Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review
Reviewed by Mark McCullough.
A long time ago in a galaxy not so far away, a franchise known as Star Wars began with a film release in 1977. The brainchild of George Lucas enjoyed enormous success, to the extent that within the next six years two sequels followed completing what is now known as the Original Trilogy (Episodes IV – VI). Fast forward almost another two decades and the next set of films were released over a similar six year period, the Prequel Trilogy (Episode I – III). When episode three aired approximately ten years ago, the story was completed and one of films biggest franchises went to sleep, with the Prequel Trilogy failing to live up to the standards of the Originals.
In 2012, Disney sniffed out a potential cash-cow, taking over LucasFilm in a multimillion dollar deal. In doing so they acquired the rights to produce another three films pulling the ever popular franchise out of its slumber and bringing it back to the big screen. Why is this important? In short this was going to be Star Wars like we had never seen it before, with a new vision and a new style that would be more appealing for the modern entertainment world. That’s all well and good, but another fundamental aspect for the success of the film was always going to be its ability to capture the soul of the franchise and remain true to its roots.
True to its roots it remained and that much was evident from the opening screen bearing what has become an iconic message, and the only way I could have possibly opened this review. Then seconds later that iconic music started blasting and the text began moving up the screen: Star Wars was finally back. Even the most avid of fans at this point must have had some worry that the film would not live up to the considerable hype surrounding it. But that it did through the help of stunning visuals, the first impression of a Star Destroyer being a particular highlight. Not just that but the entire universe is realised to perfection incorporating the range of creatures and droids which have become iconic to the franchise. With the ingredients in place early on, there was still a lot to do.
Who better then to be tasked with reimaging one of the most iconic fictional universes than the wonderful J.J. Abrams, the man behind the recent resurgence of rival franchise (at least in the mind of the ever growing fandoms) Star Trek. I can unequivocally say that Abram’s excels here breathing new life into the series yet still paying homage to its vast history. Even the locations on display within the film pay tribute to what has gone before. We have three planets that are explored in detail: one desert planet (reminiscent of Tatooine which played a massive role in earlier films), another is mountainous and covered in snow, whilst the third unique landscape is a jungle planet. A small touch from the director, but one which is bound to go down a treat with seasoned viewers.
Whilst on the topic of Abrams and his admirable decisions as director, it is worth pointing out his desire to diversify the main cast. Unlike the Star Wars of old, there are no white young male heroes here, and the women are well developed characters with very important roles. It’s extremely encouraging to see a film as big as Star Wars taking an opportunity to make a positive statement like this. Hopefully other films will follow suit. However this does get me onto one of my few disappointments with the film. In the build-up to release much had been teased about Gwendoline Christie and her role as the first female villain of the franchise. Unfortunately she turned out to be a bit part player, and left the audience wanting. Disappointing especially given how her character Captain Phasma had been hyped beforehand.
Where one villain suffers, the other excels. The narrative really has something special in Kylo Ren who delivers a performance on par with, if not better than Darth Vader. With Kylo Ren the characterisation is a lot more diverse than it is with Vader with the motivations driving the character explored in greater detail. Make no mistake, his predecessor’s influence is felt in terms of how the character is written, but with the void left by the absence of the Sith, I would argue there was no better villain to fill it. There are times you’re scared of him, times you hate him, and times you just have to admire him. Perhaps even more admirable is the fact that there are times you even feel sympathy for him, and that in this reviewer’s opinion makes him the perfect antagonist that could leave a legacy bigger than Vader himself.
Kylo Ren is not the only new character who proved to be an undoubted hit. Both of the main protagonists of the film where extremely well realised and given enough of a back story to allow an early sympathetic reaction from the audience. Coming from two very different backgrounds, Finn and Rey’s lives collide in the literal sense of the word. From there on it is high octane adventure right until the climax of the film. The chemistry between the pair is evident throughout and they don’t take long to become likeable, I found myself really rooting for them from quite early on in the film. This is particularly useful as it allows for a real emotional engagement in the twists and turns the narrative takes the pair on.
Whilst the new characters induce a strong emotional response, much of the story’s pathos comes from the returning characters. This is to be expected given the pre-existing emotional investment in the characters, to the extent their very presence on screen was enough to send butterflies to the stomach. The interactions between them just show a sense of elation at being back as if these actors and actresses have been waiting for this for a long time. It was really hard to contain my excitement during the “Chewie we’re home” scene. The characters are utilised in different ways: to drive the narrative, for humour but it is undoubtedly their emotional impact that will stick in the mind for the longest. It’s not all what you would expect either, there’s some surprise omissions, and some tragedies, and some who have changed a lot since we last saw them. Perhaps most impressive of all though is how the gap between this film and its predecessor is so seamlessly filled without ever seeming forced.
I haven’t said much on the story, and I’m not going to as I feel it is best experienced first-hand. What I will say is that it is engaging from the first moment until the last. There is a sense at times of history repeating itself, but that only serves to add to the experience and keeps the film true to its heritage. As with previous films, you could say that it is very much a family affair in that the bond between certain characters is via blood, but a lot of it is left at an implied level at the moment. This gets you questioning who is who and how they will end up four years from now when the Sequel Trilogy draws to its conclusion.
Nothing is perfect, but this comes pretty close. I’ve tried to highlight what is so great about the film without actually telling you anything about the film. Trust me, it’s an experience you don’t want to have spoiled by reading an article. Yes there are a few problems, mainly the final scene seeming like it was tagged on the end here when it would have suited better at the start of the next, and you’ll see what I mean when you see it. That and the Captain Phasma issue are the only faults I can actually pick from the film and that is an impressive feat. To summarise in a sentence: an engaging story set against a visually stunning backdrop with relatable characters; a perfect reintroduction to the franchise.