Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (spoiler free review)

SW_TFA

Directed by J.J. Abrams

Starring Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Issac, Domhnall Gleason, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis

Absconding First Order Stormtrooper Finn gets caught up in a mission to get secret information to the Resistance, meeting scavenger Rey and pilot Poe Dameron along the way. Their meeting with a veteran smuggler puts them at the centre of a galactic (and personal) conflict.

Like many in the audience for Star Wars: The Force Awakens on opening day (17 December in the UK), I have had a long association with this saga from a galaxy far, far away. At the age of 10, my tiny mind was blown by the original Star Wars, and it remains my sentimental favourite of all seven movies, despite the objective knowledge that The Empire Strikes Back is probably the better film. By the age of 16, I was too old to enjoy the antics of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, although there is much about that trilogy finale that I still appreciate to this day.

By the time of the prequels, it amused me that with the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999 my own son was, at age 9, almost the same age I had been when the original was released. Thanks to my journalistic career, I was not only on the set in Australia for Episodes II and III, but also interviewed cast and crew (including George Lucas), and first saw the movies in the magnificent theatre at Skywalker Ranch in the company of the director. I admit, that experience may have influenced my view of those movies (and having rewatched them recently, Attack of the Clones is pretty poor, with Revenge of the Sith holding up rather better).

And so, to The Force Awakens, the first Star Wars movie since 1983 I’ve seen virtually spoiler free. There is no doubting that director J.J. Abrams has recaptured the spirit and feel of the original trilogy, but he has done so (along with co-writers Lawrence Kasdan—who also worked on Empire and Jedi—and Michael Arndt) by making little more than a greatest hits package, cherry-picking the best remembered bits of the original trilogy and reconceptualising them in a variety of clever ways. As he’s shown with Super 8 (2011) and Star Trek (2009), Abrams is a master of pastiche, but he seems to be little more than that.

For the first half hour or 40 minutes, there is great fun to be had in enjoying the echoes and callbacks to the original films in the situations, characters and even specific lines of dialogue. The new characters—Poe, Finn, and Rey—are introduced in a chain of narrative connections that works very well, and each actor is ideal for their roles, making them instantly their own. The attributes of the original heroes—Luke, Han, Leia—have been redistributed among these new characters (some have more than one) in surprising and interesting ways.

The old characters are all cleverly re-introduced (and not all are human). Han and Chewie’s entrance is especially well done, and the re-connection of Han and Leia is handled with some maturity. C-3PO makes perhaps the best entrance, a master of (bad) timing and (un-self aware) comedy, as ever. It is a shame that R2-D2 is criminally underused, his place having been usurped by beach ball shaped newcomer BB-8, and unfortunately the original charming droid doesn’t get his ‘hero moment’ as seen in each of the other films.

The problems largely come in the film’s second half, when it is clear that this ‘greatest hits’ package had little new to offer and the film begins to feel overburdened by the past. It is a wonderful celebration of all that has gone before, but little more than that (it appears that it is being left to the subsequent films in this new trilogy to forge a new path). It’s hard not to feel let down by this, and especially by the way the character of Luke Skywalker is deployed. When it is clear that the ultimate climax is to be a bigger, flashier repeat of the climaxes of Star Wars and Return of the Jedi, even Han Solo making meta self-aware jokes about the situation cannot save it.

In keeping with the original intentions of George Lucas, The Force Awakens extends the family saga elements of Star Wars. While there is a battle waging for the future of the galaxy, the real emotional effect of the movie comes down to family, and fathers and sons especially. As with so many things in The Force Awakens, this aspect is a reversal of what we have seen before, although the conflicted would-be villainous figure of Kylo Ren is no Darth Vader—it takes more than a few temper tantrums to match the impact of the original dark lord.

There are other disappointments (Serkis’s Supreme Leader Snoke has escaped from Harry Potter; Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata is no Yoda), but at its heart The Force Awakens is great fun. It has remembered what the prequels often forgot: the Star Wars galaxy is an exciting place to spend time in. Abrams brings the audience the clash of good and evil, where the stakes are massive and intimate. He re-awakens a galaxy teaming with bizarre alien life, characters that have moments of humour amid the sturm-und-drang, and he reconnects this film with those who were first enraptured by Star Wars at an early age.

That, alone, however is not enough. There are certainly threads here that will be expanded upon, and some major mysteries yet to be revealed, but on first impressions The Force Awakens doesn’t do enough that is original to make it stand upon its own two feet without the support of unearned audience nostalgia.

Verdict: The Force Awakens is a good film, and certainly great fun, but it isn’t a great film—and that’s a great shame. 7/10

Brian J. Robb

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