Following Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012, it was apparent that we would soon be inundated with new Star Wars material. The Force Awakens is the first film in a cycle of one-a-year offerings that we should all settle into over the next thirty of forty years or until Disney has squeezed every penny out of its $4billion investment. After a break of ten years, we’re not likely to want new Star Wars movies for a considerable time, like it or not.
Turning to director JJ Abrams, Disney have made a shrewd, if obvious, move to hire the man who breathed new life into the Star Trek franchise. After the horrible mess of George Lucas’s prequels, Abrams is seen not only as the steady hand at the tiller, but a capable fanboy with an understanding of what attracted people to these movies in the first place. The message that we can take from his hiring is that this will be a return to what made the originals fun and a conscious effort to return to classic Star Wars.
So have Disney made the right decision and does The Force Awakens feel like Star Wars? I’ll attempt to weigh-in on the movie without divulging any plot points. Disney were at pains to explain I would face extermination by catapult should I leak anything approaching a spoiler, so fingers crossed and here goes.
My initial reaction was The Force Awakens looks and feels like a proper Star Wars movie; a step away from the flat, CGI-heavy dross of the prequels back to the quaint charm of the originals. From the title crawl, which unlike The Phantom Menace is perfectly coherent, followed by the initial silhouetted shot of a Star Destroyer slicing through eerie glow of a planet, this feels like a series back on solid ground.
Thirty years on from the destruction of the second Death Star, Luke Skywalker is noticeable by his absence as the fascistic First Order, heir to the Galactic Empire, searches for signs of his whereabouts and seeks to destroy the Resistance. On the desert wasteland of Jakku, scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) ekes out an existence living in the ruins of a toppled AT-AT, trading scrap metal for food. She has a chance meeting with the roly-poly droid BB8 who has been sent on a mission by his owner Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a pilot with the Resistance, to deliver data to its headquarters. The pair then runs into Finn (John Boyega) a deserter from the First Order seeking to escape his employment and make amends for his minor role in the Order’s slaughter of a peaceful tribe.
In another shrewd move, Disney has brought back Lawrence Kasdan, co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and Michael Arndt to wrestle the emphasis away from technological spectacle to cogent storytelling. The move, for the most part, pays off. The new characters, Finn and Rey, crackle with a kind of flawed humanity that was missing in most of the characters present in the prequels. Boyega plays his wild, often terrified, former solider with an uneasy sense of bravado, desperate to make an impression on his new comrades. His wisecracks lack the laconic charm of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), but he makes up for it with puppyish enthusiasm. Ridley gets a little less to work with. Her Rey is more stoic and lonely, but her back and forth with Boyega as they stumble from one mess to another is cute fun and taps right into the childish sense of adventure that’s been sorely missing from the franchise for years.
Hot on their heels is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) the force-sensitive former leader of the Knights of Ren and apparent co-leader of the First Order under the tutelage of the enigmatic Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Driver’s emotionally vulnerable antagonist is the stand-out of the new film. In awe of the deceased Darth Vader, Ren is part malevolent protégée, part rebellious problem child prone to destructive fits of anger in front of his subordinates and played by Driver with a real sense of conflict. A very late scene, the details of which I will not divulge, ranks as a high point across the entire seven film series thanks, in part, to Driver’s torn sense of rage and despair.
The chief flaw of the movie, and the film does contain flaws, is a sense that Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt are paying too much in the way of fan service to the original film. There are so many call-backs that at times one feels as though one is watching the first film over again. Disappointingly, the plot hits all the same major story beats as Lucas’s 1977 original and, after all this time, it’s a frustrating conundrum that Disney did not lock-down a more imaginative script before heading into production.
It’s not enough to derail the movie, or knock the sense that we’re back on track here, but The Force Awakens does feel slightly like a starter for a main course that won’t arrive for four years. Even so, for the first time in a long time I’m looking forward to the next course.
sci-fi, action, adventure | USA, 2015 | Disney Pictures | 17th December 2015 (UK) | Dir.JJ Abrams | Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Mark Hamill