I know of nothing guaranteed to stir excitement in a cinema audience like the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” followed by the yellow words Star Wars emblazoned over outer space, accompanied by the familiar blast of John Williams’ magnificent, pulse-pounding fanfare. It is the cue for a million heroic childhood dreams, and now a rite of passage passed on from generation to generation. Only the opening gun-barrel of the James Bond franchise comes close to capturing that truly extraordinary, impossibly thrilling sense that anything could happen.
Of course, the original Star Wars changed the course of cinema in ways unlike any other movie before or since. The initial sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, were similarly groundbreaking and are beloved by so many that they have attained near mythological status. Then came the prequels, and with them crushing disappointment at what might have been. With George Lucas selling Lucasfilm (and therefore the Star Wars franchise) to Disney, The Force Awakens, arrives with a weight of expectation unprecedented in cinema history. Surely this film cannot possibly deliver in the outstanding way the first movies did?
The answer is of course not. The original film was lightning in a bottle; a landmark in cinema that divided film history into two distinct epochs BC/AD style, ie before and after Star Wars. The Force Awakens cannot possibly repeat that trick, but it is – I am pleased to report – for the most part an enjoyable continuation of the Star Wars story, and certainly a vast improvement on the much maligned prequels.
Director JJ Abrams has so far managed to keep the plot entirely under wraps, so I am not going to discuss story specifics in this review. Instead, I will merely state that this looks and feel like an authentic Star Wars picture. The screenplay (by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt) skillfully strips back the excesses of the prequels and returns to basics, delivering a streamlined, thrill-ride packed with excitement and adventure, albeit one that relies too heavily on nostalgia and plot beats reminiscent of the original film. In some cases, particularly towards the end, unfavourable comparisons with major Star Wars set pieces are invited, with one battle in particular lacking the nail-biting tension of it’s counterpart in the original film. That said, Abrams and co inject just enough originality, mystery, and intriguing plot threads that set up the next film to get away with the more blatant moments of homage/rehash (depending on how charitable one feels). Additionally, it is worth mentioning the film is surprisingly funny in places, which always helps.
The new characters are certainly far more engaging than those introduced in the prequels, though still loosely sketched enough to leave one craving deeper development in subsequent films. Said characters are depicted by Daisy Ridley, playing desert planet scavenger Rey, John Boyega, as AWOL stormtrooper Finn, Oscar Isaac, as daring X-wing fighter pilot Poe Dameron, and best of all Adam Driver’s splendid new villain Kylo Ren, whose character is easily the most three-dimensional and intriguing. Able support is provided by the likes of Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, Lupita Nyong’o, Max von Sydow and Andy Serkis, with series regulars Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2-D2) and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) returning, as well as the original big three: Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Harrison Ford (Han Solo) and Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker – whose absence from all publicity material underscores a critical element of the plot). Han gets a very big role in this movie, with his character arc proving surprisingly pivotal. Oh – and there’s a really cool new droid in the form of BB-8, who looks set to become as iconic as his robotic predecessors.
Speaking of BB-8, it goes without saying that the special effects are first-rate, with Abrams relying largely on old-school models for the spaceships, prosthetics and puppetry for the monsters and aliens, and CGI sparingly, where no practical alternative is feasible. Visually this returns to the clean lines and simple but effective designs of the original saga, and the resultant movie is an absolute joy to look at. The film is also a feast for the ears, with iconic Star Wars sound effects guru Ben Burtt present and correct, and John Williams revisiting and expanding his musical masterpiece in fresh and fulfilling ways. It hardly needs saying but for goodness sake see this on the biggest screen possible.
The popularity of the Star Wars saga has often been attributed to its universally relatable themes. Certainly those themes are further explored here, including unlikely heroism, sacrifice, and how the mistakes of older generations can affect the younger. In one sense, The Force Awakens is about the choice between good and evil. At key points in the film, one character chooses to make a stand for what is right, whilst another deliberately chooses evil.
It is worth reiterating that Star Wars isn’t really science fiction at all, as these themes have always been more akin to its cousin genre fantasy. Lucas’s original guiding concept was “space fantasy” and there has always been an argument that Star Wars is essentially The Lord of the Rings in space. Certainly The Force Awakens remains true to this dynamic, and as such it would appear the future of the franchise is in good hands.
Ultimately The Force Awakens does exactly what it needs to: provide a joyful, satisfying, occasionally exhilarating adventure story for the entire family to enjoy. It could never be the groundbreaking movie that the original film was, but despite an overreliance on nostalgia, it is the must-see blockbuster for the festive season.