet Jakku. She has a chance meeting with renegade Stormtrooper Finn, and they must balance their personal missions with a new responsibility to protect their charge. Assistance comes in the form of Resistance pilot Poe Dameron and a few older, experienced heads; before building an opposition to the Order, this group must protect their own lives and unite with each other.
At the heart of Star Wars have always been human, empathetic characters. In this regard the new arrivals are stellar. Daisy Ridley as Rey goes straight into the frontline of great fantasy performances. She is smart, brave, honourable, and has a depth to her character that creates a strong emotional bond with the audience. From her brilliant, largely wordless first scene scavenging across unforgiving desert, we are on her side. In her first screen role Ridley gives a performance that is somehow both fierce and charming. John Boyega plays Finn to his considerable strengths – he is a fountain of nervous energy, full of quips and quivers, and is everything a Stormtrooper shouldn’t be. Boyega spoke with pride about bringing his South London roots to the world’s biggest film series; one moment in particular feels as if it has been written with this in mind. It proves what should’ve been clear all along, that the immense space of the galaxy contains intriguing folk of all shapes and sizes, and they all deserve to feel the Force.
If this sounds too happy, fear not; fear is the path to the Dark Side once more. Kylo Ren, played with gusto by Adam Driver, is a more than worthy successor to Vader. Driver’s voice has a note of darkness running through it – you believe that sound is coming from that masked body. For all that Darth Maul was Episode I’s most memorable menace, the psychological complexity was elsewhere. Here both the evil and the self-doubt exist within the same cowled figure.
The dialogue is much improved from both the originals and the unmentioned prequels – there is far less of people announcing where are about to walk, largely because Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt know when to shut up. Early scenes of characters wandering across desolate landscape have distinct loneliness to them – they need the battles to come back just like we do. It also combines grand spectacle with real action. The original films were brilliantly creative with special effects in establishing a believable galaxy. Abrams has the opposite problem – now you can make anything with CGI, how do you make the right things? By centring the actions of his protagonists, he makes the ships and swords act for them.
There is a light debt to the fantasy cinema from the barren, Force-less years. Youthful, talented sprites guided against evil by wisened old hands recalls Harry Potter. The isolated, spirit-against-nature of the opening half hour reminds of Wall-E, while the humour has echoes of Jurassic Park and Guardians Of The Galaxy (if you want to make the comparison, TFA is a MUCH better film than Guardians). These inspirations are all complicated though, as they themselves gained so much from Episodes IV-VI. Some reviews have knocked TFA as derivative; if anything has earned the right to be so, surely it is Star Wars. Thankfully Abrams and his team have left out the dumb caricatures and tedious waffle about tax regulations that plagued Episodes I-III.
Ultimately though TFA plunders its own heritage more than anything else. The respect is a canny one; Abrams knowsa lightsaber is still a thrilling sight but needs a new twist. BB-8 is a delightful companion for R2-D2, and a bot of great importance to the plot of TFA. In a post-The Lego Movie world, it can be both a best-selling toy and an interesting character. Han and Leia are back, and not in walk-on parts but with proper roles. Abrams himself has said it best – if you’re going to do a western there will be a cowboy, some horses, a villain dressed in black. If you’re going to do Star Wars, there are certain buttons that you have to hit.
For all the lightsabers, hyperspace and gadgetry that are the baubles on the Star Wars tree, one of the best scenes is founded on discussion. Several key figures are stood around a table working out their next move (vague to avoid spoilers!), and in the space of a couple of minutes we hear from characters of different genders, ages and even species. Each speaker has something of worth to say, and their opinion is considered by the others in the room. It shows how, for all the Force is stronger in some than others, it can only prosper when people work together. The contrast with the hierarchy of the First Order is clear – every action they take is done in fear of a chain of command.
I’m glad I feel churlish for picking faults – a sign of really enjoying a film – and fortunately the quibbles are minor. There are SO many characters that a couple feel underwritten. The supercilious Captain Phasma gets scant screen time for an actor of Gwendoline Christie’s talents, while Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux is too much shrill, too little substance. I would have liked to see more of the dashing Poe Dameron, partly because Isaac is such an assured, natural actor. Also, see it in 2D – there’s enough going on without also dealing with the stereoscopy. Space is the setting and not, as in Gravity, the story, and the light loss of 3D glasses is not helpful for an occasionally dark film.
Does it feel like history is repeating itself? Yes, it does. But since Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, the real world has seen a father fight a devastating, explosive war in a distant territory, and then his son do the same not long afterwards. A jocular husband led their opposition, and soon his wife will do the same. One nihilistic death cult intent on destroying all who don’t fall in line has taken the place of another. Some allies have eagerly joined in, while others refrain. These comparisons are sweeping, but that does not make them false or unworthy. If some patterns repeat in Star Wars, fair enough – they surely do in life.
We are left not so much hanging from a cliff as standing upon one; our footing is sure, but the future is uncharted territory. And the view; well, the view is marvellous.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is out now, screening just about anywhere with electricity and a screen. Churches could reverse diminishing parish numbers this festive season by putting it on before and after mass. Get yourself to see it, and join in the conversation.