PLEASE NOTE: Because I have been obsessed with Star Wars for most of my life, and can talk about it at incredible length, this review is long. Very long. But it is also very SPOILER FREE. You’re welcome.
I am a Star Wars nut and I liked The Phantom Menace. There, I said it. In my defense though, most of the other hardcore fans spewing out of midnight screenings back in 1999 once felt the same, heads a-buzzing from the simple fact that for the first time in nearly two decades we had new Star Wars streaming into our eyeballs. Of course once that shiny newness wore off mere hours (or even minutes) later, it dawned on us that besides for the all-encompassing badass awesomeness of Darth Maul, and the delirious orchestral masterpiece that is composer John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates”, Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace was essentially creator/writer/director/Supreme Flannel Overlord George Lucas wiping his green-screened rear end with your nostalgia in the one hand and piles of money in the other.
And so, 16 years later, I walked into Star Wars: The Force Awakens with expectations that may have been edging towards the hopeful positive, but were still very much tempered by crushing prior disappointment. But when I exited that cinema 135 minutes later, I found myself once again caught up in that roaring sense of euphoria and propulsive imagination that Star Wars has given me since I accidentally discovered it as an 8-year old kid back in 1989 (whomever you are, video store clerk who accidentally gave my older brother a VHS copy of Star Wars instead of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, you’re a saint!). Except this time, that undiluted glee was not only well and truly earned, it was unequivocally here to stay. To paraphrase one of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s most famous lines: this is the Star Wars movie we’ve been looking for!
Director/writer JJ Abrams, co-writer Lawrence Kasdan and all the folks over at Lucasfilm and Disney have (mostly) done a superb job of selling The Force Awakens during its marketing campaign as a stellar return to form for the world’s most popular sci-fi franchise, without really divulging any spoilers; and so I’ll follow suit. I will eventually do an in-depth follow-up post to truly unpack the film’s narrative and what it means for the greater mythology, but for now I’m just going to skirt all the narrative reveals – and trust me, the film has its fair share of jaw-droppers – as well as anything other than minor character details.
As a respective life-long fan and an original co-creator of this romantic universe, Abrams and Kasdan feel as strongly as the rest of us did about the abject failure of the Prequel Trilogy, and thus take on the monumentally unenviable task here of rekindling what worked so brilliantly the first time around, while also modernizing this almost sacrosanct mythos. And they succeed wildly. The return to practical sets and incredible puppetry alone yields instant results – without a doubt this feels like Star Wars should, from the wonderfully realized tactile alien creatures to the grungy retro-future-chic set design (so much so that I half expected to see Ralph McQuarrie’s Force-Ghost hovering in the background).
From a pure aesthetics level, Abrams’ effort wholly occupies that same magical creative space as the originals without feeling forced or contrived. It’s that same oxymoron of the fantastically-believable which made us all want to explore and live in this universe as kids. But a world is only as good as the characters that inhabit it – or more specifically the actors who play those characters – and here Abrams and co have hit the jackpot, as their cast endear, intrigue, engage and evoke emotion from the opening frames to the last.
As Rey, the dusty scavenger with dreams of adventure eking out a living on the desert planet of Jakku, Daisy Ridley is a revelation, fiercely capable and instantly likeable. So too is John Boyega’s Finn, a Stormtrooper in the First Order – the militarized remnants of the evil Empire – who undergoes a crisis of allegiance. He’s an immediate fan-favourite with his hilarious off-the-cuff banter and palpable sense of honour, with the emotional and entertaining chemistry between Finn and Rey just crackling off the screen.
Oscar Isaac’s ace Resistance X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron is also roguish charm personified, and somehow ball-droid BB-8 is even cuter than expected, a definite Christmas stocking stuffer if there’s ever been one. But of the franchise newcomers, it’s Adam Driver’s villainous Kylo Ren who will leave the biggest impression. Arguably the best villain the franchise has had other than Darth Vader, Kylo Ren possesses the raw physical threat and just plain cool bad boy appeal of Darth Maul, but is more than just a catchy mask and trademark lightsaber. There’s a real tragedy underpinning all that malice and Driver sells it incredibly well.
And all of this fresh-faced appeal is bolstered by greatly spirited returns by the original trio: Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Carrie Fisher as
Princess General Leia and, of course, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. Abrams deftly handles the on-screen arrivals of these icons, with a masterful flair for both the dramatic and nostalgic. It’s Ford who has the bulk of the load to carry though, and the 73-year old doesn’t disappoint as he barely skips a beat returning to his rogue starship captain ways with the ever-loveable Chewwbacca at his side. Fisher now has a much more stately role, but underneath all the new wrinkles and diplomacy, that fiery spark clearly still exists. And Hamill… well, the less revealed about his role the better, but lets just say that Skywalker makes a masterful appearance.
With a perfectly poignant passing of the torch from the old generation to the new, The Force Awakens doesn’t just lay the ground work for an epic new adventure, but lets the new leads immediately earn that same “old friends that I want to hang out with” appeal that Luke, Leia and Han once, and still continue to exhibit.
In that regard and many others, The Force Awakens betters with aplomb all of Lucas’ attempts at expansive mythology in the Prequel Trilogy. It is a film that succeeds at both the micro and macro level: Heartfelt familial drama without devolving into sketchy soap operatics; endearing romance minus the painfully wooden and overwrought soppiness; rip-roaring heroics with heroes you genuinely want to cheer for; and all interspersed with eye-popping, technologically gifted widescreen action set pieces that put to shame most other films you’ve seen this year (don’t worry, Mad Max: Fury Road, you’re still the gold standard).
Abrams doesn’t just engineer these action beats masterfully from a purely logistical perspective though, but makes full use of the cinematographical advantages garnered from IMAX 3D to produce rollicking, roller-coaster sequences that has to be experienced first hand on the premium, preferred format for yourself to be believed. Special mention has to be made though of a single static shot of a Star Destroyer – probably the best thing I’ve ever seen achieved with IMAX 3D – that for the few seconds it hung on-screen seemingly dwarfed not just the cinema but my entire existence.
And linking all these visual masterstrokes is a story that begins – as these things so often do – with a simple quest that turns into an exhilarating epic, building palpably on the foundations of what came before by exploring themes of destiny and family and the dichotomous clarion call of power over both, while also setting the scene for some truly massive tales.
As much as I can gush over the film though, it’s most definitely not perfect, with its biggest sin stemming from its biggest achievement. In their quest to recapture the glory of the Original Trilogy, Abrams and Kasdan also find themselves hemmed into certain creative choices that feel like they’re playing it safe and just giving fans more of what they know they love, instead of just creating and risking another Phantom Menace.
The Star Wars universe has given us some of the most imaginative, fully realized landscapes we’ve ever seen on-screen, but here we’re instead treated to an almost “greatest hits” tribute, as once again we touch down on a sandy desertscape, an ice-encrusted planet and an arboreal panorama. The film is also filled with several clearly signposted homages to the original narrative, and while most of them work brilliantly by setting up scenarios that expertly toy with audience expectations and our sense of nostalgia, a select few of them are just too on the nose, with a 3rd act battle plan in particular appearing rather silly in its repetitive predictability.
And while The Force Awakens is stuffed with numerous moments of cinematic magnificence, the film has the occasional tendency to rush between them with an unforgiving breathlessness, forgetting that it was the quieter, personal moments of the original that wove that sense of unquantifiable magic into the tapestry, just as much as it was all the pew-pew laser-sword action theatrics. Luckily, its pacing problems are somewhat salved by the fact that the action is staged so well, that you really don’t mind just getting to that next set piece as much as you might have.
There also happens to be a slightly-stronger-than-I-would-have-liked sense of deus ex machina, especially when the story seemingly randomly digresses to introduce Lupita Nyongo’s Maz Kanata (though it does give Abrams the opportunity to school Lucas on how to create a fully CG character that is not only wonderfully realized physically, but which meesa don’t want to strangle bombad).
But even with those gaffes, it’s undeniable just what an achievement Star Wars: The Force Awakens truly is. Very few sequels have ever been created under the pressure that it was, but luckily Lucasfilm have churned out a diamond here. Slightly flawed, yes, but one that not only shines brightly enough in a year that has already been filled with other unexpected sequel gems (Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed) to rise to the top, but also one that sets an incredibly strong foundation on which to build the future of this much beloved franchise.
It may not have the magically measured pacing or creatively unrestrained world building of the original Star Wars and its even more lauded followup, Empire Strikes Back, but with its incredible casting (young and old), bold visual flourishes, and massively successful return to its filmmaking roots there’s no denying one simple fact: The Force is very strong with this one.
Last Updated: December 19, 2015