It’s safe to say that over the last three years, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has redefined the meaning of the word ‘fanfare’. No film has garnered this much attention, inspired this much zeitgeist-baiting hyperbole or – most crucially of all – been under this much pressure to not just succeed (this is a foregone conclusion), but to actually be good since, well, The Phantom Menace. And we know how that turned out.
Pivotally, so do JJ Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, Kathleen Kennedy et al. Right from the Saving Private Ryan-in-space opening, which expands on the Stormtrooper landing sequence seen in the very first teaser, the stall is set out to be nothing at all like the prequel trilogy. Gone are the CGI omnishambles, mundane side-plots and wooden acting (well, mostly) of the originals; in its place is something infinitely more simple, and most vitally, far more Star Wars.
As if to hammer this home, the core plot is so much like A New Hope that it seems as though Abrams hasn’t so much set out his stall as he has plonked it right on the front lawn of Skywalker Ranch. All the familiar character traits are there, only in a different order: scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) combines the curious restlessness of A New Hope-era Luke with the take-no-shit ballsiness of Leia, and dashing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is part Han Solo, part Obi-Wan Kenobi in his whipsmart, WW1 fighter pilot derring-do.
Amid all this, however, there are wild cards, foremost of which is Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega). By turns bemused/horrified onlooker and determined have-a-go hero, he is possibly the first character in Star Wars history to truly capture the wide-eyed awe and wonder that we as viewers feel. He is also the best thing about the film, his note-perfect comic timing and scarily relateable reactions impressing in an entirely different way from his scenery-skewing Moses in Attack The Block. Near enough every scene of his is a highlight in some form – which is high praise indeed, considering that a great many of them are shared with Harrison Ford.
Ah, Han Solo. Out of all the old timers, he and Chewbacca easily get the most screen time, and it’s as if they’ve never been away. Han and Leia were the original romantic coupling, but he and Chewie were the original married couple, and this is carried on here – they bicker together, fight together, and ultimately look out for each other. There was never any danger of there being any shortage of heart in The Force Awakens, but after all this time, the two are still the saga’s warm, beating centre, with even Chewbacca revealing all-new layers to his personality.
From there on, all the familiar story beats are present: hero on a mission, a crucial droid, a surprise saviour, destruction on a huge scale, a mysterious villain, and a convergence of all of the above that ends up having galaxy-spamming ramifications. This is clearly a deliberate attempt to avoid the factors that have been deemed in the past to have adversely impacted on the saga, and as it turns out, this willfully slavish devotion to Star Wars‘ best moments is both a strength and a weakness.
Without spoiling things, there is a lot that is recognisable about The Force Awakens – almost too recognisable, as it sometimes turns out. Basing large parts of a story’s framework on a classic piece of cinema isn’t a bad idea, but to a degree a lot of tension is lost as a result. Even when the stakes are raised and the danger is made as evident as possible, the ending is never really in any doubt. What’s here is still as purely entertaining in essence as anything we’ve seen on the big screen this year, but at times it feels as though things are being played that bit too safe. Once you’ve dialled things up to 11, it’s difficult to see where things can go after that.
For all the structural similarities, however, this is recognisably an Abrams film. His wide-eyed capering and wry yet sincere scripting proves to be a good fit for Star Wars, homaging its more wide-eyed elements without taking the piss outright. Han and Chewie are a particularly good fit for this style, their disdain and amusement at the antics of those around proving to be yet another highlight.
Yet, as Star Trek fans discovered, Abrams isn’t afraid to rock the fanboy boat, and some Star Wars fans will undoubtedly be left feeling the same as their Starfleet counterparts did at some the developments in the 2009 reboot. Let’s just say the status quo has been altered, and not everybody will like the changes.
Another facet of the film that will likely prove divisive is the performance of Daisy Ridley as Rey. With minimal TV credits to her name compared to her mainly acclaimed and award-winning cast mates, leading what will likely become the highest grossing film of all time is a massive ask, but she pulls it off – just. After an awkward start and some stumbling line delivery (in fairness over questionable dialogue) she gradually comes into her own, thankfully leaving Hayden Christensen territory far behind. She’s not note-perfect by any means, but there’s definitely something about her that allows her casting to make sense.
Also likely to provoke debate is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. Although there’s nothing wrong with Driver’s performance, which combines the softly spoken mannerisms and drop-of-a-hat mania of his Girls persona to great effect, his back story is given nowhere near enough attention to warrant the kind of investment his character requires. In a sense, this problem extends to the rest of the film – much is left vague and unexplained, to be disclosed at a future point. He’s definitely a unique Star Wars villain, but it remains to be seen whether he becomes a classic one.
Elsewhere among the cast, mixed fortunes are enjoyed. After an explosive introduction, Oscar Isaac goes missing for large interludes – which is a shame, because whenever he does appear he’s brilliant. Lupita Nyong’o is similarly evasive, showing up for an extended cameo before seemingly being forgotten about entirely, although fellow CGI creation Supreme Leader Snoke (an unrecognisable Andy Serkis) is a memorably chilling creation during his various interjections.
Conversely, anyone hoping that Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma would be the saga’s first truly formidable female villain will be sorely disappointed (she’s barely in it), and Domhnall Gleeson’s characterisation as General Hux feels misjudged somehow, aiming for Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin but somehow landing on spitty shouty-ness along the way.
The robotic characters are similarly divided in their impact on the film. For all the cooing he inspired in the lead-up, beach-ball droid BB-8 is essentially a maguffin – albeit a cute and loveable one at that. Meanwhile, old mechs C-3P0 and R2-D2 are disarmingly welcome when they show up – even if the latter’ contribution is all-too brief (although vital as always).
All the elements exist for a truly great Star Wars film – not necessarily in the right order, but they are present. The closest touchstone we can recall for The Force Awakens is Jurassic World: it’s so recognisably of its universe that even if you don’t agree with the choices that have been made on its way to the big screen, you will note that not only has it been put together by someone with the saga’s interests clearly at heart, but you will feel something.
Indeed, perhaps The Force Awakens‘ greatest achievement is its capacity to have you thinking things over long after the final credits have rolled. Even if it isn’t the greatest Star Wars film ever, it’s almost certainly the most affecting of them all. It knows what its audience wants, and duly delivers in spades, emphatically bringing the sense of wonder back to the saga. In short, Star Wars has returned, and strong in the Force it is.
Watch our video review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens here.