Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens
JJ Abrams brings Star Wars back to the big screen with The Force Awakens. This entry serves as the next part of the saga following on from Return of the Jedi as well as being a convenient jumping on point for new fans.
This is going to be a difficult one to review as the trailers were very light on plot details and since I’ve committed to keeping my film reviews as spoiler free as possible I also need to be light on plot details. My aim is to give a general sense of whether I liked it or not and I’ll put a spoiler section underneath the rating so those of you who have seen it can read on after that and those of you that haven’t can come back when you have.
I guess the biggest question that will be on the minds of people will be “Is this any good?”. I’d say the answer is a resounding yes. It’s not a flawless masterpiece but it is a good film and a lot of fun to watch. It completely blows the prequels out of the water in terms of quality and reminds everyone what Star Wars can be when George Lucas has minimal involvement in the whole thing.
It’s difficult to say where I would place this if I were to rank this against the other films as I’ve only seen it once but it’d be among the original trilogy somewhere without reaching the top. I don’t think it’s as good as The Empire Strikes Back and time will tell where it stacks in my head compared to the other two.
Daisy Ridley’s Rey serves as the main protagonist which in itself is quite refreshing. She is a strong female character who drives the story wonderfully. Her gender is never an issue, she is simply a character that is to be followed through the film. For those new to the franchise she is well placed to learn about the workings of this universe and receive hints of her place within it so as an audience avatar she’s perfect. Daisy Ridley is great in the role, always coming across as likable and believable without being bogged down with too much exposition about why the audience should be invested. Rey’s actions tell us everything we need to know and Ridley imbues her with a lot of inner strength making her a capable yet reluctant hero.
John Boyega’s Finn serves as almost a secondary protagonist but doesn’t get quite as much focus. He definitely features heavily and what is presented is always interesting but he never overpowers Rey’s story. His origin is compelling and the choices he makes informed by his strong sense of right and wrong keep him interesting. Boyega’s performance is charismatic, energetic and immensely fun to watch. This is a character that is easy to root for as well as warm to.
Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is a really charismatic, hot shot pilot who adds to this exciting ensemble really well. He is in it a fair bit less than some of the other characters but leaves a lasting impression when he does appear. Isaac brings a real sense of fun and integrity to the character that makes me really want to see more of him.
Another fun character is Poe’s Droid BB-8. It’s a really cool design and he is characterised in a way that is distinct from R2-D2 which makes him completely unique. It’s hard getting used to a non speaking character who emotes in non traditional ways but BB8 managed to capture my interest right away and earns his place in the canon.
The new villain of the piece is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and I really can’t say much about him without spoiling the whole thing significantly. Sufficed to say he’s not a simple bad guy that needs to be defeated. He is well developed with clear motivations and an emotional arc that carries through the story. The film gives him the right blend being a badass as well as sympathetic. I did sometimes feel like he was Darth Vader Lite but that’s more down to how excellent a character Darth Vader is rather than any missteps involving Kylo Ren. Living in Vader’s shadow is one of the driving forces of his character so it makes sense that he doesn’t quite measure up. He’s good enough for this film and fits into the new, younger cast really well.
Running backup to Kylo Ren is General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). I won’t say much about these as there isn’t a lot to say about them. Hux is fine as a character but mostly serves as a device to dump exposition. The same problem exists for Snoke who performs the same function. It doesn’t happen too often and much of Snoke’s appearance serves as a setup for the following films.
Many of the old guard of Star Wars characters return with Han Solo (Harrison Ford), General -instead of Princess- Leia (Carrie Fisher), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) propping up the younger cast with the benefit of their experience. To say too much about their involvement would be a spoiler but they each inform the story in different ways and bring their own elements to the table. It’s a blast to see the old guys come back again and the appropriate amount of fan service is granted to give them a good showing.
The story -as much as I’m comfortable discussing anyway- will be familiar to most. So familiar that comparisons to A New Hope are impossible to ignore with several striking similarities in the broad strokes of the narratives. Star Wars has been a pretty cyclical saga up to this point so it’s no surprise to have familiar elements revisited but I had a massive sense of déjà vu at several point. It didn’t detract from my enjoyment too much but I would have preferred that more effort was made to make The Force Awakens its own thing rather than relying on retreading old ground like this.
Rey coming from humble beginnings and being thrust into a much larger world that she finds herself a part of is a good story that is well presented. It is mostly well paced but I found it lagging a little in the second half and parts of the film seemed to stop altogether to serve as setup for future installments. I have nothing against setting up later stuff but I felt myself wanting to get back to the main story a few times.
Thankfully the narrative isn’t plagued by too much exposition. This would have been so easy to do since this film revives a franchise that has been -in live action cinema terms- dormant for around a decade so it’s appreciated that things don’t stop while it’s explained in detail exactly who Han Solo is for instance. For the most part the film supplies the information it needs in an organic way and moves on.
In terms of story at times this feels like a really expensive fan film but I mean that in a complimentary way. There’s a great deal of reverence for the franchise and the Original Trilogy in particular that constantly comes across with affectionate references. JJ Abrams is a fan of Star Wars so it can be allowed to slide and fans of the Original Trilogy will probably enjoy most, if not all, of these references. It’s also very funny when it needs to be with a wonderful sense of comic timing from the entire cast and jokes that land most of the time.
Visually the film is an absolute treat. There’s plenty of fast paced, dynamic and exciting action that continually impresses throughout. The characters are very much part of that action and the emotional investment I had in them made these sequences feel more urgent. Much has been said about the use of practical effects enhanced by CGI for this film which seems to have excited a lot of people. I’m not really someone who sees that as necessarily a good thing as a good set piece is a good set piece as far as I’m concerned. This film is full of them so the effects work has very much paid off in that regard. I loved the location variety and John Williams’ excellent score compliments the whole thing beautifully.
After seeing this I’m glad to say that the Star Wars franchise is off to a good start and this film has accomplished the task of leaving me wanting more. It’s not perfect but it feels like a modern Star Wars film should and pays due respect to its origins. I’m at a point where I can say roll on Episode VIII. Stay tuned after the rating for spoilers!
Now that I’ve given a fairly general overview of what I thought about the film I definitely have enough to say to warrant my rare spoiler section. I’ve done this a couple of times before and feel that it is warranted here. Please don’t read on if you haven’t seen the film as there are some surprises that work really well if going in ignorant. I’ll just use bullet points to discuss them.
- One major surprise in this film will be the reveal that Kylo Ren is actually the son of Han Solo and Leia. There has been a lot of speculation about this character for a while and some even suggested that he might be Luke Skywalker after turning to the Dark Side. Of course that wasn’t the case as the build of the actor in the suit definitely isn’t Mark Hamill. The reveal that he is Han and Leia’s son was an interesting surprise that came at just the right point in the film while being organically built on as it progressed. First it is mentioned that he is Han Solo’s son and then Kylo Ren refers to Darth Vader as his grandfather which tells the audience that Leia is the mother. Audience members not savvy with Star Wars lore are told that she is later but the subtlety around these reveals is very well done. As I understand it, Han and Leia have a son who turns to the Dark Side in the now non canon Expanded Universe so it’s cool to see some of those elements played with.
- Han Solo’s death is another thing that may surprise many people. I wasn’t surprised as I never expected Han to survive this film due to how vocal Harrison Ford has been about wanting this character killed off for decades. Now he definitely gets his wish and it works as part of Kylo Ren’s emotional arc. It’s a dramatic death and a fitting sendoff for the character that definitely has a profound impact.
- Speaking of Kylo Ren’s emotional arc. I really liked how he could feel himself being pulled away from the Dark Side and openly rejects that happening. He wants to remain dark and live up to the example set by Darth Vader. I wonder if he’s aware that Vader redeemed himself by turning back to the Light Side of the Force to save his son. If not then it’ll be interesting to see what happens when he does find that out. I also wonder what caused him to turn and why he is so intent on staying bound to the Dark Side of the Force.
- I mentioned above that comparisons to A New Hope are unavoidable but couldn’t go into detail as to where the most glaring examples are. The whole notion of Daisy starting on a desert planet and being thrown into this massive story through a series of coincidences is practically identical to Luke’s journey in A New Hope. Han Solo takes on the role of the wise mentor figure in this instance and also dies to help further inspire the hero to carry on. Of course there’s also a new Death Star in the form of Starkiller Base that is destroyed in much the same way as the other two. There’s even a recreation of the famous trench run from A New Hope. This isn’t necessarily bad but I would have liked more originality rather than sticking with the same broad strokes. As an aside, the whole attack on Starkiller Base feels like it was a little too easy. The level of jeopardy wasn’t really what it needed to be.
- There were also references to the other films in the Original Trilogy that came across as really glaring. Han Solo’s death was a reminder of the famous reveal that Darth Vader was Luke’s father to the point that it even takes place on an unsafe walkway. Captain Phasma reminded me of Boba Fett in that she’s a cool looking character that didn’t really do anything and Supreme Leader Snoke is definitely a reminder of the Emperor as introduced in The Empire Strikes Back.
- I was also really impressed with the fact that Rey turned out to be the force sensitive Jedi in training figure when all of the marketing pointed to Finn taking on that role. It was abundantly clear from very early on that there was no way he would be the Jedi trainee but there was no way to know that based on the trailers and posters. This could be the first example of a non Jedi using a lightsaber in combat outside of General Grievous who really shouldn’t count.
- Lastly, Luke Skywalker’s involvement has been kept secret before now and it’s easy to see why. Luke only appears in one scene and has absolutely no dialogue. Finding him is the catalyst for the entire story so when Rey is faced with him at the end it gives some payoff to that story but in terms of what happens next we’ll have to wait two years until Episode VIII. I found myself really fascinated by Luke’s appearance as he completely looks like a Jedi master with light coloured robes suggesting that he has reached the absolute zenith of his development. There’s mention of Kylo Ren’s turn to the Dark Side upset him so much that he put himself into exile which suggests that there is a deeper relationship going on there that is yet to be developed. It also seems to be pretty much a given that Rey is his daughter. It’s an effective cliffhanger that left me wanting more and nicely caps off the reintroduction to the older characters without overloading the film with them.
That’s all for my spoiler discussion. There was plenty in there that still can’t be talked about in the main body of the review but I wanted to remark on anyway. It’s good that so much of this film was kept secret right up until release as it makes the experience so much better going in.